erica nickol

Erica Nickol is a sculptor who finds her inspiration in precariousness, fragility, and tension.  She is interested in the capacity that visual representations of these forces have to physically resonate with us.  Nickol creates sculptures that combine porcelain with found objects and steel, wire, rope, and wood. She uses the contradiction of the precious, often translucent porcelain with the detritus found in America’s rust belt to tell her narrative.  After obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, in 2005, Nickol completed a Master of Fine Arts in Ceramics from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia in 2011.  From 2005 through 2013, Nickol practiced architecture, instructed art classes, was a visiting artist at the University of Central Arkansas and completed an artist residency at the Union Project in Pittsburgh.  Her work has been included in solo and group exhibitions around the country and Nickol lives and works just across the river from Cincinnati in Bellevue, Kentucky and enjoys spending time with her husband and young sons.

Porcelain is her primary medium.  In its range of density—from solid and burdensome to airy and light—she finds something particularly human.  It can suggest the weight of corporeality as effectively as it captures the translucence of spiritual experience.  Through the firing process, Nickol is able to preserve, and even amplify the human gesture that her sculpture takes on during its creation.  The result is a distilled act, or sensory moment that her audience can participate in.


Five-Dots: How long have you been in this studio?

Erica Nickol: A little under two years. We moved into the house in April of 2016, but we didn’t get it up and running until mid summer of that year. I think I had another deadline, and I needed the space and it put a bit of a fire under me to get it up and running. 

I was without a workspace for a year and a half when we first moved here. I also had a new baby at that time, and it took a toll on me to not be working at all for that year or so. It was a big deal to be able to get this space cleared out and up and running; even though it still isn't quite ready yet. We have installed some lights, and we just finished replacing the windows, which of course was helpful. We need to draw a new electric line in order for me to have an operational kiln, that will be a huge help. 

F-D: When you moved in here, did you have an idea for how you wanted to lay it out or did it develop organically?

EN: Organically because there was already so much here. All the furniture that you see,  was here already. The original owner of the house was a carpenter and built this as his workshop. He built in all of these custom nooks, cabinets, and other details to suit his needs. 

F-D: Has the location of the studio (i.e the neighborhood, city, building etc) influenced your work in any way?

EN: Working from home has absolutely effected my work. I have two young boys, and I am the primary caretaker for them. I only have in between three and ten hours of childcare available a week. Which means most of my labor in the studio happens at night or over the weekend. Living in Bellevue [Kentucky neighborhood located on the river, directly across from Cincinnati]  is also great, a lot of artists live over here and they’re supportive and helpful. The aesthetic of the neighborhood appeals to me as well. There are a lot of old houses with a lot of character. It’s also very affordable. We wouldn’t be able to afford this house / detached garage/studio in most parts of the country.

F-D: Can you describe a typical day for yourself, inside the studio and out?

EN: My sons are two and four years old. I typically have childcare on Mondays and / or Wednesdays. Three days of the week my oldest goes to school in the morning and then I hang with the little one. If I’m able to have a sitter, who happens to be my cousin (which is wonderful, it’s great to have someone that you can trust like that available to watch your kids) I’ll run to Core Clay in Walnut Hills if I need to buy supplies or get things fired. If I’m not on a deadline, then I’ll wander around and look for these types of old tools and found objects I use for my sculptures before hitting my studio.  If I have a deadline, then I’ll come straight out here to my studio after the kids are settled.  I have some simple making tasks I can do to make a mental shift from Mom to artist, and then I’ll just dive in.  I try to leave something unfinished every time I leave the studio so that I know what I am going to begin with the next time I arrive to the studio. I generally leave the larger, perhaps more exploratory work for the evenings when I’m done with my mom duties. I can just get fully into what I’m doing. 

Having the kids means that I don’t have a regular schedule where I can come in and work for eight hours several days a week. I do it when I can, when things are flexible— there is an ebb and flow to my weeks. If I have a deadline, then things around the house start to be a lower priority, and maybe I get less sleep than I should. Other weeks I focus on my kids. I’m beginning to learn to accept that flow, and know that it’s always going to change.


F-D: How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?

