We welcome in legendary Detroit artist and musician Niagara as she joins us for her debut RUN Can I Help It If I’m In Love? We caught up with woman behind the star studded punk bands Destroy All Monsters and Dark Carnival. For her first RUN, Niagara worked with 1xRUN In-House Master Printer Jonny Alexander to create hand-pulled screen prints, including individually unique hand-painted multiples featuring unique tattoos, beauty marks and more. Read on to find out more about Niagara and be sure to check out all of the Can I Help It If I’m In Love? variants right here before they are gone.
Can I Help It If I’m In Love? by Niagara
1xRUN: Tell us a little bit about this piece, is the title what’s in the bubble?
Niagara: The title is always what the person says. It’s not just that it makes it easier, but it’s because it should be that way. It’s the perfect thing to do. Otherwise we’d forget, we’d just go “pretty girl that’s mad.” That’s what they’d all be called…but yea, that’s what it’s called.
1x: Let’s talk about when you made this image and what the timeline was when you made this specific character.
Niagara: She existed at one point. I saved the invites, because there used to be mailed invites. Maybe somebody still does that, but we used to do silkscreen invites, and I really like when that happened. I would do a separate ink drawing just for the invite, and I saved a bunch of those, but I don’t know when it was done. Oh! Maybe it says on the invite? Haha, I should look at it. It probably has the date but doesn’t have the year. It was for a show at CPOP, maybe around 2000. Her character. That line was good, but I had to use that image again recently for something and she was really mad looking, and her hair was so wild, but I used it for a children’s library. It doesn’t make sense does it? Detroit’s Little Library.
1x: Where was that?
Niagara: I have to ask where they put it, but I was so worried that I thought these books were going to be stolen. But they are supposed to be taken, and then you exchange them. When I was doing the ink drawing — which was pretty intense — and the painting on the little house I was going “wait a second, my paintings are worth something! What if somebody steals the whole little library?” I didn’t even think of that, but I mention it because I posted it online and everyone said, “I’d steal that.” People have stolen by paintings before, which is kinda funny. I picture these people creeping out an art gallery with a pretty big sized painting. I have to give them credit of some sort. Some lady said she found a place inside for it, so it’s in the Detroit area somewhere.
1x: Let’s talk about the character in this piece, does this specific character have a name? Or is are all of your girls unique unto their own…
Niagara: They are all individuals. Once in a while one will have a name. Usually they are all talking, so you don’t know their name. You just imagine what their name is. You start imagining a lot about them. Then you identify with them. Men and women. That’s the point.
1x: When did you first start creating work in this style?
Niagara: In the ’90s. Earlier…what was I doing? I have all these watercolors and gouache that I was doing earlier. I started with oil paintings, and then I moved onto what was better for me, which was acrylics, watercolors or gouache. I was doing what ended up being called — by [the Rhode Island School of Design] RISD — the modern beginning of goth. I was like, why didn’t tell me! They published it in a book, and then I kind of found out that they got them from Mike Kelley. I read something where he said that describing my work. That’s where they got the idea for that. It’s pretty true I guess.
They all had a story. They didn’t always have word bubbles, but if you look at it there’s something happening that was kinda mysterious that you could figure out. It was this kinda weird, sleepy, druggy type women. There was a weapon. There was a situation.
I like that real vibrant pop kind of look. It’s also pretty detailed looking. But I didn’t think people had time. Who has time? I thought I wanted to do something very vivid instead, so people can get it really fast. Read it. They have to read it. Even if they don’t want to read it. They have to read it. When you see it you just get it fast, and notice later that it was done very carefully. At least they get the sense of it immediately.
So I started doing that in the ’90s. I was in a band up until then. I was doing artwork for our albums and stuff, but I didn’t think I’d be in a band so long. The plan was to be in a band for a couple of years, and then start doing the art or whatever. I ended up being in a band for, I dunno, almost 20 years, before I started being able to concentrate on the artwork.
1x: So you’ve worked with a few different mediums over the years, what materials did you use for this last piece?
Niagara: Well, during high school I went to Baanf [Centre] which is an arts college that I was really lucky to go to for a summer. I was oil painting up until then, then I had this teacher who was really jazzy and said, “The way you paint, you’d like acrylic.” So I got all these bright colors, and I loved it and it was perfect medium for me. But I also love working in pen and ink. This last one was pen and ink, and I did the whole thing with a tiny paintbrush and gouache paint, instead of a pen and ink. The ink was spreading, and it was pissing me off. I don’t know why, I had really nice paper. But I usually use both when I do an ink drawing. I don’t get to do it that often, I’m usually using acrylics. It’s super intense to do an ink drawing, but I’ve seen ink drawings where it’s half white out! There’s always a mistake, or a stray dried piece of ink that gets on something and smears it, so I have to always use one bit of white out. But I think that’s not so bad. It’s like a game. It’s like a challenge.
1x: So on a piece like this how long would you spend to do it as an ink drawing or as a full painting?
Niagara: As a full painting, it would be within two weeks depending how big it is. Less if it wasn’t that big. That kinda thing. I only paint a few hours a night, I remember when I was painting these big paintings in the ’90s I sometimes would paint 8 hours in a row. There’s no way I could paint for 8 hours now. No way. I’ll paint a few hours, 4 hours, maybe 5 hours if I’m under pressure to finish something. But that’s the absolute dead end. For the pen and ink, not putting a lot of paisley in it or something that would take forever, I can usually knock one of those out in a weekend.
1x: Is there anything different or unique about this piece that stands out from your other works?
Niagara: I think she fits into the herd of girls that are so intelligent in my paintings. I think she’s one of the many. At one point — I’m trying to think of who doesn’t stand out in my paintings — I was doing these opium paintings, and the girls were more druggy, a throwback to what I used to do. People were like “they aren’t angry anymore, they’re druggy.” But I was saying, “They’re the same girls! You don’t get it.” They’re the same girls, they’re just taking drugs in this scene. This isn’t a whole different girl. These girls get angry and they take drugs. They’re multi-dimensional. They do those two things. That’s about it.
1x: What would you say to somebody wanting to buy one of these piece?
Niagara: I would never do that…well…I guess I have done that. I would usually say just buy this painting! And then they’d buy it. It’s like when you’re at a bar, and you say buy me a drink and they just buy it!
1x: Yea, that usually doesn’t work for me.
Niagara: It’s a delicate technique. You’ve got to have the right innuendo. But yea, people that love the paintings…when you buy things it’s a psychology and you feel bad before you decide, when you don’t know. But once you decide to buy it in your head, you’re just really happy. But to get to that you just have to push the people. It’s not like I’m a good pusher. It’s usually fun at an art show, everybody’s drinking. They know what they like, and they know what the want. But the only thing at sells itself is heroin. Anything else, people are just educated different. People that say art sells itself. No. It sells itself like aluminum siding sells itself. You’ve really got to use pressure, and that’s what people do. That’s what galleries that are really rich do. We’re talking about another ionosphere from that what I’m usually in. But these bigger galleries fucking put the pressure on. They call these people until they are rags, and they just pay millions of dollars just to be done with it. But it’s a lot of pressure. It’s hard for galleries. Very hard. And they have to deal with artists…actually I’ve put together shows and everyone was wonderful. Now that I think of it. I put together a show with all rock and roll people’s art. That was a huge show in Detroit. We left there at midnight, and there was still a line around the block in the freezing cold. It was like January, but The Stooges were there with their artwork. But anyways…I shouldn’t have gone off script…what do you want to know?
1x: Describe this piece in one gut reaction word for us.
Niagara: Describe the piece in one word? God. That’s such a stupid question. Why don’t you ask me my favorite color? I hate that. Intense sounds so blotto. But I guess sacrosanct. That’s a good word. It’s French. When you learn how to spell it you can look it up, but who knows?
1x: Let’s talk about your background a bit, where did you grow up?
Niagara: I was born at the Detroit Women’s Hospital, and it burned down. That’s about all I know. My parents had a house in Detroit at that time, and then we moved somewhere to the edge of Detroit, which I won’t have to get specific about it.
