When artist Nicki Green moved to San Francisco from New York to attend the San Francisco Art Institute, she knew she’d come to the right place. “I think I called my parents right after landing and was like, ‘This is it,’” she says. Strangers said hello here. The landscape was beautiful. Green had found her community.
“This city is so important to queer history,” Green says, sitting in her San Francisco ceramics studio. “I came out here to go to school but I also think that there was this really intentional desire to come here to be queer or be trans, and to be able to do that in a way that felt safe and comfortable.”
While enrolled at SFAI, Green honed her ceramics skills in the sculpture department, finishing her BFA in 2009 with a thesis show of slip-cast ceramic dildos, painted in delicate all-over patterns of blue on white glaze. Just a few remain intact in her studio today, and I get to hold one; it's like an exquisite Delfware sex toy.
In the intervening years, Green's work has taken different forms -- from textiles to glazed bricks to fermentation crocks -- each bearing Green's intricate and illustrative patterning. In the studio, the thin blueish purple lines tracing her ceramic work appear simply decorative at first, but none of Green's work is simply anything. On the surfaces of vessels, hands hold pickles, make gestures of blessing, and perform medical procedures on human genitalia. Penises sprout from earthenware crocks, mushrooms bloom, and biblical figures immerse themselves in the ritual waters of the mikvah.
Green uses the form of functional objects as the conceptual basis of her work. A brick is a building material, yes, but it’s also a potential weapon. Jugs can hold tasty liquid, but also Molotov cocktails. And each of these objects offers up its surface as a vehicle for Green’s images, culled from wide-ranging research into mushrooms, Judaica, queer culture and local history.
Green’s last big project before she starts at UC Berkeley’s MFA program in the fall is a series of commemorative mugs celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Compton’s Cafeteria riot, the first known instance of collective queer resistance to police harassment in U.S. history. Windows were smashed, people spilled out onto the street, a corner newsstand was set ablaze -- and it all started, Green notes, with a coffee mug. A trans woman, sick of the continued harassment she and her community faced at the hands of the SFPD, threw her coffee in the face of the officer who grabbed her arm. In an instant, tableware turned into DIY weaponry.
Green’s 50 editioned mugs, sourced from thrift stores around the city, go on display Aug. 16 at San Francisco’s GLBT History Museum, run by the GLBT Historical Society, which houses in its archives just one box of material on that little-known night. Even the specific date of the riot is lost to history; a violent uprising of San Francisco’s most marginalized citizens didn’t make the pages of a newspaper in August 1966.
“Maybe the folks of the Tenderloin, all of the queens and trans women and sex workers, were too busy surviving to think, ‘Let's archive this,’” Green says of the original Compton’s Cafeteria mugs. “If those objects don't exist anymore or we have no record of where they are, then as a trans person and as somebody who’s a part of this lineage, I can construct what has not been recognized, and that process mirrors the experience of trans self definition.”
While inserting her own objects into the archive of San Francisco queer history, Green also pulls from the material of the past to create new objects. Undecorated bricks labeled “Baker Beach” sit on her studio shelf. A bag of sand collected from the nude section of the beach rests beneath her work table. “If the brick is coming from San Francisco then it's charged with this energy of the city and the history of the city,” she says. She plans to mix the Baker Beach sand into her earthenware sculptures, imbuing the crocks and urns with that same energy and history, even if it’s invisible to the viewer.
With so many references and hidden histories at play in her work, Green admits a viewer’s experience depends on who they are. “On one hand there's the covert nature of your experiencing this thing visually or even materially and you don't understand it conceptually,” she says of her sculptures. “The point is that it's not for anybody but the select few in the know to understand.”
Like the hanky codes of the ‘70s and ‘80s and other modes of coded signaling of queerness, Green enjoys communicating certain messages to specific members of her community. “It's like, ‘I see you, and this is for you,’” she says.
“The intention is not to alienate,” she adds, “but I also think that the preservation of community and material in the wink, wink, nudge, nudge of a covert exchange is really important to me.”
In the process, her work has evolved to contain increasingly personal symbols. The proliferation of ripple-edged chanterelles on many of Green’s vessels is a departure from patterns made up of what she terms “queer flowers” -- pansies, carnations or lavender. “The idea of replacing flowers with fungus felt like a very queer thing,” she says.
There was also her discovery, online, of a book titled The Poisonous Mushroom, a piece of Nazi-era propaganda about hidden “Jewish” mushrooms laying in wait amongst the harmless edible mushrooms of the forest. The cover shows an anti-Semitic caricature of a bearded Jewish face under a mushroom cap.
“So much about the development of queer cultural iconography is about reclaiming derogatory concepts and images,” Green says. “So the idea of reclaiming the mushroom feels like this super-empowering thing.” To Green, mushrooms aren't slimy, deadly fungi, they're things of alien-like beauty. Their mycelial networks spread underground, helping forests receive nutrients.
But would I see all that on my own, without Green’s patient explanation of her research practice and reference points? Probably not.
“I recognize that a lot of the work that I'm doing is not immediately legible to most people, and the fact that I'm the person who's drawing the threads means that it's even less accessible. But I think that the intention is not to deliver information in a really explicit or didactic way.”
Ultimately, Green says, it’s about imbuing the glazed surfaces of her sculptures with an amalgamation of images and pattern that carries on the tradition of creating ornate ceramic objects. But buried in that glaze and sealed with extreme heat are references to queer and Jewish history, elements from a past that was not always preserved, because of whose story it told.
Under Green’s corrective hand, that past is newly preserved in ceramic, a material that lasts forever, as a record of Green’s own lived experience.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED