Always drawn to the creative process, Nancy naturally gravitated toward artistic pursuits when contemplating her next act. Experimenting with Swarovski crystals led her to find her unique and sparkling art form. While struggling with a newly empty nest and the loss of her mother, Nancy found comfort in her studio where she quietly spent hours honing her skills and building her business, NIK Crystal Art Studios.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in Waukegan, Illinois, about 40 miles north of Chicago, with three brothers, two older than me and one younger. I was raised in a fairly traditional home: My dad was a doctor and my mom was busy with four kids, “three of you in diapers at one point,” she would often remind us. When we were a little older, my mom helped out in my dad’s medical practice. My mom was very artistic, and as far back as I can remember, she was always working on projects around the house—working on a loom, painting, teaching cooking classes, and sewing, just to name a few. All the while, my dad was busy building his medical practice. My parents worked together to create a loving home where the importance of family and education was always emphasized.
I was a pretty outgoing and content child and involved with a lot of extracurricular activities, from student government, to sports of all kinds, to BBYO, a Jewish youth group that was a very big part of my high school years. I loved to be on stage when I was growing up and have fond memories of being involved in many grade school and high school productions. Over the summers, I worked as a waitress at the local seafood restaurant and had a little cheesecake business on the side.
I went to college at Tulane University, where I studied Political Science and had a fantastic educational and social experience. The friends that I made in college are like sisters to me, sisters I never had growing up, cherished relationships that have grown even stronger with time. The friendships, the newly found independence, the educational opportunities, the cultural experience New Orleans offered—the music, the food—all contributed to a rich and happy college experience. I loved my years at Tulane.
When it came time for me to decide what I was going to do after college, it was kind of a foregone conclusion that I was going to attend law school. Growing up with three brothers, sometimes it got a bit “rough and tumble.” In order to be heard, I had to stand up for myself, speak my mind, and argue my position. On many of those occasions, my parents would proudly proclaim, “Nancy is going to be a lawyer!” To be honest, I kind of liked the idea, or at least, I thought I did. It seemed like a reasonable, logical next step for me since I wanted to continue my education, help people, and create a career so that I could support myself. Becoming an attorney felt like it would be a good fit so, without ever really considering other possibilities, I pursued that path.
Relishing my independence, I went to law school in Northern California. Soon after I started practicing law, set up by a mutual friend, I met Mike, my husband, also an associate attorney in San Francisco. We liked each other right away. It didn’t hurt that he sent me a dozen roses the day after we met and then planned an unforgettable backpacking trip in Yosemite for our first weekend away together. We will be married 30 years this March.
In our single days together and when we were first married, we lived in Marin County and spent a lot of time actively exploring the area—hiking, biking, skiing, backpacking, and running. The mountains, the coast, and access to nature really sustained each of us and, in the beginning, our relationship too. We loved the lifestyle in Northern California.
During this period, through my involvement in the San Francisco Jewish Community, I was lucky to develop some really special friendships that I treasure to this day. Professionally, though, I was not particularly happy. While I enjoyed the court appearances and depositions, I just didn’t like the day-to-day of being a civil litigation attorney. In 1990, the year Mike and I got married and five years after I started practicing, I began to transition away from the law and ultimately stopped working in 1992.
It was around this time that Mike and I started our family as well. In 1993, after our daughter Katie was born, we made the decision to move to Chicago so that we could raise our children closer to my family. Josh arrived about four years after Katie and he completed our little family.
When we first made the decision to move to Chicago, we were extremely torn. While we felt certain that raising our family closer to grandparents, cousins, uncles, and aunts was the best decision for all of us, we always felt the pull. We made traveling to the Bay Area and the mountains a priority as we raised our children, returning every summer to backpack and often in the winter to ski, exploring together the beauty of Northern California. Our frequent California adventures kindled in the kids a love of nature and the outdoors and we happily stoked the flame every chance we had.
Ultimately, we settled in Glencoe, Illinois, a charming community north of Chicago, and a wonderful place to raise a family. When the kids were young, I was very content to be at home. Like so many stay-at-home parents, I was involved with their activities, participating in the parent-teacher organization, middle school plays, acting as a room mom, etc.