1x: Was art a focal point of your early life growing up?
Niagara: Yes. Since the beginning, before I can even remember. My sister, who is about 10 years older than I am, said I was always drawing. I have some of the little pages. My mother was always saving these horrible little drawings. She remembers it was all I did for a long time each day. Reading and drawing.
I was thinking today, how people learn to do something, and maybe a lot of it has to do with not having brothers and sisters breathing down your neck. When I was alone, I was bored, and I’d be like there’s a song. It would write itself. That was my big song. But yea, when you start reading and learning different things. I don’t know, it might have happened normally life might have been a lot more difficult, I would have been a people person like my brothers and sisters. Which would have defeated the purpose.
1x: So were you also writing music when you were young? Did you play any instruments?
Niagara: I didn’t write songs until we started Destroy All Monsters. I had a toy piano. I wish I learned an instrument. I didn’t. But I was busy drawing.
1x: Who were some of your early influences?
Niagara: After looking at a lot of art, and judging it, finally one day I found the world of decadent art. The mid-1800s in England and Europe mostly. Pre-Raphaleite art it was called. It got more decadent and that was a huge inspiration for me. I could really relate to that. That was oil paintings, mostly of women with long hair, who were dead. There was a lot of death and symbolism. Maybe that’s why I thought a painting was almost useless if it didn’t have a theme or something happening? I wouldn’t just draw someone and just have them sitting there or posing. It would have to be like “what are that pair of scissors doing under the bed?” That kind of thing. “Why is she holding a letter stained with blood?” So that was art that I really liked. Then later on I loved Andy Warhol. I loved the simplicity of it. Those were all mostly photos anyway, but I loved the simplicity of it. You know I might have done, I might have put those two things together? The decadence, and the women, and the story, and more of a pop look. See how it all fits together? It’s like hey! I’m not that complicated…she’s the simplest person I’ve ever met. I can’t think of any other art. Or else maybe I’m bored with the question…
1x: So were you in always in community of artists, or did that not really happen until you got to college?
Niagara: I always took art classes. But then my parents always signed me up because I wanted to go to art classes. They would find tutors here or there. I’d work at a framing store. I learned a lot from different people that taught in a class with like 5 people. You’d go there once a week or whatever. I don’t even know. I was always going to different art classes at the school in the summer. Then dance. That was a big deal. Then when I was really little they sent me to Cranbrook. I thought this was so chichi. You’d paint to the classical music. Paint whatever you want. Be free! I’m like “wow, rich people are different…” In high school, I didn’t have any group of artists.
Then in college, the first person that I met for orientation — god, I can’t believe I did any of this. It’s a nightmare darling — that i met was Mike [Kelley] and he was taking art at (University of Michigan) U of M. Then I fell in with him and his friend Jim Shaw, who was a couple of years older, and we started hanging out and we all when to U of M. We had different houses, and they had a big house God’s Oasis. Jim was a big junk picker. He collected everything, and he had a sign from an old drive that said “God’s Oasis.” So we called it that. It was a big commune of degenerates in this big Victorian house. I happened to live a couple of blocks away in another little house. We hung out, and then we started to think “we could be a really bad rock band…sounds good! Let’s do that!” In fact, I had diaried — I would never have believed this. Nobody else in the band believe it later. But I was going “wait a second” as I was trying to review that for interviews stuff. But — it said we had this idea for a band. The first thing that Mike Kelley said out of the blue at this party was, “Do you sing?” and I was like “Hell no.” and he said, “Let’s start this band.” Then, this is the weird part, that night we practiced and then the day after that played. We just busted in on a show on New Year’s Even and started playing. It was an instant band.
1x: During somebody else’s show?
Niagara: Yep. We came to this big warehouse where there was this party, with a band. We had instruments that were like a tin can that I hit with a dead bone. I remember we did “Iron Man” for a long time. It seemed like a long time because they were sick of us so fast and kicked us off the stage. Get out of here! We kept doing that. We’d just set up at parties, and play, and get kicked out, or everybody would leave. We thought “Wow! we’re really effective.” Then it progressed from there actually.
1x: So at the beginning was [Destroy All Monsters] more noise or experimental, just performance style? Is that far off base? Was it more focused on the visuals?
Niagara: I didn’t write music, so I would write poems, lyrics, that were put to music. But we each were doing our own separate art. We didn’t really do much art together, although it’s been shown together. But we were concentrating on our own individual world. That’s what put us together was the noise music. We’d practice. The guys would practice a lot in the basement. It didn’t make any difference. Some of the tapes…it’s really interesting how the music, and the noise would fall together. The lyrics were always pretty funny. It was put out later by Thurston Moore. Our basement tapes. If I ever hear it, I think this isn’t as bad as I thought it was at the time. Or maybe I got used to it. But it’s pretty interesting and it’s…funny. I played the violin and didn’t take any violin lessons. So I was really good. I was excellent.
1x: Let’s talk about how Destroy All Monsters progressed over the years. What lineup changes happened after Mike left?
Niagara: Mike and Jim had to go to school in LA [Los Angeles,] so they both left. I was here with Cary, who was my boyfriend, and we were wondering where to go from here? He knew that Ron Asheton was coming back in town, and in the meantime we played with The Miller Brothers, who were these very talented weird-space-music-Twilight-Zone music playing twins. They were really handsome, and had long hair and we played with them for a little while. Then Cary started bugging Ronnie when he got back to town. I mean really bugging him. I just stayed out of it, because Ronnie’s group had split up. He was in The New Order in LA, and he didn’t have much to do, and so he said, “Ok, I’ll come do a practice. What the hell? They’ll give me free beer. That’s what I’m going for.” So he came to practice, and he thought it was pretty fun, he had a good time. He liked me. Then we stared getting together more. Practicing more. We started to sound like something. Cary and I wanted it to sound like more like real music. We didn’t want to do total space noise at that point, so we thought it was a good combination of something intense and Detroit sounding. It had some bass sounds. It had saxophone. Upside down guitar. And I was very odd. The whole thing fit together.
1x: So you were still in Ann Arbor at this point?
Niagara: I didn’t leave Ann Arbor for a long time. I ended up moving in with Ronnie in the Asheton house. We lived together for a short time, and then got an apartment. We played gigs a lot and could afford to have our own place. We shared a place with Mike Davis, of the MC5, he got out of jail and Ronnie called him up. He would play the bass. He came to practice and he thought it was a lark. He thought it was fun. So yea, it started coming together like that. We started practicing together every night. We had gigs here and there, and traveled and blah blah. You fill in the blah, blah. You already know the story…
1x: Yea, well…it’s always more interesting to hear it in your words.
Niagara: I would hope so. You could have saved us some time.
1x: When did you end up moving to Detroit?
Niagara: We were in Destroy All Monsters and then after that pretty much folded, Mike Davis and everything…whatever happens to bands. It ended like bands always do. Then Colonel called me up and he was starting an all-star band. The weirdest, or most stand out person of a band he likes. He got the name Colonel because he was a big time promoter type, and he didn’t do this before, he was just that type. He was all hung up on the music scene. He was afraid to call. Bootsey [Mulrooney, of Bootsey X & Lovemasters] was egging him on. Saying yea, “Niagara, you can call her, just don’t call her before 5pm.” That’s how I knew people were scared to call me. But anyways, I did some songs with all these people, and it was hysterical. It was supposed to be intense, and funny. Fast moving, and 3-4 different singers. Stuff like that. That was Dark Carnival. That started out as an all-star Detroit band. Then Ronnie wasn’t in a band, and I started getting more involved with Dark Carnival. Ronnie started filming us, and we finally said “…uhhh why don’t you play guitar? You play guitar don’t you?” So then it was slowly a 4-5 piece, then Scottie [Asheton] wanted to play, and he was our drummer for while. Stuff like that. Then we went to Australia, which was the best tour. They are wonderful. We went there a couple times, we did a tour there not that long ago, without Ronnie but with an Australian band. I think I stopped…and that’s the end.