EN: Intuitive. I just try to go with where I’m at. I’ll think about emotional things. What I’m thinking about always influences what’s going on in the work. There are times when I finish a piece and then look back on it and think, “Oh, man. . . That is so literal!” For me at the time of making, it isn’t as apparent. There is one piece that consists of three porcelain “bodies” with a rope that is pulled through their center with a porcelain piece tied to the end of it pulling the rope tight and linking them all together. I made that right after I had my first baby [laughs] and of course, it’s an umbilical cord. You know, I had all those thoughts that women artists have: “Who am I now? What am I going to do with my life and my practice?! I’m forever tied to these people!” At the time you don’t have the foresight to see why you’re doing it. You’re just doing it. You’re just making this thing. That can be fun, and embarrassing because it’s such a physical portrayal of private feelings. 

In addition to emotions, I think a lot about movement: how we move and use our bodies and how they express our feelings. I love watching modern ballet, it’s been a big influence of mine. It’s just wonderful how expressive one movement can be.

By hanging the porcelain to dry, I can use gravity to create a kind of tension in the piece.  That tension that I'm working with, is a tension that's perhaps a representation of tension in moments from my own experience. I think about experiences that friends, people I have heard of, and myself have had. It can be about something that’s happening out in the world or something personal. Whatever it is, I can get caught up in it. I can really use those emotions to direct me and take the work in a specific direction. 

F-D: Is there a theme in these experiences that you tend to pull from?

EN: It really depends on my mood, but often times I find myself considering what people can survive. I often find that sense of strength really coming through in the end product; because the porcelain can be pushed to its limit but then it hardens. It’s very fragile, but it’s strong. 

F-D: There’s perhaps a limitation of something?

EN: Yes, that relationship between the strength and tension in the porcelain, and in people, tends to influence me. I think about tension a lot. One of the ideas that I picked up when I was studying in grad school was proprioception. In University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where I attended graduate studies, there was a dance program and just the way the dancers moved around outside of class was fascinating to watch. I began thinking a lot about creating the opportunity for my audience to have a physical reaction. Being able to freeze a movement, moment, or expression and then revisit it in the work is important to me. Chew on it. Reflect on it, and see where the moment takes the piece. 

These rectangular pieces are a much different study— they're more of an architectural form. It’s a very different style of working compared to these hanging works. This process is very meticulous and will go through many stages of removal and evening out and smoothing. One of the unique things about porcelain is the idea that you can really push it to its highest heating point, and I use that to my advantage. I may prop it up in the kiln and then the two ends will slump and it exaggerates that curve. There is a lot of failure because you don’t know what you're going to get; but when it’s good it’s really good. 

F-D: Is that failure something that is appealing to you or is it a struggle?

EN: It must be appealing because porcelain is known to be pretty tumultuous. It’s like a bad relationship. It’s saying all the right things: it gives you beautiful results, then you have a lot of failures and it really screws you over, and then it’s promising to be lovely and magical again and you go back and it’s so good.  But inevitably, it will fail you again. I think that that is an interesting constraint to work around: I rarely have a full idea of what something will be, I work intuitively. Then I fire it all. Some of these, here, have been fired. Then I work with those pieces and incorporate a lot of steel, rope, wire, and wood. I have my piles of collected things over here and then I’ll typically hang the ones that I’m really wanting to use. Then, most often, if I have an idea for something specifically, it might not work. The point is that, it usually ends up working in some other way, some round about way where I discover something in the process. Or sometimes the piece works, but it isn’t what I thought it was going to be. It changed somewhere. When clay gets fired it has a complete cellular change; you can’t be too attached to anything before placing it in the kiln. If you think it’s perfect, you’ll probably hate it when it comes out. 

F-D: I know that a lot of the tools that you have for the purpose of incorporating into your work are pieces of old farm equipment. Is that of any significance to you, or is that just a matter of coincidence?

EN: No, I’m more attracted to the rusty, wooden, old, worn down aesthetic. Especially in juxtaposition to the clean, white, translucent and fragile aspects of the porcelain. My location becomes pretty relevant, too. Being in Pittsburgh, and then Cincinnati, I have access to a lot of older warehouse type buildings that are being torn down and these old things are extracted before that happens. I try to take advantage of that and go find pieces that are interesting to me. The porcelain always ends up being my bodies and the steel objects are the things that I use to place the body in a situation. 


F-D: What mediums do you work with?

EN: Porcelain, both porcelain slip and clay body, and found materials: wood, rope, wire, steel. One day when my kids are older, I’d like to learn blacksmithing so that I can create my own forms and shapes and not rely on finding things that fit into what I have in mind. Then of course there is drawing. I take fabric and dip it in the porcelain slip, pull it out, and then sculpt it. What I found in this process is that you have a very limited amount of time to work before it gets too tacky. I’ve also began hanging the pieces to dry, that way I don’t have a flat spot on the piece, there is no “bottom”. In my earlier work I kept coming to that flat spot and it was bothering me. So I usually tie up some various workspaces so that I can hang them to dry.

