Melissa Merli visits with artist Nick Cragoe.
Q: Your last name is interesting. Is it Irish or Celtic?
A: To my knowledge, it's Celtic and it comes from the Celtic word, creas, which means stone. My Cragoes came from the cliff area of western Cornwall.
Q: When and why did you start making Celtic art?
A: People always ask me that. The first question is easy. I started making it when I was in high school. Why? I have been trying to figure it out, and I honestly can't remember. There's something that I always really liked about the geometric nature of Celtic design. It's very therapeutic and meditative to work on.
Q: Your work is finely detailed and complex. Is it all done with one line?
A: It depends on the piece. Some are single-line knot-work pieces. Most of these, if not all, are multiline knots. Usually I'll start with a general shape or outline that I want to fill in. For example, this piece ("Veritas and Candidas"), which is in the style of ancient Celtic manuscript art, tends to be very free form. So I create my section with pencil first and fill it in with pencil and then go over it with ink, and then I paint, mostly with acrylic and gouache. I'm fairly new to painting, so I'm sticking with the basic paints. I also use some metallic acrylic, and I recently started working with silver leaf and gold leaf.
Q: What kind of ink pens do you use?
A: They're mostly incredibly fine-tipped illustrator's pens I buy online.
Q: Your work looks like it requires a lot of concentration and time.
A: It does. That's actually one of the things I like best about it. It takes all my concentration. Even though I'm in a position to take in what's going on around me when I'm working on an art piece, I'm not in a good position to respond to my environment. One of the things that's distinctive about Celtic and Norse art, even though it's extremely complex, is it operates on a pretty limited set of repeating patterns and motifs. And so the complexity comes from the geometric precision more than the complicated symbology. So that's the main reason it's so meditative.
Q: How much time do you spend on a piece?
A: It varies widely with the pieces I have here. Not counting the really small ones, anywhere from 10 hours up to 80 hours to complete.
Q: You must have steady hands.
A: Actually, that's one funny thing. I actually have very shaky hands. That's why for a long time I worked exclusively with ballpoint pens because they allow you to go over little mistakes made by a shaky hand.
Q: How long have you been living in Champaign?
A: We've been living here since 2011. I just finished my second year in the Ph.D. program in sociology at the university. My wife (Caitlin Lill) works at the Anita Purves Nature Center here in Urbana.
Q: Do you make any other kind of art?
A: My sister is an illustrator, and she advised me to start putting my art onto things rather than just making wall pieces. So I make jewelry and bookmarks, and I'm working on carvings. It turned out to be excellent advice. I don't think I sold more than two pieces of art in my life before she told me that. I still haven't made a profit, but that wasn't the point. This was always a hobby for me; it's rather strange for me to have a gallery showing.
Editor's note: Cragoe's work will be on display through May 25 at the Heartland Gallery, 112 W. Main St., U. To see his art online, visit one-rook.deviantart.com. He also has a blog at freehandcelt.blogspot.com.