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On Wordplay, Grit, and Finding the Storyline, with Jessica Nicklen

Jessica Nicklen is a Vancouver-based photographer and one-half of the music-influenced clothing brand Heavy Strut Apparel (with artist/tattooer, Molly Jones). Nicklen’s and Jones’ latest collaborative project is a mixed media art show called Mettle, which will be on view in the Slice of Life Gallery from October 13-18.

Already a long-time fan of Heavy Strut’s woman-powered, confident aesthetic and ethos (all of their clothing and fabrics are up-cycled/vintage), I was immediately hooked by the show’s title – mettle is defined as “a person’s ability to cope well with difficulties or to face a demanding situation in a spirited and resilient way.” I figured that now was the perfect time to pin down Nicklen to learn more about her creative process and what to expect from the new exhibition, opening this Thursday…

Photo credit: Jessica Nicklen

“Mettle” is an intriguing (not to mention timely and timeless) word and concept. How did you encounter this word, and what inspired you to make it the theme for your upcoming Slice of Life Gallery show? It all started two years ago when my friend Molly Jones, and I founded our clothing brand, Heavy Strut Apparel. After our frustrations of having a hard time finding lifestyle brands that resonated with us, the concept of our brand emerged: to create apparel primarily for women in male-dominated industries. Although our brand is open to everyone and reaches people from all industries and genders, we wanted to put our skills together to create something to support our fellow women. Our show is basically a conceptual art version of our brand. We wanted to go beyond apparel and properly showcase the audience we were targeting. These are the types of ladies that inspire us and that we feel show true Mettle.

I’m also sensing a bit of wordplay in the title since Heavy Strut Apparel is heavily inspired by “Metal”…is there anything there? “Mettle” was a word we stumbled upon when brainstorming names for the show, and we really made a connection to the definition. Since our graphics take a lot of inspiration from motorcycle and tattoo culture, we thought it’d be the perfect play on words to use. While the word also holds a lot of relevant meaning, we’ve also spent our fair share of time at metal gigs and think our subjects carry that similar passion that you’d feel at a gig in their trades, hobbies and art.

Tell me more about how the works for this show came together and what we can expect to see. Women that are making their stride in male-dominated industries and spaces have had to push just a little harder and put up with a lot of misogyny along the way. You can expect to see the results of just that. Strong, creative, and resilient women doing what they love regardless of societal barriers. We’d love to see more diversity in these industries and encourage these ladies to keep doing what they’re doing, while also inspiring more women and other underrepresented groups to feel like they can enter those spaces too. Molly’s illustrations take a metaphorical approach within traditional tattoo-style art to represent what’s happening in the photographs. She’s also making her way in a male-dominated industry as a tattoo apprentice, so our aim was to bring together our personal art endeavours to create something fun, but also meaningful.

How are the pieces included in Mettle a departure or continuation of your previous style/works? I’ve always loved shooting documentary style photos of people in their element. I like them to pretend as if I’m not there so I can shoot them as authentically as possible. I want to see their process from start to finish and establish a natural connection. I’ve always loved getting to know people’s interests and encouraging them to pursue their passions. By documenting them it gives me that opportunity to enter their world for a minute. There’s just a type of inexplicable energy in the room when people are doing what they love, and I feel a sort of responsibility to enter that space with them and learn more about their craft through my lens.

What’s your “mettle” like? Grit. The ability to use uncomfortable or negative experiences as growth rather than setbacks. Living out my own truth and chasing my goals, while still passionately supporting the people around me. Also, I like heavy music, dive bars, and a bit of type two fun.

From packed music venues and events, to fashion shoots and portraiture – all of your photos have a very intimate quality and warmth to them. What is it about certain subjects or environments that compel you to capture them? What gets your camera ‘trigger finger’ going? I like to document real emotions. If it’s a fashion shoot I like it to be following a particular storyline that the subject can relate to. If it’s portraiture, I feel like I need to build some sort of connection with the subject first. And when it comes to venues and events, it’s as real as it gets. I like to let the subject really shine and give them room to express themselves fully. I’m most interested in seeing humans being humans and finding beauty in the day-to-day.

