Talking with Kathleen Nowak Tucci

Episode #196

Today I talk with artist Kathleen Nowak Tucci. You'll love hearing how Kathleen approaches her work and what's going on in her studio. Plus what’s new in the CRAFTCAST studio; moving, new classes and all the normal creative insanity! Get inspired to start creating in a medium that you might of over looked.

The full interview transcript with Kathleen Nowak Tucci is below.

Alison Lee: Well I'm excited. I’m talking to someone today that I'm really looking forward to chatting with because, well you will see why in a second. I want to know how her brain works. Today's guest is Kathleen Nowak Tucci. She writes that she is a Gulf Coast eco designer, an artist for 30 years. This is the part I loved. Has turned her creative focus to designing couture accessories constructed from, wait for it people, recycled rubber bicycle and motor cycle inner tubes and Nespresso coffee capsules. She has so many awards including the prestigious 2015 Saul Bell Design Winner in Alternative Materials and also the Niche Award for Fashion Jewellery. Welcome and thank you for talking to me Kathleen.

Kathleen Tucci: Thank you Alison. I am excited to be here.

Alison: Well here is what I want to know. I have an Nespresso machine. I use it every day and it has never occurred to me after making coffee and I bring my cubes, my tubes, what are they called? Capsules, to be recycled at the store, to turn it into fabulous jewellery! How did you make that leap? Let's start there. How does your brain work behind all of that?

Kathleen: Right. I was visiting my graphic designer to get a website going. Her name is Ann Geiger. She does beautiful work and she had this open box, wooden box with these beautiful little capsules in it. And I asked her "Is this chocolate?" She goes "No. Those are the Nespresso coffee capsules." And I was like" Well what do you do with them after you use them?" And she goes "We throw them away." OK. This was before there was any recycling available for them. And I was like "Oh no you don’t. You save them for me now!" And so she did. She saved them for me. I was fascinated by the whole marketing that Nespresso used which I think is brilliant. Their colours that they used on their capsules and then realising that its metal. I work in metal. I can work in metal. But what am I going to do now? So they sat around in my studio for a full year where I kind of messed around with them. I did things like I put epoxy in them and then they were heavy and that didn’t work. I did all kinds of cutting with them and forming them. That didn’t really work for a long time. Then finally I did figure out a way how to incorporate them with the inner tubes I used. So I used recycle bicycle inner tubes and recycled motorcycle inner tubes which were actually on Harley Davidson motorcycles. So I figured out a way how to crush them and manipulate them and cut them. And then I had to figure out how can I glue them to the rubber? That was a tough one. I worked on that for a long time and really researched, talked to 3M a little bit how to do the adhesion well. Because I make so much jewellery and I'm so prolific, I don’t want things to come back. So it was probably a full year and a half of really playing around before I got something. So first I started with them incorporating with my jewellery with the motorcycle inner tubes and then I finally figured out a way to use them alone. And that was very exciting because I'm a real colour girl but I sell a whole lot of black. So It kind of filled that part of me that I needed to have filed with colour again.

Alison: So when you saw that box in Nespresso, you just were just immediately attracted to, the colours are gorgeous. They do have an amazing colour pad. And that's what drew you in. You just said "Those are just like gems to me or something?"

Kathleen: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. And people threw them away. It was just like wow!

Alison: You are throwing away an incredible supply is what went through your head at that point.

Kathleen: Yes. Yes.

Alison: Yes. They are amazing. But still to take that and was that sort of one of those things that was always working on your brain at that whole year just thinking about well how can I use them and all that?

Kathleen: Oh absolutely. And that's how I work, yes. I get an idea and I mull over it for a really long time and I have kind of an engineer brain. So I figure out how to attach things, how it’s going to work, how things are going to go wrong. I do a lot of mulling.

Alison: What does it look like when you are mulling?

Kathleen: Sitting there probably with my mouth hanging open. [Laughter]. It’s funny. I brought in a student from FIT to help me kind of wrap things up for a show and I put her to work doing something and that's when I realize how much I mull. How much I just sit there and think. Before that I don’t think I realized how much time I spent doing that. Now I realize that's probably the most important time that I spent. It's really thinking.

Alison: And I think it gets. Well I don’t know about you. Do you ever feel guilty doing it? Like I have been sitting here thinking for too long?

