Name: Nan Onkka
Business Name: Nan Onkka Prints
Creative/Artistic Categories: Printmaking
Support the Work: Etsy Shop
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For the first episode of the Twin Cities Design Scene podcast, I talked with Nan Onkka, printmaker, educator, and owner of Nan Onkka Prints. Living in Grand Marais, Minnesota, she is inspired by the natural landscapes that surround her.
Listen into our conversation about how she creates her woodblock prints and how she runs her art business while also hosting online classes. Scroll down to read the podcast’s transcript and view photos of Nan’s work.
Five Questions with Nan Onkka Prints:
What is your favorite art venue?
What are your favorite art/creation resources?
I love Taproot magazine for its beautiful illustrations and content. Each issue has recipes as well as patterns/instructions for crafts.
What local restaurants/take out spots help keep you fed during your creative sessions?
Is there a specific local non-profit organization you’d like listeners to learn about?
I recently learned about the Minnesota Indigenous Business Alliance, which supports Native-owned businesses, entrepreneurs, and artisans.
Please give a shout out to three other local artists/creators you respect and admire:
Podcast Transcription with Nan Onkka Prints:
The TCDS podcast transcription is sponsored by
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (00:15):
Thanks for tuning into the Twin Cities Design Scene podcast. Today, we have Nan Onkka on the show from Nan Onkka Prints. Nan is a printmaking artist and teacher living in Grand Marais, Minnesota. Welcome to the show, Nan.
Nan Onkka (00:29):
Thanks for having me, Jennie.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (00:31):
Let’s talk about what you do and how you got to where you are today. So what sort of artwork, what’s your medium that you work in?
Nan Onkka (00:42):
I work in printmaking and primarily wood black prints. So I’ve done some lino and other things along the way, but I’m mostly doing woodblock printmaking right now.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (00:57):
I read on your website that you also do relief printmaking. Is that pretty much the same as the woodblock?
Nan Onkka (01:05):
Relief is the category. Woodblock is one of the options within that category. So I’m essentially carving into wood to create the image that I’ll print.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (01:20):
How did you get into that specific medium out of all the different artistic mediums out there?
Nan Onkka (01:27):
I think part of it is that I have artists as parents, I have an art degree from St. Olaf, and my background is teaching high school art. I have my Master’s in Art Education. So through all of that, I feel like I’ve always been drawn, even as a high school art student, to printmaking. I just found it so interesting and so challenging to think there’s a lot of thinking backwards and not being able to truly predict what something might look like. It’s really process-heavy. When I was teaching, really the only kind of logistically possible type of printmaking to do with students was relief printmaking because other processes have a lot more equipment needed. And so I love that was always one of my favorite things to teach students.
Nan Onkka (02:28):
So when I decided I wanted to kind of pursue it by myself, it was like, ‘I can do this from my apartment. I don’t need a big investment in materials or equipment.’ It’s just something that’s very accessible. So that’s kind of how I got into relief printmaking as my primary work. And then the woodblock came a little later. I had done woodblock a number of times throughout my life but finally invested in some tools. And then last year I moved from Minneapolis to Grand Marais, Minnesota, and up here, it just feels right to use wood. And I think that’s just like, I’m looking out, like I’m looking at my studio window right now. And all I see is trees everywhere. Like, the natural environment is so present in a different way than it was, you know, living in, working in Minneapolis. And so it just feels like the right material to use up here.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (03:31):
And I can see a lot of that sort of influence also in the work that you do. I mean, a lot of the topics that you cover are a lot more nature-focused and landscape-focused. As far as with the whole woodblock process, you said that it’s a little bit easier to set that up in a home studio. So, I’m hoping that you can walk me through your process and also how you make those artistic choices and decisions as you go along.
Nan Onkka (04:03):
So the printmaking process is the challenging thing about it and I think why I’m drawn to it is because it is challenging for me. You start with an image in mind and you might kind of have this idea of what the colors are, what the kind of textures are, or what size it is. And then when you design it, you have to really think through how you’re going to make that happen, because essentially there are many ways to do this. Mostly you carve into the wood and whatever is left is what will be printed, much like a stamp. That’s generally just one color. So if in your mind you have this image of five or six colors, then you have to figure out how to repeat that process or use multiple blocks or keep carving away into the same block to reveal and use those extra colors.
Nan Onkka (05:06):
So it’s kind of hard to describe it without showing you, but you’re also thinking backwards and you’re thinking about an image and layers. The difficult thing about being a printmaker as far as marketing is that people look at an image in a shop or a gallery, and they don’t necessarily think, ‘How was that made?’. So when you see a woodblock print or another type of relief print, and it has 20 colors in it, I automatically know that it is so impressive, but other people might look at it and be like, ‘Well, how is that different than something that someone designed online or digitally, and then just print it out from their printer?’ So I think that knowing the process behind it.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (06:00):
I think that’s kind of the nice thing about telling about the process is you gained such an appreciation if you’re able to hear it, or see it, or even do it in a classroom setting. I mean, I know you from college and I remember taking printmaking classes and just how much work it was to think it through. I don’t know what it’s like for woodblock printing, but I remember your hands take a beating for sure.
Nan Onkka (06:35):
It’s a very physical process. But to backtrack a little bit, so I start out with designing—having an image in my mind and then trying to figure out , ‘Is this possible? Can I realistically do this?’ Most print makers have, or have access to a printing press. I have access to one, but with COVID the studio has been closed. And so I’ve only been able to print from home, which means every impression I make is by hand. I’m physically using a wooden spoon or a baren or something to press the paper onto the ink to block. So that’s a very physical process. I have to think about how do I make this image in my mind happen? And it would be so much easier for me if I just painted it, instead of having to figure out all of the process and the work that goes into it.
Nan Onkka (07:35):
And then I have to transfer the image onto the wooden block, then I’ll prepare the block for printing, which just means sealing it so the ink doesn’t absorb into it. And then I carve and that’s another physical process and you can’t undo a mistake. So it’s a little nerve wracking and it’s very permanent. So I think one of the hard things about printmaking is there’s no going back. You can get into a print that you’ve put days and days of work into and you print the next layer and you don’t like it. And now it’s like, ‘Well, I’ve already started, in addition of 40 prints like this, like, do I just keep going?’ It’s because every print that I’m making, I’m making more than one copy of it. And that’s what I like about printmaking.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (08:35):
How many prints do you make on average per woodblock print?
Nan Onkka (08:37):
That’s something I’m still learning. I’m figuring out what my market is. And the things that I am most drawn to, my customers might not be. So I have to think a little, it’s a lot of guesswork. I just made a print of lupins that I have yet to sign and actually put up for sale. I made 40 of them, because I know that people up North just love lupins. That’s an easy one to know that I should make a lot of, whereas some of my abstract work, I might make six or 10 just because I want a copy, but I don’t know if anybody else does. It’s hard. I had a print that I only made six copies of and it sold out in like two weeks, which is really fast for me. I have other things that I made 40 of and I still have 35 left.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (09:45):
Well that’s what I was thinking about also in terms of being a professional artist. I mean, you have to. It’s a fine line of creating for yourself, but also creating for selling for what people might like. And so how do you balance that sort of juxtaposition of what you want to put out there versus what you know people are going to purchase?
Nan Onkka (10:17):
Yeah. That’s something they don’t really tell you when you go to art school, like how to how to please people to make a little bit. That’s something that I struggle with all the time. I am proud of the work that I’m doing. I probably make more crowd pleasing artwork right now, just because I’m at home with a toddler, I don’t have any childcare right now during COVID. So I get an hour and a half, maybe two hours a day. If I don’t have other things, I need to get done around the house to work on my work. And so I really am kind of maximizing—like, I think people will like this, so I’m gonna make it because that’s how I’m going to make money during this season. But I also always reserve time and energy to make things that I’m really drawn to. And that’s not to say that I’m not drawn to the work that I am making, but it’s a little more accessible, I think, to a larger audience. So it’s a lot of scenes of Northern Minnesota are just what people want to buy. I can’t blame them!
