How a Seattle woman made a career out of sculpting colorful pasta art
Sun., Jan. 16, 2022
Linda Miller Nicholson once constructed kitchen cabinets partially made of pasta for supermodel Gigi Hadid.
The cabinets separating the kitchen and living room of Hadid’s Manhattan penthouse are brimming with dried orange and blue farfalle, bird’s nests of red tagliatelle and green garganelli, which you can see through the transparent cabinet doors. To complete the project, Nicholson flew from Seattle to New York with 70 pounds of pasta in her suitcase.
Nicholson’s Instagram account, @saltyseattle, which has almost 300,000 followers, features images of multicolored dinosaurs made of pasta, unicorns made of pasta, roses made of pasta and even pasta portraits of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Breonna Taylor. Nicholson creates these colors by blending brightly colored plants into the dough.
“You name it, and I’ve pasta-ed it,” Nicholson said on a recent Wednesday morning while kneading a ball of orange pasta dough at her studio east of Seattle … “I will pasta anything under the sun.”
After forays into fashion design as a teenager and creative writing in college, Nicholson found her artistic medium in pasta, a food with which she’s had a lifelong love affair. With a book, “Pasta, Pretty Please: A Vibrant Approach to Handmade Noodles,” in-person and online workshops and various brand partnerships, Nicholson has also turned pasta art into her career.
Becoming a pasta artist
Nicholson first made pasta when she was four years old. Back then, she lived in rural Idaho but spent a few months each year with her grandparents in California.
That’s where her grandparents helped her roll out her first sheet of pasta with a wine bottle (they didn’t have a pasta sheeter or a rolling pin). It was her favorite thing she learned that summer, and Nicholson made pasta at least once a week for the rest of her childhood.
As she got older, she worked in restaurants and says she always thought “making a career out of food would be amazing,” but was turned off by the rough working conditions. At the same time, she became interested in art.
“I always thought I was an artist,” Nicholson says. “I don’t think anyone else did.”
As a teenager, she designed and sewed her own clothes. Nicholson wanted to go to college for fashion design, but her parents didn’t support her decision. She wound up getting a creative writing degree with the plan of becoming a teacher.
Nicholson got her master’s in education remotely while living in the Piedmont region of Italy with her boyfriend at the time. But while she was student-teaching there, she realized she hated the constraints of curriculum and didn’t want to be a teacher. In her free time, she obsessed over local pasta shapes and learned about pasta making from anybody who’d teach her.
When Nicholson moved back to the U.S., she dabbled in freelance journalism and flipped a few houses in the Seattle area. Her friend Patrick Stephens, who lived down the block from one of these houses, recalls Nicholson hosting dinner parties where she’d make pasta from scratch for a dozen people.
She had a son during the same time, Bentley Danger Nicholson, who like many kids, went through a picky phase. His favorite food was pasta.
To get him to eat vegetables, she started blending them into the pasta dough. After some experimenting, she was halfway to a rainbow. She decided to take it all the way and started posting pictures of pasta of every color of the rainbow on social media.
Eventually, she caught the attention of Cassie Jones Morgan, an editor at HarperCollins. She told Nicholson, “You have to turn this idea into a book. If you don’t do this, somebody else will.”
Nicholson was filled with self-doubt. She’d never worked as a chef, and she was mostly self-taught. She was also disappointed with her artistic development.
“I always lamented that I didn’t have a medium that I was really great at,” she says.
But after a while, Nicholson realized she really was an expert. She’d been making pasta since she was four years old, and she’d been an artist for years. Nicholson signed the book deal in 2016, and it was published two years later.
As she worked on the book, she posted pictures of her projects on social media. Her Instagram blew up. And at the same time, she realized she’d had an artistic medium all along. Nicholson was a pasta artist.
“I realized, ‘oh, my God, I do have artistic dexterity,’ it just isn’t something that involves holding a pen and paper or paintbrush.”
Since the book came out, Nicholson has become a minor celebrity. There are articles about her in dozens of national publications like People and Saveur. She leads corporate team building workshops for large companies like Microsoft. And she’s the current artist-in-residence for the Italian food chain Eataly.
Anatomy of rainbow pasta
At Nicholson’s studio in Fall City one December morning – a converted garage with counters and shelves filled with pasta equipment – Nicholson finishes kneading the orange ball of pasta dough and lays it next to others covered in plastic wrap: red, purple, blue, green and yellow.
She’s wearing blue, flared jeans with a rainbow arched across the back. Her gray T-shirt has a rainbow on the front. There are even rainbows on the heels of her black slippers.
“I’ve always been really drawn to color,” Nicholson says. “I’m also very pro-LGBTQIA rights.”
Nicholson is straight and cisgender, but her family was close with many gay men during her childhood. Her mother also wrote a dissertation on HIV during the AIDS epidemic when Nicholson was 6. She says she drew parallels between the persecution gay men faced during this time and the racism her multiracial family endured while living in rural Idaho (her mother is Black, and her father is white). So although a lot of her pasta art is pure fun, it’s also sometimes political.
In the caption for her Breonna Taylor pasta portrait post on Instagram from August 2020, she wrote: “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor.” And much of her pasta art is filled with symbols of LGBTQ+ pride.
At the studio, Nicholson is making a rainbow pinwheel of tortellini. She says her favorite hashtag is #pride365, meaning that allyship for the LGBTQ+ community shouldn’t be limited to Pride Month (June).
To make the pinwheel, Nicholson runs the balls of rainbow-colored dough through the pasta maker to make sheets and cuts the sheets into squares. She places a dollop of filling (ricotta and Parmigiano-Reggiano) on each square, then folds them into tortellini that link together, eventually forming a full wheel.
Though the rainbow pasta and clothes match Nicholson’s personality, she says she also uses them to signal her values.
“If people can’t handle the rainbow, then I don’t need them in my life.”
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