Local Artist Spotlight: Nikka Wolfenbarger

“Creativity takes courage,” Henri Matisse once said. And, keeping the robust artistic community for which Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti is known, thriving in 2020 will require both. In order to find exceptional local talent, one doesn’t need to spend much time looking.

And discovering the intense emotion that emerges from the work of Nikka Wolfenbarger was worth highlighting. 

Local Ypsilanti artist, Nikka Wolfenbarger, creates vivid and engaging fiber creations, finding inspiration from contemporary fiber artists like Bisa Butler, Erin M. Riley, Jessica So Ren Tang, and Cayce Zavaglia, who stretch the perception of what fiber art should be. 

Wolfenbarger said, “I’ve been attracted to fiber since I was a child, crocheting blankets and sewing little stuffed creatures, so it feels natural to me…Lately, working in fiber, I find a lot of inspiration from within the medium, it’s history and wide influence over practically every culture. I feel it’s a largely underappreciated art form that is often relegated only to craft. But to be fair, I love craft, so I suppose I don’t care how people want to categorize it because I will always be obsessed with it!”

Ypsilanti fiber artist, Nikka Wolfenbarger. Image courtesy of Wolfenbarger

She added, “My artwork is soft but direct. I like making things that are beautiful in their technicality while also being loaded with a lot of emotional tension. While I work with a lot of different themes, I gravitate toward making things that are both mesmerizing and uncomfortable.”

Themes emerge throughout Nikka’s work: strong yet vulnerable. It evokes emotion while creating a sense of wonder for how the design was created via embroidery. 

Wolfenbarger stated, “The themes in my work originate from my lived experiences as a queer, neurodivergent survivor of sexual abuse. Artwork, and specifically the repetitive action of embroidery, can be therapeutic to me, so the process in itself is a bit of a rebellious act. I choose imagery that reflects my thoughts, behaviours, and obsessions, including things that I used to be ashamed of or was made to feel ashamed of. Self-acceptance is a battle, and I want to be vulnerable and open with my audience to include them on my journey, the highs and the lows.”

Being on display at public galleries is both invigorating and nerve-wracking for Nikka, yet she hopes to be able to host events again soon.  

“I love showing my work in public, seeing people inspect and interact with the pieces. Although I somewhat dred gallery receptions (because of my social anxiety), I find myself fantasizing about the next time I’ll be able to attend an opening with my artistic peers. I’m working on tentative plans for showing my work in the coming year, but of course a lot of things are still in flux!”

Finding ways to channel artistic energy while not losing focus or becoming isolated has been challenging for artists in 2020, including Wolfengarger. However, finding virtual connections has provided community.

“Currently I’m taking part in an amazing virtual residency program called the Fulcrum Project, hosted by Matt Lambert and Feather Chiaverini. Through the residency I’ve connected with so many amazing Southeast Michigan based artists who have a focus in crafts. Building up a community of people who support you and your practice is incredibly powerful in a time where we can easily fall into loneliness. The professional and personal advice we’ve received from our mentors keeps me hopeful about the future of my artistic career. I look forward to when we can meet physically, but given the limitations we’re faced with it is still possible to make a meaningful connection through the computer screen.”

“Frigid,” 2019, embroidery on chiffon & mirror, 6″x6″ by Nikka Wolfenbarger. Image courtesy of Nikka Wolfenbarger.

With a continued need to build and grow the artistic community, Nikka has worked and volunteered with young artists, including locally at The Neutral Zone.  

She also added, “Working with young artists is one of my favorite things to do. I hesitate to call what I do teaching in the traditional sense, because my real goal is to facilitate. I try to give young people the tools they need to make their visions a reality, whether that means finding materials, teaching technical skills, or sourcing connections. I’ve had the opportunity to work with young artists through the Young Artist at Work program in my hometown of Toledo, OH, and recently as the Video Production Advisor at the Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor. 

I’ve previously led workshops with both teens and college students around embroidery techniques and its importance as a medium. I would love to host one of these workshops again, perhaps even in a digital space!”

For more information on Nikka Wolfenbarger, her artwork, and events visit nikkawolfenbarger.com or follow her on Instagram @nikka_wolfen

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