1x: So when did Dark Carnival begin and run from?
Niagara: I don’t know…god…I guess it was in the nineties. It was a mid nineties deal. We went through here or there and were playing with different singers, after 2000. Then after Ronnie died we did a tour in Australia. I didn’t want to do anymore tours, because I hate all of that stuff. But Ronnie died and I said, “yea, I’ll do it to jolt myself into some other kind of reality.” So I went there and that worked. It was freaky. But it was cool. The people there were wonderful. Then that’s when I started to concentrated on [visual] art all the time instead of just between these other things.
1x: How did it all tie together for you doing visuals and the music?
Niagara: I didn’t really do that much art. I didn’t do full time, not even really half time. I would band posters, but I didn’t really do that much, or that good. But there was the album covers, and the single covers, that kind of thing. Maybe I’d do a cover for a local mag or something, but by like ’94ish I heard there was this gallery CPOP, and Rick Manore had invited Robert Williams. He was coming into town to have a show there, and I had already been in Juxtapoz, so I said, “Fuck I have to there.” I was scared to go there and meet him. But I really just didn’t want to go there, and stand in line, and wait to meet him. That’s lame. So I called up the gallery and said, “Hi. I heard you’re having Robert Williams.” I’m pretty sure I heard Rick Manore say, “Is this Niagara? I’ve been wanting to talk to you!” But he was scared of Robert Williams, and he told us to pick him up at the airport. I wasn’t scared of that. That was something that was normal to me. It wasn’t like you were standing and going “aww schucks…” But we picked him up in our sparkle mile-long ’66 Cadillac. Robert Williams loved that because he’s a car junky. So he and Colonel got along great. His wife is wonderful. So they’d come back to town, and they’d stay at our house on the next trip they’re great. I talk to him every once in a while. So anyways, the shows I had were at CPOP and it was a pretty good time. Things were booming. Nobody flew into the towers yet. People were buying art. I couldn’t believe it. I had an astrologer who said Detroit’s going to be really consumed with art in the mid nineties. And I thought, “You are so wrong.” Then that’s just what happened. CPOP moved to a bigger place. Things were going good. And that’s the story. That’s every detail of the story…
Right now, I have a show when I’m asked. Sometimes people leave me alone and I get to create art. I’ve got a great studio to paint in now. The first thing I’m supposed, which is the third or fourth thing that I’m doing, is to make collages for the Japanese brand Hysteric Glamour. They’re like a couture, punk, really nicely made, expensive clothing made in Japan. They have about 40 stores and I do stuff for them. They need more stuff to put on clothes. It’s funny, because what first happened a few years ago was that they sent of art that they got from our early magazines. Destroy All Monsters was a magazine that we made too. A xerox magazine. So I was opening this box from Japan, and there were all these clothes that were printed with my life. That’s what we did for the magazine. We did collages of what we thought was cool. What we thought was vintage. Art. Pictures of me when I was like a flower girl. Pictures of somebody’s Aunt. It was all on the clothes. That was the first shock. It was like a diary about you in a clothes for Japan. It was a very weird feeling. Now it just seems normal.
1x: Any big shows or events coming up that you’d like to share?
Niagara: I’ve had to turn down some shows. We’re putting together this house. Painting and fixing, and it’s 10x more busy-ness than I thought it would be. There’s a lot to do. But it’s like a giant installation. I mean it’s definitely a work of art. You look through every handle and vintage fixture, put together things and refinish furniture. It’s amazing to do it, and I love doing it, so I don’t feel like I’m missing out. It’s not I’m working so I can do art, I’m always doing it. It’s incredible. But it’s almost done, so I can work in the studio and get busy again.
Niagara was interviewed while at her studio in Hell, Michigan by 1xRUN Editor-In-Chief Pietro Truba. He has previously interviewed Leni & John Sinclair, Ricky Powell, Doze Green, Fred Armisen, Janette Beckman and Shepard Fairey among others for 1xRUN. Follow him @pietrotruba