While the kids were at school, I could often be found tinkering around in our well-stocked craft room. I got great pleasure and satisfaction from creating things. Anything. I made mosaic trays and jewelry, and designed invitations. I loved planning and executing theme parties and both kids B’nai Mitzvot celebrations. I was always the one at rehearsal dinners and birthday celebrations who got up and sang a silly song or recited a poem specially prepared for the occasion. I loved to cook, casually entertain, and make holiday tables and trays of food look pretty. At one point, I even sent in an audition tape to The Next Food Network Star. My show: Casual Entertaining for Families! No response.
I produced a couple of middle school plays, enjoyed gardening, and created homemade Halloween costumes and elaborate party favors. So fully immersed, I would lose track of time. Creating things recharged my batteries and nourished my soul. It still does. Of course, I was always delighted to “help” the kids with their school projects too. I am willing to admit now, many years later and hopefully after the Statute of Limitations has run on parental indiscretions, that I may have been a little too involved, perhaps a bit too heavy-handed, in some of their school projects, especially those that required a “crafty” touch.
Nevertheless, the kids have turned out just great. They are empathetic and kind, determined and hardworking. Katie is 26 and a fourth-year student at Chicago Medical School; she wants to be a pediatrician. We have cherished the gift of having her so close the last few years. Our son Josh, 22, graduated from Harvard this past May, where he studied Applied Mathematics and rowed on the Varsity Lightweight Crew all four years, and is now working in New York. Katie and Josh have brought immeasurable joy, happiness, and meaning into our lives and we could not be prouder of them.
When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?
After Katie left for college, Josh began high school and started to row on his high school’s crew team. He was out of the house from 7 am to 7 pm almost every day and it was then that I realized I needed to start thinking more seriously about what I was going to do after he went to college. I was so involved with the kids’ lives that I lost myself a little bit. So, when I really began to examine next steps, it seemed natural for me to focus on something artistic. I had already started experimenting with using Swarovski crystals on brightly colored fruit and vegetable labels and was excited about the possibility of extending this to vintage posters and photographs.
During that period, my mom’s health was slowly declining. When it came to my art and so much more, my mom was my greatest fan and very much believed in me. I would share my new work with her and always valued her thoughtful, artistic input. She loved what I was creating with the Swarovski crystals and encouraged me to continue my work, develop new techniques and take more creative risks.
The year that Josh left for college, while adjusting to an empty nest, my mom’s health really started to fail. Of course, my dad, too, was suffering as he devotedly cared for her. At the end of Josh’s first year of college, after an extremely tumultuous and emotional year for all of us, my mom passed away, a loss from which I am still recovering. The years before and after losing my mom were easily the most difficult time in my life. As I often do when in crisis, I went underground and mostly grieved in silence. I was in a very reflective, sad, and, at times, lonely place. My primary sanctuary during this painful period was my studio. Quietly working on my art was very therapeutic and one of the few things that comforted me during that time. To this day, I feel closest to my mom when I am working in my studio.
What is your next act?
I am an artist who creates unique, one-of-a-kind pieces of art enhanced with thousands of Swarovski crystals. I am often asked how I started on this path. Simply stated, I always loved colorful vintage posters and antique fruit and vegetable labels. In addition, I have always been drawn to the sparkling qualities of glass crystals. One day, while the kids were at school, I decided to enhance one of the fruit labels with some beautiful Swarovski crystals that I had left over from another project. The results were dazzling, adding interest, dimension, and depth to the underlying work. I knew right away that I was onto something unique.
Soon after, at the age of 54, I launched NIK Crystal Art Studios. NIK are my maiden name initials, Nancy Ilene Kaplan. I use the highest quality Swarovski flatback crystals from Austria, available in over 120 colors and various shapes and sizes, to enhance each piece. Each individual crystal is like a precious jewel, and the effect of many crystals together is absolutely radiant. Anywhere from 1,000 to 25,000 crystals per work are meticulously hand-applied with tools that I have specially designed for this purpose. When complete, the radiance and brilliance of the Swarovski crystals help to bring the image to life, shimmering as it captures and reflects the light.
When I first started, I used larger crystals and mostly worked on vintage food and travel posters. I made pieces for our home and gave them away as gifts to friends. My first commissioned piece was a large, retro-style, Chicago Lake Michigan travel poster that I created for some dear friends who were building a home on the lake. Next, I was so happy to make a playful vintage poster for one my closest friends on her Birthday. That same friend, along with several others, commissioned me to create pieces for themselves or as gifts for others. Early on, I worked on some very cool rock and roll posters that, to this day, are among my favorites.