Kathleen: Yes. Yes. I did for a really long time. I thought well you really waste a lot of time. And then I thought, no! That's not wasting time. That's time that your brain is really working and you are really thinking about what has to happen.

Alison: Right? It just doesn’t sit down and start. There is all that time going on in your brain.

Kathleen: Yes. And I really didn’t realize quite how much I was doing that until that two weeks. And then I let myself do it now. I don’t feel guilty. Yes

Alison: I used to hide it by looking at a magazine so it would be like I was doing something. But I wasn’t looking at the magazine at all.

Kathleen: Oh. I probably do that too. I don’t know that I hide it but I mean, I'm thinking all the time. And my family gets frustrated because there is like, "Listen to me! Listen to Me!" I mean I can block anything out.

Alison: Can you block everything out?

Kathleen: Oh. Well you know, probably. I go on radar. I just go on radar. So if I'm not going to that place that my radar is set to, I'm in trouble.

Alison: Alright. I feel good talking to you because I think it's a common thing with people who are constantly up in their brain mulling and thinking. If you are not on radar just driving, who knows where you just went? You got to look up.

Kathleen: GPS. GPS is like the best thing that ever happened to me.

Alison: I totally understand it. I know lots of artists can relate. But now still, how do you make? So, I understand you are drawn to the colour and I totally get that and you let that mull around. But now you have taken your jewellery to a really high end fashion line. How did you make that leap? Or were you looking to make that leap, or did it come to you?

Kathleen: Well in some ways it came to me. When my work was on the cover of Vogue Italia in August of 2010, I kind of got pushed to a stratosphere that I didn’t realize even existed in fashion

Alison: But how did that happen? Did a stylist find your work and say I want to use this for a shoot?

Kathleen: Yes. A stylist found the work. They were looking for, they were doing the oil spill issue and I was working in black rubber. So that was of interest. So that's how that happened. It was just in the stars. There is no accounting for that. So after that then I kind of, I started to work for that. The way that I present myself is fashion and couture fashion. I mean I make every one of those pieces.

Alison: And you are in the show.

Kathleen: Yes. That's kind of how it started.

Alison: Right. And you are in the show. That's great exposure.

Kathleen: Oh yes.

Alison: But it is a total different thing that isn’t necessarily, those are one of a kind I'm assuming?

Kathleen: Some of them are. Some of them that you would think would be one of a kind, I am foolish enough to attempt more than once.

Alison: I understand. But still because usually. My background was in fashion as well and usually things that are on the runway are not necessarily what's out there that the public is buying. Except that all your pieces are in galleries across the United States?

Kathleen: I am mostly in boutiques. I haven’t pursued the gallery and part of the reason is boutiques buy straight out. Galleries, you are there on consignment. I haven’t found that consignment works out too well for me.

Alison: That's a really good thing for people to hear as well that there are all these different arrangements to be made about your jewellery, the business end of all of it.

Kathleen: Oh yes. And I am one of the few that come and has a toe in craft and a toe in fashion. Because I also have shown as the Smithsonian. I have shown at other shows. So, yes.

Alison: Do you have a preference for which on you would rather be in more?

Kathleen: Oh. I would much rather sell my work wholesale.

Alison: OK.

Kathleen: Much rather. It's a fast sale. Boutique owners don’t have time when they are at shows. So they are thinking really fast and it’s a fast sale. And you get paid. To me it’s so much easier than retail which retail is really hard right now in the buying crafts area. People aren’t buying like they used to and it's a hard sale. People try on, they try on 10 pieces and then they say, "Oh let me look at everybody else. I just got here." Sometimes I felt like a talking exhibit.

Alison: Interesting. And do you think, you notice that now across the board different from?

Kathleen: Across the board. I have a lot of friends that are still doing the shows and its tough right now.

Alison: Do you think it has to do with online and just being available online as well?

Kathleen: Yes. I think it does. And a couple things. Millennials are not interested.

Alison: Really?

Kathleen: No. You don’t see a millennial almost ever at a craft show anymore. Then the 35 to 45, they like to buy online with their feet up and slippers. And they want free shipping both ways. Yes. So my demographic is still 45 and above. And the issue with them is that many of them are in their “D acquisition” phase. So the collectors are not collecting the way they are used to. And, yes. We are in a funny place.