Besides the technical aspects – composition, lighting, focus, etc. – how do you decide when a photo is successful? Is it a feeling? Or something else intangible? I feel like one of the most successful parts to a photograph is the connection, whether it’s between the subject and the photographer, or to a key memory, or to an emotion, or to a societal matter. The photograph should make you feel something. You can often tell right away when a photo’s missing a storyline.

Photo credit: Jessica Nicklen

Your work seems very much entwined with the local community and BC’s natural environment. How important is this particular setting to you and your work? Can you imagine yourself doing what you’re doing anywhere else? BC never gets old to me. There’s always a new trail to explore, or an art show or local gig happening. Even though I grew up here and have bounced around in a few different BC cities, I find myself still amazed by it day-to-day. That being said, I would love to do a lot more traveling and have my interests spark wider than just coastal mountains and the art culture here. I like to move as things naturally flow, so if my interests or an opportunity drives me elsewhere then I’ll find inspiration wherever it takes me.

Tell me about a time when, for some reason, you didn’t have your camera on you, that you wished you had? It was a late morning in spring and the sun was starting to warm the air. We’d just woken up from a van and chopper campout. As the hunger and hangovers kicked in, we all slowly rolled out of the forested property in search of breakfast and a swimming hole. The gravel on the road was dry and the bikes were kicking up a glowing dust as they rolled out. As the property became smaller in sight, you could see this massive snowy peak looking over the entire scene. I just kept staring as we pulled away.

I think most of the times I wish I’d had my camera on me have all been times when there’s been a great evening or trip. As much as I wanted it documented, I was also just enjoying myself too much to alter the moment. Sometimes the mental picture is even more powerful. There are certain times where, as much as I love photography, the moment is calling me to simply sit there and take it in.

I’m curious about your personal journey into professional photography from your early days to the present…What are the biggest differences between that little girl discovering a formative new interest and the person you are today? What continues to spark your interest and keep you going? Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve wanted to document the world around me. I spend hours looking back on old photographs and videos. I’ve let my lens follow me through time to help document the people in my life, the things that inspire me, and the environments that amaze me. Even in my professional shoots I like to let my passions and interests guide me. It’s the subjects that keep me going.

What have been the biggest learning curves and challenges over the years? At the start of Covid I got kicked back a few steps. I moved cities and had to restart my photography career a little bit. While at the time it didn’t feel very positive, it forced me to have a look at my life from a new perspective, and it drove me to make some changes I’d been wanting to make. It’s been hard starting from the bottom again, but I think it’s also given me a lot of clarity. I think when it comes to being an artist you sometimes have to just hop on and enjoy the ride since we’re so perceptive to the world around us.

Lastly, what new challenges, subject matter, projects, skills, etc are you most excited to tackle over the next year (or 5 years) ahead? I hope to continue growing and learning and building connections, and I’m excited about the creative community I’ve become a part of. I’d love to take a step beyond shooting local gigs and be a tour photographer for a band. I think getting to shoot behind the scenes on the road, alongside the live shows, sparks my interests more since there’s more of a story to tell there. Bring on the gas station coffees and motel pools!

Mettle will on view at Slice of Life Gallery on Thursday, October 13th from 12-10pm (artist in attendance from 6-10pm); Friday, Monday & Tuesday, from 12-8pm; and Saturday & Sunday from 10am-6pm (artist in attendance 12-4pm).

Slice of Life Gallery & Studios
Neighbourhood: East Vancouver
1636 Venables St.

There is 1 comment

  1. This is a wonderful article! Jess, I love the seasons and changes your life has taken. I’m stoked for all the adventures you have had- and will continue to have.

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