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (11:38):
I mean, it’s a beautiful landscape, but yeah. I mean, I was looking at your Etsy store and it was fun to see kind of a little bit more of the abstract figures, again, just seeing the evolution of your work from back when you were doing more painting. And I remember you using some of those sorts of figures from back then and kind of seeing how those have evolved as well. But yeah, I mean, it’s just, it’s a different sort of subject matter than the North Shore and both are good, but yeah, just different.
Nan Onkka (12:11):
When I first opened my Etsy shop which was maybe 2016, 2017, I was working full time as a teacher. And so I was just kind of making things for fun and people would tell me, ‘Oh, I’d buy that.’ So I, you know, put it on Etsy. And now I am working, I won’t say full-time as an artist, because really I’m taking care of my son full-time. But now it’s more like, this is where I’m not just making for me right now. I’m making for my family. And it’s a really good motivator. It’s also been motivating in this kind of transition from moving up here from Minneapolis a year ago to just kind of fill in some of those gaps in my work and say, okay, well, I like this image, but there’s only one like that. And there’s not really more in that style. So why don’t I just focus on the that and developing a little bit more of a body of work. So that’s what I’m focusing on currently. And part of that is just like the summer, even though everything has been canceled and I have a lot more free time than I was going to, I also am very distracted and just want to be outside and doing other things. So doing smaller projects that are kind of filling in gaps
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (13:49):
Winter is definitely the time to kind of hunker down and do a lot of the inside stuff. It’s like, you have the best laid plans, and then summertime comes along and you’re like, well, let’s just savor that and get outside and enjoy what we can. So how long does it take to you to complete a project from start to finish? I’d imagine it varies.
Nan Onkka (13:51):
I’m mostly working in two hour chunks of time. Once I have a print idea, like, which I have many, many ideas, but I have to be 100% sure that this is the one that I’m going to carve into wood and spend days working on. So once I get to that point, which might take a while, depending on how much development I need to do for that image then I usually do carving one day, which might take a couple of hours.
Nan Onkka (14:52):
Then I’ll print the first layer the next day and I can usually do that in an afternoon. One layer of a print, and then I’ll carve the next day and print the next day. So I made a print last week and I made 40 prints of the same image. It took me pretty much the whole week, but I can only do a chunk every day. That’s kind of how printmaking works anyways, because you don’t want to print more and more layers on top of really wet ink. So it kind of works for me to do it that way.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (15:33):
So you almost build in that sort of slow process.
Nan Onkka (15:35):
Yeah. But I mean, last January, February, I rented space at the Grand Marais Art Colony here in Grand Marais, they have a printmaking studio that’s really great. And I rented that, I think for like five weeks and I made maybe how many did I make…like eight or 10 larger prints in that time? And that was larger for me, the largest I do is 8×10 inches and that’s mostly because in my home studio doing anything more than that by hand is very exhausting and time consuming. So, 8×10 is about the largest I’ll print right now. But yeah, so I made maybe 10 in five weeks.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (16:38):
As I said with the process, it’s just interesting to hear you talk a little bit more about it. And I think that is something that people may not realize with printmaking is just how long it does take, rather than you think of printing presses and how you can just like constantly move it. And it’s not quite like that. As far as when you’re going through all those different steps, is there a particular step in that process that is a favorite of yours in the creation like the ideation, or execution, or getting out there to the fairs and selling it? I mean, like that’s fair too. That’s part of the process.
Nan Onkka (17:22):
I used to really love going out and sketching outside and now with a toddler, I just don’t get to do that quite as much. But the ideas are always so exciting to me. I think the rest of it is so nerve-wracking. It would be really relaxing if you could undo if you make a mistake, but you can’t and so I enjoy it and I like the kind of thrill of that, but it’s always like, when I think about ‘Oh, I’m going to have a day where I get to print the next layer,’ it’s like, exciting, but also like, wow, what if I don’t like it? What if it’s not, you know, like what if the two colors or like, you always think it looks good when you print it, but then when you print the next layer on top of it, you’re like, ‘Oh, I didn’t anticipate that those colors would mix that way’ or something.
Nan Onkka (18:19):
And part of that is just, you know, learning. I’ve been switching different inks and things. So I don’t feel like I’m an expert in any of them yet. Because I have been using too many different types trying to find the best one for me.. So really I think what I get the most excited about is working in a studio that has a press where it feels like I have a little more freedom because the whole process is a little faster. And if I decide that a color isn’t right and I need to reprint it’s not like the end of the world. Whereas if I do that at home and I have to hand print everything, that’s a big decision. So when I’m working with a press, I feel like I can just be a little bit more free to experiment or be like, ‘Oh, I thought this print was only going to take three layers of color, but I think I’m actually going to push it to five layers of color just because I think it needs a little more’ and being able to just like make those kind of decisions on a whim is really fun for me.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (19:33):
I know probably due to COVID a lot of the stuff has closed, but have you heard any whispers of anything opening where you will be able to use a press again?
Nan Onkka (19:42):
Yes. The Grand Marais Art Colony actually is slowly opening to artists. The hard thing for me is we unenrolled my son from daycare. In an ideal world, I could just like rent that studio up for a week and go print my heart out for a week, but I can’t do that in this stage of life. So I just have to figure out what that looks like. And I think I’ll probably start renting from them again, maybe in the fall or definitely the winter. The winter’s a nice time. So yeah, it’s on the horizon, but it has to be very strategic for me and I kind of have to have like, ‘Okay, this is how many images I’m going to make, and this is my plan to stagger them so that I can maximize my time in that studio. I really have to think it all through before committing.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (20:45):
It sounds like it’s very, like you have to think ahead kind of plan things out step-by-step, rather then just being spontaneous.
Nan Onkka (20:56):
I’d rather be outside than on my computer thinking all those things through.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (21:00):
Yes, for sure. As far as getting into your business, I was curious as far as if you have any piece of advice that you really appreciated from somebody else or just a blog magazine about running an art business as professional artists.
Nan Onkka (21:21):
Yeah. Well, that’s a good question. I mean, I grew up with my dad as a potter and he is still. That’s really the only job he has had in his adult life.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (21:35):
What’s the name of his business?
Onkka Pottery. And he’s located in Wisconsin just an hour East of the Twin Cities. I think a lot of my business knowledge trickled down through just overhearing him and his artist friends talking and things like that. But there’s no way, you know, he hasn’t had to use social media in the same way that artists of our generation are. So also that’s a huge piece that you also don’t learn in school because I mean, however many years ago we were in college, it wasn’t a big part of our lives.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (22:20):
Yeah, it was just starting to, but not in this way. It was for personal use.
Nan Onkka (22:27):
Yeah. And so I’ve never really taken any professional development in how to run a business or anything. So thankfully my husband is a little more business minded than I am as far as, you know, like the logistics of finances and things. But really the most I’ve learned from is just following other people on social media and meeting other people. When I moved up to Grand Marais, I instantly kind of met so many wonderful young entrepreneurs and artists, and it’s been so fun to get to know them. And that’s been really just learning from following people is really what I’ve done. Even since COVID hit, I’ve been purchasing a lot more stuff from artists and makers and it’s like, it’s definitely a splurge on me and something that I want, but also it’s kind of just like reconnaissance, like figuring out what email did they send after you place an order or how they package their item for you, or what does their website look like? So all of that has been really good as well, but I really, I don’t know. I’m still learning every day on how to do things.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (24:00):
Seriously, I think that’s the thing is always be curious, always be curious and always be learning just in any industry, but especially in the artistic fields is just having that sort of curiosity to keep pushing forward in your craft.
Nan Onkka (24:18):
Right. Yeah. Totally.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (24:21):
What do you like doing in your extra time when you’re not busy with printmaking?