Alison: I have seen. I was at a craft show that was millennial based and its funny because I am thinking about that now when I walked around. It was up in Massachusetts. I felt like Brooklyn had gone to Massachusetts for the day and I wanted to feel like I was starting all over again. It was a very different feel and approach than let’s say a Lyndhurst craft festival or one of the A rated shows, Lincoln Centre or something like that. So it is different, that's for sure. And very minimal.

Kathleen: Yes, that's what I was going to ask. Did you notice what they are buying? They have much lower price point and they are more minimalistic. Definitely. And the ladies that I dress and I always say they are the ladies who want to be seen. And also as a woman and a woman who is over 50 I think that we start to get invisible. And I think that.

Alison: Is that why they buy bigger pieces?

Kathleen: Yes. Well I notice it now. I don’t have the powers that I used to have.

Alison: Are you talking about not having a sexual vibe first?

Kathleen: Well I think there's that. I think there's this youth is appealing to a lot of people and you get more noticed for that. Men and women you get more noticed if you are youthful. So I do. I feel more invisible and I think the ladies that I sell to, you know you put on a pair of my earrings, you put on a necklace and then you are seen again.

Alison: Yes. Interesting. That's a really good point. Not afraid to go bigger as you get older as oppose to the many people that I [inaudible].

Kathleen: Oh yes! Absolutely.

Alison: Yes. No that is very interesting. Now what is your design background?

Kathleen: Oh my design background. Well I don’t know that I have a design background. I went to school in computer science with a minor in biology. I was interested in medicine and computers. But for a young girl, I always did some kind of art. So I guess my background is self-taught.

Alison: So what was the first thing you played in then artistically. What was the medium?

Kathleen: Dandelions. You know where you put them together as a crown. You know. I mean I just always had something going. And because I knew I didn’t take one art class in college because there was not a slot for me to take it. I was taking the sciences. There was a required History or English. There was no slot for art. I wish there had been. I was still always painting and doing things like that in my free time which there was very little of. But I've always gone to museums, I’ve always read art books. So I just gathered it myself.

Alison: Well now, when you did something like that. So you have a full schedule in computer science and all of that which is great information and you still use it in your work at some point. What was it though that made you in your free time go make something? Because I always wonder what. You are getting a payback somehow that way because people choose to do what they want to do in their free time. So what was the payback you got from that?

Kathleen: Well I feel like I have this kind of unknowing. I don’t know why but I have a desire to create and its, I don’t even have a choice. I mean I was working virtually full time going to school and in the tiniest bit of free time, I was figuring out OK next Tuesday at 1 o clock I can paint a little bit. I don’t know. I think if no one ever saw my work, if no one paid me a dime for my work, I would still be making something.

Alison: I've been trying to put the name and my finger on, what is it? Running how many people take classes. I am fully aware of that learning and touching and making, does something chemical to a lot of people that keeps them coming back for more.

Kathleen: And I think those people that need that its necessary.

Alison: That's what I'm talking about.

Kathleen: In fact, it's interesting you know even on, I purchase classes that I really don’t think that I may ever really pursue but I love process and so that keeps me going. It's like how are they doing that? And sometimes you know I might use a little piece here and there along the way but I take a whole lot of classes not only from but otherwise, workshops in areas that I probably won’t work in.

Alison: And I thank you for saying that because you know why? Because I think some of us feel guilty. I have no guilt in this arena, for taking the classes and watching things and not making them. You know the truth be told I have made very little of all the classes I have because I do love process and I do love learning more than I like watching T.V, you know.

Kathleen: Yeah, I don’t watch T.V

Alison: Yeah.

Kathleen: I mean who has time for that?

Alison: Exactly. I mean I'm a news junkie but that's a whole separate issue. But I rather watch an artist show me, how did you make that? How did you bake that? How did you decorate that? You know, how? And I think that there is a sister and brotherhood of other people who enjoy that as well. Because there is something exciting about it. And I'm guess from what you said, how long can you go without making something? Let me ask you that way? How long before your brain is back at it? How long can you keep distracted?

Kathleen: That's interesting because I know. Because when my children were little, I almost didn’t get to work on my art just here and there. But there were a couple paintings that I painted it in my mind so many times that I didn’t actually paint them. So I’m creating in my mind even if I am not physically creating. Now that I have the luxury of really doing this as much as I want to I create daily.

