Under Ten Coats of Paint – Nicole Lucas, Designer

What do you need at the end of the day? After staring at a computer monitor, making and answering calls, reading and responding to dozens- perhaps hundreds of emails? Dinner, perhaps something on the TV, a book? I sat down with my colleague and mentor at my company, Nicole Lucas, to discuss that very question last week.

Lucas is an icon at our company for her drive as an Account Director, so after such successful and demanding days at work, what gets her to shift gears and design fashion accessories? I sat down for a conversation about what her artistic outlet accomplishes for her, and how she found her way to it by way of childhood lessons, suburban estate sales, and fast food breakfasts:

OI: You have a demanding day job, so how do you balance that with your work producing jewelry after hours for your side hustle? What motivates you to have that balance?
NL: It started not even as a hustle. As you know, what we do is very structured and we’re trying to make our company money. There’s not a lot of creativity that goes into it. A lot of it’s mundane. I started doing this not as jewelry or accessories but with furniture a decade or so ago. I needed a creative outlet. 
I felt like my job was so all encompassing that it was pretty much defining who I was as a person which is not who I am. I’ve always had a crafty side which was very much influenced by my mother early in life. She grew up really poor, so she always had these amazing random fixes for everything. For me, it all started with an Egg McMuffin.
That was just mind blowing to me. She made it for me, and it tasted just like it would had we gone to McDonald’s. There wasn’t something she couldn’t replicate. Whether it be her bargain shopping or her eye for design. When you’re that little you’re impressionable and I grew up with that mentality and that- I guess it’s a problem solving skill- as much as it is a creative outlet. 
That’s where it came from. I needed an outlet. I would go and buy fabrics that I fell in love with, and would go to estate sales in the suburbs of Chicago during my lunch hour and I would buy things that had great bones. Old nightstands, dressers, armoires, and sometimes they had ten coats of paint on them, but you could find this beautiful piece and strip it down to what it once was and refurbish/restore it. I gave it a new life. I’m all about repurposing.
There’s something really neat about taking something once used for one purpose and either making something new out of it or including it in something new.

OI: One of my prior interviewees, Emma Buntrock-Muller, makes gorgeous photography as her side hustle, but she also has other hobbies- there’s a line between side hustle and hobby, so what’s the line between hobby and creative outlet for you?
NL: When we were talking about the “hustle”, as I mentioned at first it wasn’t about selling anything. It was just about creating things and pushing myself to see what I could accomplish. It would come in spurts. I’m one of those people that- God, before Adderall, my nickname was “Left Field” [laughs], because my mind is just going. I swear it doesn’t even stop when I’m sleeping.
I’ll start with one thought, then that’ll branch off into something else, and that branches off into three other things. Two hours later and before I know it, I’m completely off the first thing. I get these, I call them ‘spasms’ of creative momentum and they can be completely random. We can be watching a movie or at the dinner table and I’ll say “Ooh, I know what I’m going to do for my next piece.’
It just comes that way, and because I don’t need to depend on it as a revenue generating business it allows me to take my time and make what I want. Would I love to be able to do this full time? Absolutely. Would I be successful? I have no idea. Because of the way that it started and the way I’ve been able to keep it going the ironic part is that the jewelry, handbag and belt buckle part started when my step mother met my father when I was 8. She owned a jewelry business in downtown Chicago. 
When they got married and we moved to the suburbs, she was bored and started taking jewelry making classes so I would go and do them with her. She bought a ton of beads- nice stones like quartz and marble, and they were just amazing. My little brother who’s now almost 34, when he was 2 he went into where she had all of her beads and flipped all of them over in 1988 or 1989 and she never touched them since. 
My parents were cleaning out their garage three years ago and she said, ‘I think I’m just going to give them away, do you think you can do anything with them?’ That’s when the jewelry started. I had all of these stones from the 80s and I repurpose things. I reinvent them. I think our art says a lot about who we are. I’m always reinventing myself, and I have been since I was a teenager. I’m kind of like a butterfly, you go from different phases and come out either being a beautiful moth or beautiful butterfly, but you wouldn’t get there without the uncomfortable stasis in the meantime.
It was really valuable to me to have that inventory that reminded me of a time in my life knowing I could do so much more with it. Most of the pieces and pictures I sent to you besides the agate, all of those beads were all repurposed.

OI: About the repurposing, I see a consistency of problem solving in both your day job and your side hustle. Taking individual pieces and items and putting a puzzle together to make these pieces.
NL: On my timeframe, in my control. That’s where it comes from. It’s also a control thing. When you have that creative process and you’re doing things, you can do them to your specifications, at your leisure, on your time and you don’t have anybody else telling you when it has to be done by. It is very much problem solving. I’ve been problem solving my whole life and finally learned in my mid-twenties that I couldn’t solve everybody else’s problems. As much I wanted to fix people and try to help them solve their problems it was much more rewarding for me to pour that energy into something else.
I still have people from high school that will call me when they have a problem or ask for my opinion because I have no filter. I will always tell you exactly what I think whether it’s bad or good. I’m not a pessimist or an optimist, I’m a realist. It’s a challenge and it’s challenging myself with problem solving.

