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Weekly Update – Elisabeth Nickles’ chicken of the sea and other delicious public art treats at Philly International and Septa


Known for her mournful, ancient-looking glass and bronze sculptures of animals and birds, Elisabeth Nickles’ new work at PHL is a big surprise—the pieces are bright-colored paper sculptures that capture the spirit of a tropical snorkeling adventure. The rosy, sandy, seaweed- and creature-filled world in four large Plexiglas museum cases perfectly captures what Nickles calls “the essence of the sea.”

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Elisabeth Nickles, Essence of the Sea, detail, Photo courtesy of PHL

In the terminal, Nickles, who started out as a painter, discusses her work. “When I work with paper I feel connected [to nature],” says the Germantown artist, community gardener and nature lover. “It’s less forced than bronze.” And her love of plants and animals is all over this installation. There’s a memorial to a dead cactus in one long, thin shape; and a group of totemic seaweedlike forms that she calls “plant weapons” for imagined epic underwater battles where the plants need to defend themselves.

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Elisabeth Nickles, detail showing Sea Chicken. Photo courtesy of PHL.

Explaining her switch to paper and color, Nickles said that she had an awakening during grad school a few years back at Alfred University.  She’d been working with metals and casting bronze in the foundry and developed what amounted to foundry fatigue – too much metal, too much casting. At about the same time, she visited her father, Daniel Nickles, a retired industrial designer, who was living on the island of St. Thomas, and she went snorkeling for the first time.  That experience coupled with falling out of love with the foundry propelled her into working with more direct, natural materials — flax and abaca, which she pulped and dyed and made into sheets of paper – to attempt to capture the underwater world. Her Alfred MFA show was the kernel of the show here at PHL.

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Elisabeth Nickles, detail of what the artist calls “plant weapons.” Photo courtesy of PHL.

There’s no attempt at realism, although with their aqua-painted backdrop, most everything is believable—and the works could almost be natural history museum dioramas.

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Elisabeth Nickles, detail, two-headed curling bracelet-like creature. Photo coutesy of PHL.

There’s a “sea chicken,” a jaunty reddish creature with multiple legs that seems to be paddling doggy-style. Some shapes look like large open-ended bracelets with heads on each end, inspired, Nickles says, by ancient jewelry. There’s an homage to a giant sea turtle; a little egglike cave colony, some starfish and many biomorphic forms. The artist makes the shapes a variety of ways, mostly by wrapping handmade paper sheets over armatures of recycled Styrofoam or newspaper and then finishing them by smoothing or roughening the surfaces as needed. The starfish have the crusty ambiance of a really great loaf of bread from Sarcone’s. Which is a plus for Nickles, who says she loves food and is happy when her work looks delicious.

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Elisabeth Nickles, detail of ancient sea turtle head. Photo courtesy of PHL.

And people like it, too. Several groups came over to the exhibit to look, talk and take pictures. “I think it’s a big turtle head, sweetie,” says a mom to her young daughter. Later, two women pose for cell phone pictures in front of the art.

Elisabeth Nickles, posing with her Essence of the Sea

Nickles, who, like many artists, wears a variety of hats and works multiple jobs teaching and making art, has another public art project under way—at Septa’s 63rd Street El station in West Philadelphia. That project—also nature-centric—was made with the help of kids from the Conquerers Christian Academy, a private school formerly on 63rd Street. This week, two major components will be installed. “Cobbs Creek Constellation” is nothing like what’s at the airport, yet this commission too captures Nickles’ exuberance about nature.  And it, too, is easy to love.

Elisabeth Nickles’ Septa project at the 63rd St. El Stop. Finishing touches happen this week. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“Elisabeth Nickles: Essence of the Sea.” At Philadelphia International Airport. Extended through June 30.

Read this at Philly Weekly. More photos at my flickr.