words: Tonya McCoy images: Marla Cantrell
“Shhh-shh, shhh-shh.” That’s the sound Dominique Palucis’ mom hears when her daughter’s pencil touches canvas. Dominique, who goes by Nikki, is twelve years old and her age surprises everyone who sees her art.
Nikki and her mother are in the kitchen, at their home in Ratcliff, Arkansas, on a summer evening after school in August 2016. Reds, purples, greens and various hues dropped from her brush, splotch her once-white apron. Her earphones are on, and she’s listening to the Andrews Sisters’ song from the fifties, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” She listens to jazz or classical while painting. Nikki dances as she works. She paints at night because that’s when she feels most creative.
Her mother Sylvia says, “She’s going to ruin her eyes, I keep telling her. She paints in the dark.” Her stepfather John Drewry laughs, “Oh, that’s an old wives’ tale.”
Nikki’s subject is the late actress Marilyn Monroe. Nikki has chosen her because she’s beautiful and always smiling. She thinks to herself, Marilyn’s life couldn’t have been that great all the time. She wonders what she might look like with a serious expression, so that’s what she sketches. After Nikki draws her face, she has another creative idea. She adds light shades of pink, blue, green and yellow to her face.
At first, her mom isn’t so sure of the non-traditional take on Marilyn, particularly the colors, “I said, ‘What are you doing?’” Sylvia thinks perhaps her daughter has made a mistake, but Nikki replies with a smile, “No, that’s art, Mommy.” This is her quickest work yet; she finishes in only four hours.
Last September, Nikki decided to enter her Marilyn piece at the Home Economics Exhibit of the South Franklin County Fair. Most county fairs have this competition and an artist can enter one work of art for each category. The categories are divided by the medium the artist uses – by charcoal pencil or acrylic paint, for example. The names on the pieces are covered so the judging is unbiased.
Along with her Marilyn, Nikki entered a black and white painting of singer/songwriter Lyle Lovett, which she’d worked on for about a month, the longest she’s taken on any project. To her surprise, they both won first-place ribbons along with three others: a sketch of characters from her favorite book Little Women, a drawing that depicts a girl with a bird, and a cat painted on a grid. “I didn’t think they were good because there were other paintings better than mine. I thought, I’m not good, I’m not going to win.”
He stepfather John says, “She’s very critical of herself. And I tell her she’s the only one that sees a mistake. I don’t see it, nobody else sees it, but she knows if one line is off one hundredth of an inch.”
Nikki then entered the Crawford County Fair. Sylvia says the judges tried to guess the artist’s age by looking at Nikki’s work, and they thought she must be at least seventeen. They were surprised to learn that someone so young showed such skill, and made her promise to enter again. Nikki won blue ribbons and top awards for her Marilyn, Lyle Lovett, and four other entries.
From there, Nikki wanted to try her luck on a larger scale at the Arkansas Oklahoma State Fair, in Fort Smith. She missed pre-registration, so she was only allowed to enter her Marilyn Monroe. After the judges were finished, Nikki and her mom couldn’t spot her painting anywhere. Sylvia remembers saying, “Oh Nikki, I don’t think you won, because it’s not here. We were just so disappointed, and then Nikki said, ‘Mommy, Marilyn’s right there. It’s the grand prize.’” It won two Grand Champion awards.
Then the Arkansas State Fair in Little Rock allowed her to enter the Marilyn painting and eight other works. This time her Marilyn received a first-place ribbon instead of the top prize. However, her drawing of the girl and the bird, and her charcoal drawing of her school mascot, an Indian, both won Best in Show. She also received ribbons for several other entries in various categories.
What makes all this impressive is she’s never had one art lesson. She taught herself through trial and error and an occasional YouTube video when she couldn’t quite figure out a technique.
She uses everything from pencils and pens to charcoal and paints. She enjoys using a palette knife which is a versatile tool resembling a butter knife. Nikki uses it to paint thick or thin, or even to scrape paint from the canvas. She knows how to add shadow, create depth, and even how to blur colors to show movement.
Sylvia says Nikki’s interest in art began when she was three, when she tried to copy a picture of The Little Mermaid from a placemat. This was when she lived 8,000 miles and half a world away in the Philippines. Nikki spent most of her childhood there. When Nikki was just a baby her birth mother gave her up for adoption, leaving her at a clinic in Manila. Her mother only asked that they find a loving family for Nikki, and luckily the doctors did. Sylvia Palucis, who also lived on the main island, and her late husband Edward Palucis, adopted Nikki. She was their fourth adopted child.
Sadly, Nikki’s adopted father Edward became ill and passed away in 2006 when Nikki was only two. Sylvia says that Nikki called him Dad for the first time the night before he passed away. She says hearing those words from Nikki made him so happy. Edward told Sylvia before passing, “I wish I could still be alive to take Nikki to her first day of school when she goes to nursery school.”
Sylvia made sure that Nikki attended good private schools, paid for through the benefits she received from her late husband. But Sylvia knew that Nikki would have better opportunities in America, so when Nikki was ten, Sylvia moved her to the states.
Here in Arkansas, she’s already enjoyed some opportunities thanks to her art. Over the summer she painted a mural for the Charleston Public Library and displayed her works in an art show.
Nikki doesn’t know what the future holds, but she wants to try sculpting one day. And she wants to become an architect so she can design and build her own dream home. She may be a little shy, but her paintings give her a voice and she’s full of creativity, and she’s not afraid to try. Her stepfather says it’s “God-given talent.” Nikki can’t quite explain how she does what she does best: “While I paint, I just, I don’t know what to put on that canvas, and I just start thinking, and I put something there, and then it just comes out.”