Aloft Again

Aloft Again

Nicki Marx #20/14B

#20/14B, 2014, ring-necked pheasant feathers, suede, 12 x 13 in.; Photo: Zandi Photography; Model: Jeanne Fernandez

Nicki Marx’s feather works enjoy another day in the sun.

In the early 1970s, Nicki Marx was a free-spirited young college dropout, antiwar activist, and itinerant dabbler in various self-taught crafts such as pottery and silver jewelry. “I was a true hippie,” she says, “but I didn’t do drugs.” One day in Santa Fe, she went looking for an interesting material to add to some driftwood-and-abalone jewelry she was making. She wandered into a sporting goods store and saw little bags of feathers for fly tying. 

“I literally had a vision. I could see whole walls with feathers, people wearing feathers,” she recalls. “I bought two dollars’ worth, and stuck them on this thing I was making. I wore it down to the plaza, and it sold immediately for $15. And I thought, ‘Wow – far out!’ ” 

Looking back, Marx smiles at how “cosmic” it all sounds. Still, her engagement with feathers since that day has been deep and enduring. Her dramatic garments and wall compositions – collected by major museums and owned by the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe and Louise Nevelson – comprise countless thousands of pheasant and peacock feathers, in natural hues ranging from dark ebony and warm gold to brilliant red and turquoise. She glues them to leather, plywood, or Arches paper, or presses them into encaustic surfaces by hand, one at a time or in bunches depending on the effect she’s seeking. (To answer the first question people always ask her: They come from birds raised for food, and for 40 years she’s gotten them from the same dealer, who imports them legally from Southeast Asia and India.) 

If finding her métier in featherwork was serendipitous for Marx, so is the “comeback” she’s enjoying now. She became an early star of the art-to-wear movement in the ’70s, but moved in the ’80s from her native California to Taos, New Mexico, and got “a little invisible.” Part of it, she says, was the beauty and remoteness of the place, where artists have always found it easy to get lost, disappear. She stopped doing wearables and focused on the wall works for a while. In the late ’90s, she was in a bad car accident and took several years to recover. (She’s fine now, looking great and “doing pretty damn good for 71.”) In 2009, she went back to making feather-based wall pieces. “It’s all the same vision, from the same place,” she says of her work through the decades. 

Then last year the cosmos winked again. Katie Nartonis, a specialist in 20th-century design with Bonhams auctioneers in Los Angeles, was thumbing through Craftsman Lifestyle: The Gentle Revolution, a book about California makers of the ’70s. She flipped open to a chapter on Marx and was struck by a wish to know her. A few weeks later her phone rang. It was Marx, calling at the suggestion of a mutual acquaintance, who thought they should meet. 

“I continue to be touched by the synchronicity of how Nicki and I connected,” says Nartonis. She brought Marx to the attention of Gerard O’Brien, owner of the LA gallery Reform. The result was “Marx: Rising,” a recent show there that presented vintage pieces along with a stunning array of new feathered works – wall pieces, necklaces, collars, breastplates. The centerpiece, hung high and depicting a bird form, was called Phoenix Rising 2014. Even though Marx never stopped working, the symbolism – her re-emergence, her new burst of creative output and return to wearable forms – was apt. 

“Nicki’s work feels fresh, relevant and topical,” Nartonis says. “It was born out of the tumult of the 1960s, and as such, is about protest – a plea against forces, such as war and the destruction of the environment, that have damaged the ties that bind us humans to each other and to the Earth. It’s a celebration of our connection to nature, and a reminder of our need to memorialize that in a ritualistic, beautiful way.” 

“It’s there,” Marx says of the strong spiritual vibe of her pieces. “Almost everything I do is a mandala. For me, the process is transcendent, about a meditation, letting the energy flow through me. If that comes out in my work, then I’ve been successful.” 

Joyce Lovelace is contributing editor for American Craft.