F-D: Can you tell us about your process and how it has evolved?

EN: When I went to graduate school I thought that I was going to make  beautiful Art Nouveau style functional objects. I thought I would make vases, and lovely practical objects with nuance and detail and slip trailing. Then I finally began classes and they just kept emphasizing for us to “get out of our zone”. I hated it. Then during that first summer I began to think that it would be alright if I worked to create something outside of my comfort zone. I tried a lot of different things that eventually led me to the idea that I didn’t need a flat part of the object. I could use gravity and I could place things in the kiln that would exaggerate or accentuate the forms. It was a ah-ha moment. From there it was, “O.K., how else can I use this?” Then it was adding slip, it was making molds, I could dip stuff in the slip. . . I began experimenting with fabric and dipping that. Then it was finding a material that could assist in building a skeletal structure or support for the pieces while they were being worked on {and I could pull out before they were fired.}. I feel like there is always a new idea and a new point at which to pivot. 

For some of these larger works, I had a form that I built up on a pole sticking out of a concrete block.  Then I wrapped the pieces of slip dipped fabric, and then after about half an hour of assembling, I’ll begin adding slip over it. That way I can build up the form and give it some weight. It usually is all worked out within an hour, because I have to work so quickly before the clay gets tacky and you begin to start seeing finger prints. It’s almost leathery in texture which is super surprising.  Then when it is dry enough, I remove the pole and break out the interior clay skeleton so just the slip soaked fabric remains.

I’ve always kept sketchbooks, and now with the boys, the sketchbook is even more important. I can work through ideas when one is taking a nap and the other is occupied with something. I like to absorb other artists’ work as much as I can, and both of those things become really practical when I arrive to the studio and am delayed on an idea. I can look back and think, “Oh, I had this idea and never went through with it. How can I make this shape or form?” I can generally start off smoothly when I’m at that point. 

For a while I was trying to take advantage of porcelain’s translucency. It’s one of its greatest properties; but I think that’s why I began using fabric— so that I could actually sculpt with it, because of how thin it is. I lose a lot, I have a high loss rate because when the fabric burns out, you don’t know if the clay connections are solid enough to keep it from crumbling.

F-D: Do you work with narratives, plot, or a general progressive ideas?

EN: That often happens after I’ve made the porcelain pieces and I’m assembling them with the found objects. That’s when that narrative usually starts to form for me. It’s different every time, but that moment of assemblage is usually when that happens for me. It also occurs when I’m titling work. I made a piece that was due to a gallery around the beginning of 2017, and I was thinking about women and our place in society right now— sometimes feminist philosophies percolate through what I’m making—especially in regards to contemporary events and what not. Overall I'd say that oppression, ‘rising above’ , and survival are themes that seem to keep coming back to me in my work; they just always come back in new ways.


F-D: Do you consider your work to be autobiographical at all; does personal history work its way into your making?

EN: Sure, subconsciously. When I’m making it there is something that’s pulled from myself. It’s not something I’m focusing on or working towards within my work. It just kind of happens organically. 

F-D: What influences outside the visual arts inspire and impact your approach to making work?

EN: Personal connectedness between people and how that’s a huge part of what makes people who they are. Conflicts, tension, stories, music. . . I guess I don’t think about it too much. There is plenty of things that cross my path, but I don’t actively absorb them in a specific way. 

F-D: What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?

EN: This space definitely took some working and reworking to figure out where I wanted to place everything. Just having a nice large space and getting all of the garage stuff out of here helped for sure. I think having your own space is important. I’ve worked in community spaces, and I fire in them, usually, and they’re great assets for communities to have. For me, personally, I can’t make the work that I’m trying to make when there are other people around. It’s too emotional for me and I feel too self conscious. Having a space of my own really opens me up creatively. I have a hard time making myself fully comfortable in the way that I need to be when others are around. 

F-D: Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?

EN: Clay is having a real moment right now, and it’s leading a lot of people without academic training in the material to be attracted to it. They’re doing things that normally wouldn’t be done if they had that background, and I think it’s leading to some interesting turning points in the medium. It’s leading me to think, “Oh! Well, what can I do? How can I push this material?” Some people aren't even firing the clay. They are just letting it dry and deteriorate. There are just so many ways that it can go. It’s an exciting time in ceramics, that’s for sure. 