Alison: Right. And not to forget that there is a still a difference between all of that and the business and I think that throws a lot of people who then want to turn it into a business you know. How much of your day or your week is business? How do you give a ratio to people so that they understand?

Kathleen: OK. So when I'm really going during show time the business end I bet is 50%

Alison: 50.

Kathleen: Yes. I don’t love it. I don’t love it. And it’s exhausting and hard but if you are going to have a business, it’s such a big part. And things like social media which sometimes I just like, uh don’t make me rah rah rah myself one more time. But it’s all part of it.

Alison:It is part of it.

Kathleen: It's not my favourite part at all.

Alison: Well it is part of it and being disciplined. I feel the same way so I check myself. If I do the next hour, I'm doing all this. Then I will let myself do the other. And that seems to help a little bit. To get to the things you don’t want to do.

Kathleen: Yes. Now I am going to ask you a question. Social media probably one of my hardest things because I do get tired of rah rah rahing and coming up with new things and I have lots more that I don't put out there just because, I think that you have to be engaged with social media and that's the part that's hard for me. if I'm working, then it’s hard to be engaged on social media and reply. So how do deal with that?

Alison: I'd say personally that is all 100% true. And if you want have a presence on social media then you have to be as committed and have the willpower to do it just like anything else. So I actually had on my calendar everyday a time I use Hoot Suite. It’s like an integrator for all the social media where I have to do social media now. This is my time with coffee do it.

Kathleen: Do you then get a ding every time someone replies? That's the part that's hard for me.

Alison: I get that too so I keep things open during the day but if I want to get something done everything gets closed and then I'll do it at the end of the day. So I’ll say, when I am on the couch with my IPad and I’m, you know catching up with stuff then I do all of that. Because it's a different energy.

Kathleen: I think people want immediate replies so that's where my problem is. It’s like if I put something on, I’m going to be spending a lot of my day replying and engaging and that's hard for me.

Alison: It is. I think that there is an easier way. I don’t think immediate. I can give it a day, two days, you know it’s not like immediate. I mean people know you are online they might want to get it but you can set up your own pace away. I don’t think that works against you just as long as you get back to someone. But it is a lot. There's no question about it. And I always say to people who get upset about it, what do you want out of it? Let’s start from the end and work backwards.

Kathleen: Right. Exactly

Alison: So you don’t have to be on everything if your people aren’t there.

Kathleen: Exactly, that too. Yes.

Alison: Find your people and go from there and it is complicated some of it. And you know there are people who have gotten unique in that, hire a service to just do something. But it is the world today. That is for sure.

Kathleen: It is the world today. And here I am being, "Don’t make me do it so much!"

Alison: You don’t have to.

Kathleen: I want to do my art! Just let me do my art!

Alison: Yes. But it’s pretty amazing and a lot of people say that but it is interesting. Because people can unseen artists really make a difference in their life with getting their work sold by creating a following online.

Kathleen: Oh I totally agree. I totally agree on that.

Alison: Well now, when you are feeling that "uh" from all of that, what do you do to get inspired and back to the excitement?

Kathleen: I draw out a lot of ideas. But let me tell you what, my drawings are truly horrid. Sometimes I can’t tell what I was saying. One time and it was recently as "What the hell was this?" It took me a full week to figure out what it was and it was an attachment that worked. But I mean, they are so basic but there are little ideas so I can go back to my ideas and I work in a lot of mediums. So I go back to those ideas, I get inspired by that. Sometimes just going in my studio, I really work from the medium. What can this medium do? What else can I do with it? I work in components. So what component can I put with a component that I haven’t put with before? So that's what I do. A lot just getting back into my studio and working. I think that a lot of what being an artist is putting in the time. Putting in the time when you don’t really feel like it.

Alison: Correct. Correct. And just picking up something and getting it started. Can you get lost in your studio and then forget what time it is? Do you get that experience?

Kathleen: I do all the time. And if I’m in my studio working, I have an audiobook going.

Alison: You do? Ok.

Kathleen: And to me that's the biggest pleasure. I just think that we live in amazing times where even now we can get them digital. I was doing it way back when it was on cassette tape and I had to go to the library and get them.

Alison: No I agree with you. It’s really heaven because you are sort of with someone but not.

Kathleen: Yes. The pleasure of having something read to you and I can do both. The only time when I have to turn that off is when I'm calculating or doing business work. Then I have to shut it off. But my regular work, it’s a requirement to have an audiobook out.

Alison: Now what do you listening to? Tell us something we would all like to.

Kathleen: I listen to both fiction and nonfiction. Nonfiction I listen to a lot of autobiographies and biographies. I went through all the musicians that have them out there. That was very interesting. And I listen to a lot of fiction too. What do I listen to?

Alison: Will you listen to like a mystery or is that a little too much for your fiction?

Kathleen: Sometimes a mystery but I will tell you my very first audio book is still my favourite.

Alison: Which was?

Kathleen: And that was Pat Conroy's “Prince of Tides.” And I knew I loved it at the time and it was probably 20 years later I listening to it and I was like Oh it's still good. It is still really good. Good reader, good story, good accent. Those are all good things.

Alison: I love that. Well right now if we walked into your studio what does it look it? OK. Let’s hear it. What does it look like?

Kathleen: [Laughter] Well you would go "Oh my gosh!" I do not put pictures of my studio out there. And I have a big studio. I work in the middle of my home. I always like to be in my home when I work. So I have a room that should be a formal living room. It’s about 700 square feet and it’s not enough for me so I move to the formal dining room. And my dining room has stuff all over it. And then the den has a place where I work. No. I am the hugest mess. Sometimes I don’t even know how I work.

Alison: Do you wander?

Kathleen: Do I wander? No. This is what I do. I don’t wander. I spend half my day looking for tools, where did I put this down? And oh my gosh! I know I just had this in my hand. Yes. That's my life.

Alison: Oh. I'm laughing because I can relate. I can understand. Well I think we, do you process like in a linear fashion or do you go from like one thing and then move over to something else and move around in a circle that gets tighter?

Kathleen: Oh I go all over the place. I go all over the place. I'll start maybe something and then I’ll get a good idea and so I have to get that down or else I'll forget it. So I'll go do that. But when I am working to make product, it's components, its production yes. I have to stay pretty linear there.

Alison: Yes. I think that’s common I think with artist that I've talked to. It's the sort of touching different things all over the place and then coming back around. Like the moving straight forward doesn’t happen unless its production. I don’t know why that is. But it seems to be one of those common things. So its glad to know that other people are like that. So, I think our time is almost up. I have a question I would love to know. What is it that it would say across a t-shirt that you would wear across your forehead about you? I'll give you an example. My son gave me a pillow for Christmas and I was going to make it into a t shirt and it said "There were rules?"

Kathleen: It would probably say "Unorganized but prolific"

Alison: Like it. That sounds good to me. What's wrong with unorganized?

Kathleen: Yeah. I don’t know another way. I attempt it

Alison: Do you get to do this by the wonderful stacking of colourful boxes that look organized?

Kathleen: [Laughter] Ok. Let’s just say that I have a lot of boxes purchased that have nothing in them because I haven’t gone through. [Laughter]. Yes, the boxes are great. Oh my God. yes. It's funny because I have a daughter that works in this profession and she is so beautifully organized. Her desk is cleaned every day, everything is labelled. I am so jealous.

Alison: And she is very productive too?

Kathleen: She is very productive. Extremely productive. Yes. She has an Etsy business that she sells these beautiful wreaths and its crazy that it’s still been so popular. It’s her full time job. She went to school. Yes. So you can be creative and organized. I just don’t have the facilities for that.

Alison: I totally understand. I think both ways are good. You just have to figure out which way is for you. I love that you have the boxes, there is just nothing in them.

Kathleen: No there is nothing. [Laughter]

Alison: [Laughter]. Oh you are adorable. Thank you so much for talking and saying all and sharing with people and giving some insight. And people should definitely check out your website which has all the amazing pictures and things you have done in the past. And it is your So google that away, and you will find it. Thank you so much for coming on and sharing with me.

Kathleen: Alison thank you so much for having me. This is fun.

Alison: It is fun. Thanks a lot. Have a great day.

Kathleen: You too

Episode Notes: 

Kathleen Nowak Tucci

Small Tall Order/My Heart