As the process evolved, I started to use smaller and smaller crystals, some barely larger than a poppy seed, because they allow me more freedom to create greater depth, detail, and shading. I then extended this process to larger, more intricate vintage posters, geometrics, and now photographs. I have developed a technique that effectively allows me to turn someone’s personal photographs into one-of-a-kind pieces of art and it has opened up a whole new dimension to my work. Earlier this year, I finished my most ambitious piece yet, a custom black and white photograph, featuring 24,000 crystals, that will soon be installed at a museum located outside of Florence, Italy.
Now, I am almost exclusively working on custom pieces, each one unique and challenging in its own way. I really enjoy every stage of the process. The initial stages are interactive as my client and I develop the idea and select the perfect image or poster for the space in mind. Once we have selected a poster or photograph, I order crystals and get to work with the crystal application process. Pieces can take anywhere from a month to six months to complete.
This past year, I travelled to Europe and was thrilled to visit the gorgeous Tyrolean village of Wattens, Austria, headquarters of Swarovski Crystals and site of Swarovski Crystal World. There, artists from across the globe have created rooms filled with fascinating and unique interpretations of crystals, all guarded by a whimsical “giant” carved out of a hill surrounding the factory. It was an amazing and inspiring day that I will remember always.
My newest piece began with a stunning photograph of a beautiful couple on their wedding day, and is another good example of a personal photograph being transformed into a special piece of art. The bride wore a gorgeous gown that was adorned with countless Swarovski crystals. Hoping to capture the flow and essence of her gown, I used nearly 2,000 very small crystals so that, much like her actual gown, the finished piece sparkles as it captures and reflects light. I was so honored to work on this piece. It was such a joyful project and I loved exchanging ideas with my client throughout!
How supportive were your family and friends?
My family and friends encouraged me from the very beginning to pursue this next act and have been extraordinarily generous in their support of my work. A number of close friends were the first to commission me to do custom pieces and even now, I am working on pieces for dear friends. Facebook friends and Instagram followers have been equally generous with their messages of love and support that have meant so much to me. Throughout, Mike, Katie and Josh have been my biggest cheerleaders. I am so grateful for the tremendous support from family and friends.
What challenges did you or are you encountering?
I work on my own in my home studio. Often, especially when working with tiny crystals, it requires a great deal of concentration. Much of the time, when I am in the zone, I am perfectly content to be working quietly in my studio for hours on end. However, sometimes, I feel lonely and isolated. While Kona, our sweet, Petite Goldendoodle, is amazing company, there’s no substitute for human interaction and sometimes spending so much time on my own really gets to me. That’s why I so enjoy the initial stages of the process when I am meeting with prospective clients and developing ideas. I am also finding that the creative process is far more interactive when I am doing photographs. Usually, once the crystal application process begins, much of my time is alone. This can be very challenging at times. I am working on ways to address this including looking into shared studio space and dedicating time each week to get out, reach out to friends, and stay connected.
Another big challenge that has been difficult for me to overcome is marketing and promotion. While I am so proud of what I have created, I haven’t done a very good job of promoting my work outside my circle. Maybe it’s about fear of exposing myself and being vulnerable. Maybe for so long I always put the kids’ interests and pursuits ahead of my own, so now it is hard for me to put mine front and center. Maybe I just need someone to help me navigate the nuances of social media and the art world. Regardless, I am making greater efforts to share and promote my work. Having said that, I recognize that I still have a way to go in that regard.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
It may sound elementary, but I realized that I have always been drawn to the creative process. I am really at my happiest, calmest, most purely and fully contented when I am with family and friends and when I am creating something. Tapping into my creative side really centers and grounds me. It adds extra meaning to my world, helping me to feel more joyful and fulfilled.
