Forms of Growth

A timely installation at The Winnipeg Art Gallery allows participants in the 2002 RAIC Festival of Architecture–and anyone else fortunate enough to be in Winnipeg this summer–the opportunity to experience a unique collection of works by Grace Nickel, an internationally renowned ceramic artist who has exhibited in Canada, the United States, Australia, and the Orient. She is based in Winnipeg and has been creating monumental and architecturally inspired ceramic sculptures for the past several years.

Her earlier works explored the organic patterns and textures of nature, often in traditional vessel forms inspired by Japanese ceramics. That fascination with natural history is still evident in her new creations, although they have evolved to include the more regulated and formal elements of the human-constructed environment. Her latest ceramic works are very architectural, assimilating organic elements into compositions that offer new insights into the relationship between the constructed and naturally evolved worlds.

Winnipeg’s Chicago Style warehouses and mercantile buildings, collectively known as the Exchange District, constitute a National Historic Site. Five years ago Nickel relocated her studio to a building in the Exchange District, immersing herself in the elaborate terra cotta, plaster, and cast iron detailing of buildings in the area. The District includes a number of buildings from the last turn-of-the-century which survived the boom-time devastation that occurred in other Western Canadian cities. The influence on the artist of these ornate buildings initially translated into a series, Architectural Tiles. Produced in 1999, it explores organic elements incorporated into building forms.

Her current installation at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, entitled A Quiet Passage, utilizes two distinct architectural forms–the wall sconce and column–to underscore the theme and spatial experience of a “journey” or “passage.” A series of ornate wall-mounted light sconces constructed of clay and slumped glass will illuminate the perimeter of the gallery space. Accompanying these will be three tapered columns, each standing over 1.5 metres tall and topped with large, shallow glass bowls. Their forms make reference to the ornate cast iron columns under the canopy of Winnipeg’s CN Railway Station at Main Street and Broadway. Though both the sconces and columns are derived from architectural forms, their surface treatment and coloration utilizes branches, leaves, and textures that resemble living tissue.

Nickel explores not only architecture’s use of motif, form and colour, but also its structural dynamic. She has continually pushed the material limits of clay into novel territory, partly through her experimentation with a material known as paper clay, which is composed of paper pulp and wet clay. The paper adds resilience, workability and dry strength (i.e. before firing). When the material is kiln fired, the paper is incinerated, resulting in a microscopically porous material that is lighter than regular clay, though structurally integral. It is this process and her interest in making clay do things we have never seen before, that allows Grace Nickel to produce monumental work that few other ceramic artists dare attempt.

Gordon Filewych is an architect and museum exhibit designer based in Winni peg. A Quiet Passage runs at the Winnipeg Art Gallery until July 22. See and