OI: In addition to being a creative outlet, it sounds like the art is an outlet for a lot of other energies, like the serenity prayer: ‘give the courage to change the things I can, the patience to accept the things I can’t, and wisdom to know the difference.’ It seems like an outlet for a sense of control. How does that reflect in the style of your pieces?
NL: It doesn’t matter as much to me in terms of color, texture or whatever goes into whatever I make, I’m still very precise. I’m still completely OCD when it comes to making sure that when I’m soldering something, I’m soldering at the right points. When I’m laying something out that I don’t leave anything to chance- that control thing. I’ll always have it, always have.
When I was in middle school I was second chair alto saxophone in our school band (I dropped it but I still have mine). The first chair was first chair not only because he was good but also because he could take risks. Our band leader would randomly call people out for solos. He could go on and play his little solo. He’d call on me and I would freeze. I don’t know if it was because I was a self-conscious preteen, I don’t know if it was because I didn’t have notes in front of me, I just froze. I couldn’t do it.
I think that’s how I think of this as well. I’m more of a designer, I wouldn’t say that I’m an artist. I create finished products, but I don’t make the materials.

OI: Composition rather than creation.
NL: Exactly. I think there’s a small difference between that too. I love photography and I love it because of the frame of reference. I love photographing architecture. I’m all about lines and evenness and organization in a pretty form. I think that’s where it’s very rewarding to me to be able to keep myself within certain lines and parameters but have it come out pretty on the other end in something tangible.

OI: So, speaking to hobbies versus outlets, this question from Loryn Stone: ‘what is one of your hobbies or interests that defines you that other people would never expect?’
NL: Those are tough questions for me because I’m pretty much an open book. There aren’t very many aspects about myself that most people don’t know, or at least my very good friends don’t know. I would have to say, and not so much a pastime- I could say riding my motorcycle, that’s fun and all but when it comes down to it I would say that the importance of music in my life has been everything from a skeleton key to emotions or feelings. I’m a very experiential person so when something happens my senses are always really heightened. It happens also with smell, so if I smell something I can link it back to a time that I smelled it fifteen years ago, to where I was and what was going on.

OI: So what kind of playlist person are you? Do you organize by genre, era, artist, mood?
NL: Mood. Always done by mood. If you look at my playlists I’ve got ‘angst,’ I’ve got ‘emo,’ ‘happy feet,’ and even ‘mellow.’ My choices go from the 70s through today. 

OI: A lot of people have a whimsical image of artists creating art in rushes of passion, do you find there’s a similar misconception regarding your own jewelry?
NL: I don’t do a lot of planning, I’ll get a spark, or a spasm as I call it. I have a memory like an elephant which is a good thing and a bad thing but I can remember off the top of my head what my inventory of materials is. It could be that I’m watching River Monsters on Animal Planet, and I’ll see a color of a fish or I’ll see something in nature that goes together that I never would have thought of. I will immediately get up, go to my closet, start pulling materials out and laying everything out. 
I think that’s one of the reasons why this art works for me: it’s very tactile. I can take all of the pieces and see them, I’m not creating them. That’s why I’m in design work and not a creator. I couldn’t write, couldn’t paint- I don’t have that vision, but I can play with things and shapes and textures and colors and manipulate them to get the vision that I had.
It really is a creative spark that can hit at any time. My new frenchie Izzy, she’s a blue french bulldog and her belly is pink with these little grey freckles all over it. She was on her back wriggling around and I saw those colors and went: ‘I’ve got those color of agate, I wonder what I can make out of that.’
It was natural, it came from her. If it can work in real life, I can reproduce it in some other way. It’s hard because for purses and belt buckles I’ve had a lot of people ask me to make things for them with specifics. “I’d like this bag with this colored agate and if you could put a leopard piece on it…,’ I can’t do that.

OI: I’m not a very fashionable person, but I have one principle of fashion I brought up to Lola Isabel Gonzalez in my interview with her: wear what makes you feel like the lead character in the movie of your life.
NL: If you look in my closet, I wear a lot of plain clothing. I don’t wear a lot of prints. I don’t wear a lot of color and so the only way for decades I’ve been able to make my look interesting or be me is by having these kind of far out accessories and statement pieces. That’s why I love my belt buckles.
If there’s one thing I love making, it’s my belt buckles by far. They can change an outfit from a cowboy on a farm with shit kickers and jeans to a pair of leather pants and heels. It can go across completely different looks but it’s still the same vibe, represented differently. That’s really important to me because I’m so conservative when it comes to dress and can never find accessories I like so why not make it.

OI: Just like the Egg McMuffin.
NL: Just like the Egg McMuffin! 

OI: One other similarity we have: we’re both crossword addicts, so for my readers intimidated by the Times Crossword, do you have a tip? I always advise people of patterns in answers, like if it’s about a cookie, 99% of the time it’s Oreo.
NL: There’s definitely the Oreo one. My tip is: I always start with the Downs because for some reason, I find that the clues are a bit easier, and then also you can pretty much bank on the last letters of words in the rows will be either R, S, T, L, N, or E. I always think of Wheel of Fortune. The five most used consonants and vowel in the alphabet.

OI: Last question: What should I ask my next interviewee?
NL: I love astrology and I think I am the prototypical Aquarian when it comes to emotions and focus. For the next artist: do you think you embody your astrological sign? I guarantee most artists know exactly what their sign is.

Nicole Lucas is a designer of original accessories including neckwear, handbags, belt buckles and more. You can find her creations for purchase through her shop on Etsy, and follow her blog The Motorcyclista and Twitter for additional updates.

Author: Y. Balloo

Amateur novelist / Work in progress.

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