Nan Onkka (24:26):
Well, I quit my teaching job a year ago, which is crazy thinking about how teaching has changed. So I’m just sitting at home teaching more of these Zoom art lessons. My husband was also a teacher and he also quit his teaching job to move up here. So we’re both a little still in shock of that life change, but we now own a house for the first time. So we are doing lots of yard projects and garden projects our first summer in this house. My toddler loves being outside. So we go down to the Grand Marais Harbor almost every day and throw rocks in the lake. Our life is very simple and really lovely right now during COVID. If COVID hadn’t hit, I would be really busy with art fairs and other things going on this summer. We’d be traveling a lot more and you know, kind of hustling around. But right now life is very simple and I enjoy it. So the North Shore has so many wonderful natural places to go. There’s lots of hikes and we’ve been going camping this summer.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (25:59):
Probably social distance pretty well up there, I would imagine.
Nan Onkka (26:02):
Yes. Well, yeah, so we’re thankful to not be in the city anymore where we were in an apartment with no yard which was lovely while we were there, but to have this space and especially with a very active one-year-old is the best.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (26:22):
Let’s say I have only 48 hours in Grand Marais. Are there any particular… In non-COVID times, let’s just preface that, non-COVID times, if I have 48 hours to spend in Grand Marais, what particular places or restaurants…where would you send me?
Nan Onkka (26:44):
As you’re approaching Grand Marais, I would tell you that you need to stop either if it’s morning at FIKA Coffee, which has amazing coffee in Lutsen, or if it’s afternoon, to go to North Shore Winery, which is lovely. Then to get you excited to come up to Grand Marais and once you’re in Grand Marais, there’s so many good restaurants, but one of my favorites will always be The Angry Trout, which has the most amazing salad. I always get the grilled white fish on it. It’s so good. They have this beautiful restaurant right on the Harbor and you can sit outside on a deck on the water. It’s so beautiful. Everything about it is beautiful. And World’s Best Donuts are truly so amazing. They’re so good.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (27:41):
Are they the cake or the raised, or both?
Nan Onkka (27:45):
They have cake and raised and they do both so well, like unbelievably well.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (27:52):
Are you more of a cake or raised?
Nan Onkka (27:54):
I’m a cake.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (27:54):
I’m a cake too. They’re so good.
They also have a sizzle, which is like a fry bread. And if you get it, you have to ask if it’s going to be warm, if it’s not going to be warm, you don’t need it. It’s so good. It’s like a fry bread covered with sugar. It’s really good. And the Java Moose in Grand Marais is also always wonderful, which is the only coffee shop in town. You have to just throw rocks and sit by the Harbor. I mean, Grand Marais is just like the starting point for so many adventures. So the place that I know the best is heading up the Gunflint Trail to the inland lakes where the water is much warmer for swimming and safer for canoeing and things. I could spend, I might spend my whole adult life up here.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (28:54):
For the last question here—is there any particular advice that you would give to other aspiring professional artists of things that you have learned throughout this process?
Nan Onkka (29:07):
Yes. For me, it’s really easy to be inspired. And part of that is just like, I like making work about the places where I live, so I find inspiration here. So I think that’s a really big part. Even like in my life stage right now where I don’t have the time that I would like to be in my studio, I’m trying to capture that inspiration and record it somehow. So whether that’s in a sketchbook realistically, I don’t have time to do that either. And so I mostly just take photos and then put them in folders on my phone or computer for later, that is just like print inspiration folder.
Nan Onkka (29:56):
But doing whatever you can with the available time, you have, it’s really easy to think of all these grand plans. And like, these are my big goals. But things come up and you might not be able to reach that, but even if you’re doing small things every day or every other day and just keeping that in your mind that that’s still progress because starting a business is like, it is about the artwork, but it’s a lot about just being organized and marketing and communicating with people. There’s a lot of other work that goes into having an art business. So even if there’s not that much art that’s being done or the amount that you want having a way to just kind of track some of those ideas or inspirations is really helpful.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (30:54):
Well, thank you so much for talking with me today, Nan. I really do appreciate it.
Nan Onkka (30:58):
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) (30:59):
You can view Nan’s artwork on her website at nanonkka.com. We’ll have that on the blog as well and you can view her work at twincitiesdesignscene.com. Nan’s work is also on Instagram at @onkka.prints and Facebook at Nan Onkka Prints. Thanks for listening in, don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review of the podcast. For the latest updates you can follow along on Instagram and Facebook at Twin Cities Design Scene
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