This whole journey of creating a second act as well as putting my thoughts together for this interview has been an enlightening process of introspection, rediscovery, healing, and renewal. I realize now that the loss of my mom compounded by adjusting to an empty nest, left me fragile and struggling. It was a seismic shift in my world whose aftershocks I felt for a long time. I sought refuge in my art and was lucky to have the support of wonderful friends and family. I believe that I have come out the other side of this process renewed and feeling so much more like myself again. I am stronger, more resilient, and am seeing things with greater clarity. I came away with a deeper understanding of myself, a greater appreciation for what is really important, and a profound gratitude for all the blessings in my life.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
Honestly, not very much. As torn as we were, moving to Chicago to raise our family was absolutely the right decision for us. Having family in the area as we raised our kids has been a gift and we all treasure those special relationships.
Additionally, I have no regrets about going to law school. The education has been invaluable on so many levels. I probably should have spent more time looking inward and questioning my post-college path, but I didn’t. And that’s just fine. I am happy with how everything has turned out and the lessons I learned along the way.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
My advice is not particularly sage or inspiring but it’s from my heart: Do what you love! The trickier part of the analysis is identifying your passion and then taking action. Ask yourself what brings you calm and what nourishes your soul. What adds meaning to your world? What makes you feel good when you are doing it and fulfilled when you are done? Identify that and tailor your direction around it. Then, listen to your intuition and follow your heart. Finally, cultivate and nurture your relationships with your girlfriends. Seek support from, and give support to, each of them and lift each other up. Women supporting women is so powerful and has been such a significant and important part of my journey.
What advice and resources do you have for would-be artists?
Embrace it! Believe in yourself and your talents! Take risks! Act now!
Art, Inc.: The Essential Guide for Building Your Career as an Artist (Art Books, Gifts for Artists, Learn The Artist’s Way of Thinking) by Lisa Congdon
Crafting As A Business by Wendy Rosen
Taking the Leap: Building a Career as a Visual Artist by Cay Lang
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield
Swarovski: Celebrating a History of Collaborations in Fashion, Jewelry, Performance, and Design by Deborah Landis and Vivienne Becker. This is a gorgeous “Coffee Table” book that celebrates the history of Swarovski through stunning photographs.
Recently, I have been working with more and more photographs. Often, the photos that I use need to be edited before they are printed. I originally used Photoshop but, without any real training, it was hard for me. In addition, the subscription pricing really adds up over time. I wanted a program to use with my Apple products, and was so happy to discover Affinity Photo. It can be purchased online (at the App Store) for a one-time reasonable price. It is a very user-friendly and powerful program and has saved me hundreds of dollars in subscription fees. They have excellent online help forums and video tutorials as well. For graphic artists and designers, they have a companion program called Affinity Designer that I use too. I highly recommend their products for both professional and casual users.
Finally, I attended a private one-on-one workshop with Susan Blackman from Art Advisory Ltd . Susan is an established Art Advisor who has 30+ years of experience in the art world. I took her 2-hour Business Development Seminar where we discussed my goals and she helped me establish priorities and set forth an action plan. It was very helpful when I was first getting started and I probably could use a refresher course now.
What’s next for you?
Generally speaking, I want to continue to evolve as an artist and a person.
From an artistic standpoint, I am considering applying to a local art fair as a way of reaching more people. In general, I want to take my work to the next level, always challenging myself by taking greater risks, thinking outside the box and developing new, innovative techniques. I would like to extend those techniques to original art/photographs and explore other applications for my work. To me, that would be the most meaningful way to honor my mother.
On a more personal level, I want to let go and live in the moment, always let family and friends know how much they are loved, and, perhaps most important, focus on gratitude. In addition, Mike and I want to spend more time giving back to our community and traveling. We want to take some dance lessons and we will likely start to spend more time back in the outdoors, where we will continue our adventure. We are even talking about renting an RV for an extended tour of our National Parks! Ultimately, where we physically end up in our next chapter is going to be largely dependent on where the kids’ paths lead them. We are excited to embark on that next adventure with them.
Finally, I have a couple of other creative projects bouncing around in my head that I am thinking about pursuing. A very long time ago, before the kids were even born, I wrote a poem “The Passover Story in All Its Glory!” which tells the story of Passover in verse. I have always wanted to turn it into a children’s book and donate the profits to charity. I also have an idea for a new dessert product that I may explore down the line. For now, though, I am perfectly content to focus on my art!
Connect with Nancy Kaplan Kuppersmith
Email address: email@example.com
Vimeo Link to Florence Scene Evolution
Vimeo link to Wedding Evolution