I had a chance to talk with Nicole Sweeney from NBC’s summer craft show Making It (with hosts Nick Offerman and Amy Poehler), which airs Tuesdays this summer at 10/9c. We talked a lot about her work, how she got started and what it was like being on the show.
How’d you get into woodworking?
My dad was a really big influence in this path that I’ve taken. He owns his own construction company, and growing up, I think I was just around it a lot. And I don’t even know what really sparked it, but I decided when I was 10 years old – I’m going to be an architect someday. I’m going to go to school for architecture. You know, my parents were like ‘oh, that’s cute.’ But then I did. And I’ve always just had a love for making things with my hands and spaces. So that’s where I learned how to woodwork, in architecture school. And then, I think, through being in school, what it made me realize was that I don’t actually want to be an architect to design things, I want to actually make things with my hands. And so that’s where starting my own business and just starting to play, that’s where that all came from.
What’s your style?
I kind of feel like a puzzle maker. I literally feel like I’m a little kid kind of. I walk into my wood shop and it’s like I’m playing with building blocks. I never really know what I’m going to make. I kind of show up in space, and I just start kind of playing with pieces and things emerge from there. I don’t know what I’d call my style. I do really love geometry, I love playing with different patterns. I like to make work that makes you – you kind of fall into it a little bit. It makes you stay and hold your sight a little bit longer, it makes your eyes play a little bit.
What’s your process like?
It’s a lot of prep work. So there’s a ton of sanding, mostly sanding, to get the wood to the finishes that I want. And a lot of that requires, you know, like I’ll sand it, I’ll paint it, then I’ll sand it again, to get the look I want. Then I’ll stain it. I basically have three different colors that I work with. I work with natural wood, and then I stain some of my pieces, and then I paint some of my pieces. From there, I decide what size I’m going to work with, and then I decide the shape I’m going to use. Then it’s so much repetition. I’ll be standing in my shop cutting pieces for five hours at a time to get all the shapes. Then I slowly put them together.
Do you have a favorite project you’ve done?
I think that everything I’ve ever made has at one point been my favorite and my least favorite. I think it’s the nature of being an artist. You start making something – you have this great idea – and then you dive a little bit more into it and you’re like ‘oh this is really cool, this is going really great.’ Then ‘oh this isn’t as cool as I actually though, this is actually really stupid, I hate this.’ And then you keep working and realize that it’s not as bad as you actually thought – you circle around with it. I think I’m just really proud of the evolution of how my work has grown.
When I first started, it was really simple. And I think I’ve really pushed myself with the patterns and things I’m doing. I’m proud that I’m still on that path, and that I’m trying to just make better and better work and improve my craft and learn new skills all the time.
Have you always been a full-time maker?
Before I started my own business, I worked for Anthropologie, doing their window displays. I did that for three years. I was basically a full-time live-in artist, in their store. It was through that, that I was able to gain the confidence to really pursue my own thing. So I quit my full-time job and turned my dining room into a wood shop.
Is your wood shop still in your dining room?
It is still in my dining room – it’s a nice dining room. I work out of my house. I have a really nice big back yard where I store some of my tools also. I think the dream is definitely to get my own studio. I’m such a homebody that I actually really love having everything there and just being in my space. You can’t really force inspiration, so it’s like, if I’m not feeling inspired, my bedroom is right next door. I can just go take a nap.
What was it like being on the show?
It was nothing like what I expected. It was literally like an incredibly magical playground, where we got to do what we love. Nick and Amy are literally as awesome as everybody thinks they are. All of the contestants were great friends. We all supported each other. It was just this beautiful, creative, supportive environment.
I not only got to use my skill set, to show what I could do with wood, but I also was pushed to make new things that I haven’t made before.
What advice would you give to somebody who wants to get started making stuff?
Just dive in. Find anything that inspires you – find the point of inspiration and then just build off of that. It starts as an idea, but you just have to put your hands to work, just get your hands moving. I have so many things in my space and in my home that I keep around me to inspire me to make more things. Find any object – if there’s a painting that inspires you – keep it in your space so you see it every day. I fill my home with things that make me want to make things.
What’s next for you?
This show has made me grow as an artist in so many ways. It’s given me confidence that I needed to believe in myself and what I do. I think before this, I know, I’m not the best woodworker, I’m not the best anything, but what this show did was inspire me to tell my story. It inspired me to have confidence that what I do does deserve to be seen, it does deserve to be made. That’s advice I’d give. We’re not striving for perfection, we’re striving to make ourselves happy. Do what you love. Tell your story.
So now, my dream. I want to do bigger projects. I want to make the pieces that I’m making on a scale x100. I’d love to do an entire lobby floor of a hotel, or an entire wall of a building. I also want to empower more women with power tools. I think in a male-dominated industry, it’s important that girls can feel empowered and women can feel empowered to do what they love, even if it includes building or welding or using bigger machinery. I want to make all of that more accessible to women.