Her Future as an Artist was Lurking in the Cards

Cathy Nichols at home in her West Asheville studio. Photo by Karin Strickland

Cathy Nichols knows pigs can’t fly. But when confronted with a life-sized sow doused in a glitter veneer and suspended by a bright red balloon, she forgot.

The moment Nichols forgot pigs can’t fly is the same moment she decided to be an artist. Standing in front of a Keith Foskin painting at a party in Fort Collins, Colorado, during graduate school, she realized fine art need not be stuffy. “Being a whimsical person, the cold sense of art never appealed to me,” says Nichols.

And so, after completing her degree in English Literature, she abandoned plans of being an English professor and told her mom the news. To which her mother, a longtime Long Island resident, replied, “That’s fine. Just be sure to make business cards.”

Nichols has since upgraded to the ultimate business card — a website — but her appreciation for eccentricity remains. Her encaustic and mixed-media paintings show birds wearing crowns and flowers dripping extraordinary colors. In one, a three-quarter rainbow is incised over a dark smudge of cloud. Earlier work is populated by unicorns, foxes, and Rapunzel-like girls in folkloric dresses.

Flower Medicine Deck (original paintings).

Four years ago, the artist, who moved to Asheville in 2014, began creating oracle decks. The freewheeling sister of tarot cards, oracle cards are a less structured tool for unveiling hidden truths. Whereas tarot decks are standardized — 78 cards divided into four suits — oracle decks bloom at the will of their creator.

Nichols likens her artistic process to a bird nesting: her cards are developed through continual layering. First, she identifies archetypes, or recurring themes in culture, that comprise a collective, unconscious truth. Popularized by psychotherapist Carl Jung, archetypes are heuristics for understanding others. In tarot, for instance, The Fool is a jejune wanderer. He represents our naïveté. His arguable opposite is The Magician, emblematic of cunning and control.

Though both dark and light inform her oracle decks, Nichols tends toward levity. A card pulled at random from her Synchronicity deck represents “crossing.” The archetype’s story — one of transition — is distilled into imagery. A bridge spans dark blue water. Above, the sky hosts a blood-red sun fringed with stars. “‘Crossing’ symbolizes moving from one state to the next,” says Nichols.
The cards are made by layering encaustic, acrylic, and gelato paint (a smudgy material with a lipstick-like consistency) on wood panel or watercolor paper. Sometimes Nichols will “co-create with the universe” by incorporating scrap material at random.

Learning to Fly

Collage paper and sheet music make frequent appearances.

In September, Nichols will release her Flower Medicine oracle deck. The idea is to pull one card per day and allow the respective flower to medicate any ailments, conscious or not. King protea, for instance, inspires courage and transformation. “There are more than 1,400 varieties of protea flower, as they adapt to many circumstances. Let go of limitations. Many solutions are possible,” reads the deck’s interpretation booklet. Though each deck is accompanied by such a guide, much is still left up to the card holder.

“Whether you believe it’s magic or not, the cards connect to your subconscious in some way,” says Nichols. “The cards pull you gently, and we can ascertain the stories that are important to our lives.”

For Nichols, the cards have recently revealed that she will serve as an artist-in-residence at Chataeu d’Orquevaux in France next February. For a month, she will do nothing but create, eat a croissant or two, and possibly travel by red balloon.

Cathy Nichols, West Asheville. The artist is represented by Woolworth Walk (25 Haywood St., woolworthwalk.com) and Kress Emporium (19 Patton Ave., thekressemporium.com). Nichols will host an online course in painting modern expressive flowers in late August. For more information, visit cathynichols.com. (On Instagram: @cathynicholsart)

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