In regards to artist peers;  I would not consider these my peers in that I know them or have a relationship with most of them, but perhaps, they are people whose art I follow and feel connected to, frequently get ideas to try new things from, and am continually amazed at their creative potential are Berlinde de Bruyckere, Ivana BasicClare TwomeyLauren GallaspyPhoebe CummingsArlene ScechetTsubusa Kato, and of course my mentor Ed Eberle. He was the one that got me thinking about the soul of the work and the soul of the artist and the inner person and this track of introspection that leads to more intuitive work. In addition I have many artist/designer peers who are good friends that we share ideas and technical questions, work life balance questions, mothering and art making challenges, etc.. Especially Jenna Vanden Brink, a ceramic artist, Karla Schweer, graphic designer, and my sister Tricia Gargari, an architect.  These connections are vital to my mental health and happiness.

F-D: Do you have a motto or creed that as an artist you live by?

EN: When I was struggling with the attempt at making conceptual work, my mentor (Ed) told me that I just needed to start making. Stop thinking and just start making. You don’t have to justify what you are doing. That has been a big thing for me. If I begin to fall into the trap of perfection, I can think about that and just work. Just do it. I read something recently that said that “if you are making work, you are an artist”. You don’t have to be selling your work or be doing it full time. You have to make it work for you.

F-D: When asked; what do you tell people you do for a living?

EN: This question used to be really hard for me. I had a hard time grappling with that idea being my identity. For the longest time I was an architect and this was a side thing and then I grew more into it, and then I had kids and I was a “stay at home mom”. . .  In the end, if you’re making, you’re an artist. You don’t have to justify it by any other means. You don’t have to legitimize it, it doesn’t have to be on any certain level in order to validate it. Now, I just say I’m an artist. That being said, when I forecast my next big life change, which will be when both of my sons are in school full time, I’ll have to begin to look at how I can make this more profitable. As of right now, I make money every now and then, but my main source of income is not having to pay for full time child care. 

F-D: What risks have you taken in your work, or for your work?

EN: I think going to grad school and leaving my career were both big risks. 

F-D: Obviously it was a big fiscal risk, but was it a big emotional or mental risk as well?

EN: A little bit. My career had felt so stable and I think people could understand “architect” in an easier way— they related to that idea. I find myself explaining or justifying what I do a lot more often these days. In a practical sense, even my sculpture is a bit of a risk, though. I lose so much porcelain slip in my process and the pieces are so fragile. There is a lot of loss in the making process for me— so I guess risk is something I play with a bit.


F-D: Words of wisdom? 

EN: A friend of mine and I were discussing this the other day— we were discussing how important it is for creatives—especially those whom are (1) working a creative job, (2) have some sort of creative practice, and perhaps (3) are mothers as well,  (it’s important for men, too, but especially for women) is that idea of balance. You hear that word so often lately. It’s an unachievable goal. You’re never going to be in perfect balance. If you think about it as harmony, it’s a bit more approachable. For example, if my kids are sick for two weeks and I have to be ‘number one mom’ and I’ve made no art or done anything for myself, as a matter of fact, the next two weeks I may be working in the studio non stop for a deadline for an exhibition and not see my family at all. I have to have harmony over the idea that things aren’t going to be in balance, but rather have the ability to ride the waves that life comes in. It makes it easier to handle, and cope with, perhaps. 

F-D: Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?

EN: Well, I’m at the tail end of this sculpture deadline and after that I’d like to take some time to focus on these jewelry and smaller, quicker sculptures I’ve been musing about.  This is work that I can sometimes do when my kids are awake and around.  I have always been interested in style and fashion and from the pieces I’ve made, such as the earrings I’m wearing, there is a lot of interest.  It is more accessible financially for people and it’s a fun idea to think about mini, wearable sculptures.  My husband is updating my website to have an online shop and they may also be available at some local boutiques.  Stay tuned.

F-D: Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when? 

EN: NCECA, the National Ceramics Conference, is in Pittsburgh this year, and I am going to be part of a show there at the Union Project. I did an artist residency there and the show will be from previous and current residency artists. That’s exciting, because there is a big pull for the conference, a lot of people will see the work. There will be a lot of shows going on, it’ll be a good time.  Also I’ll be in a show in Pittsburgh at the Society for Contemporary Craft that opens in April.  And from there, we’ll see what comes up!