by Len Lear
Most travelers going to or from the Philadelphia International Airport are probably so preoccupied with their thoughts and so focused on getting to their destination that they do not notice any artwork that may be up on the walls of the airport. If you were traveling to or from the airport in 2010 and/or 2011, however, you would have had a chance to see the extraordinary works of art created by Germantown’s brilliant multi-media artist, Elisabeth Nickles.
In our area there are many talented painters, many talented sculptors, many talented graphic designers and those who do small works or large works, those who do private art or public outdoor art. I doubt if there is anyone, however, who can do it all and at such a high level of skill and beauty as Ms. Nickles.
Her stunning works at the airport were made out of handmade paper and recycled paper-based materials as well as wire and foam. It is not likely that many area residents know about it, but in 1998, Philadelphia International Airport established an Exhibitions Program — a visual arts initiative to humanize the airport environment, provide visibility for Philadelphia’s cultural life and enrich the experience of the traveling public. The Exhibitions Program provides millions of visitors from around the world access to a wide variety of art forms by Philadelphia arts institutions and artists such as Elisabeth Nickles.
“I was originally contacted by Leah Douglas, director of the Art in the Airports program,” Nickles explained, “who asked me to exhibit and did a studio visit after she saw a piece of mine exhibited at the ‘City Hall Paperworks!’ show. We scheduled the show about a year in advance. It began in November of 2010 and ran until August of 2011. It had a long run. The airport program treats their exhibiting artists very well. It was by far one of my most rewarding exhibition experiences.”
Nickles, 42, was born in Cleveland, but her family moved to Brooklyn when she was just 2, and they later moved to Greenwich Village and then Rockland County, New York. You might say that artistic talent is in her DNA. Her father, Daniel Nickles, was an industrial designer, now retired, and the lead designer for John Deere tractors. He designed the first prototype of “The Gator.”
Her brother, Aaron Nickles, who calls himself a “business artist,” is an entrepreneur working on a new startup called WOWclouds.com.
Her mother, Sharon Nickles, is a technical writer who started out in Manhattan as Dustin Hoffman’s secretary and was a producer of “The Joey Adams Show.” She was a ghost writer for the prominent New York nutritionist Alan Pressman and is an avid gardener, which was a major inspiration for Elisabeth.
The airport artist moved to Philadelphia in 1995 to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA). “I was attracted to its low rents and tight artistic community,” she explained. “I thought I would stay a year and work on my drawing skills. I stayed, though, because of the scholarship money offered to me by PAFA and then stayed after school because of the artistic community and affordability of the city, as compared to New York.”
Nickles also has a degree in painting from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and an MFA in sculpture from Alfred University in New York State. She has taught sculpture at Tyler School of Art, Moore College of Art , Pennsylvania College of Art and Design, PAFA and Fleisher Art Memorial, and she currently teaches painting and drawing at Villanova University to liberal arts students. “None are planning to be artists,” she said, “but I try to expand their perceptual and physical coordination and guide them to a deeper understanding of the world of art and the nature of aesthetics.”
Nickles has also taught adults with mental disabilities as well as children. “I see what happens to people when they make something they never thought they could make. There is an internal satisfaction I see in my students when they go beyond themselves that makes teaching fulfilling. I am giving them knowledge that is like a seed that takes on its own life. If a student at Villanova sees the world with more sensitivity even if (s)he becomes not an artist but a doctor, businessperson or scientist, I think that is still a great accomplishment because it has enriched their understanding of the world.”
Nickles has been commissioned to do stunning outdoor sculptural collages for SEPTA and Mastery charter school/ Pickett campus, as well as the Philadelphia International Airport. All of the public art projects were competitions that she won in a two-step application process, and they have helped her survive financially, no small accomplishment for an artist in any economy. First, she was chosen as a finalist from a body of work and resume, and then as a finalist she would create a full presentation with budget, engineering and timeline. It is a commitment that requires working with fabricators and technical problem solving.
(She has also exhibited her work at dozens of galleries in the Philadelphia area and elsewhere.)
Elisabeth’s extraordinary, huge public works as well as her smaller personal pieces (for private collectors for gardens or homes) are all informed by the origins of life and evolution. In addition to animals that look as if they might leap off their platforms are countless marine protozoa, corals, urchins, algae, hydras, mosses, Y-chromosomes, and neurons in interlocking compositions that echo Charles Darwin’s words, “endless forms, most beautiful.” Her recent public works consist of three-dimensional collages of laser-cut, recycled acrylic shapes in geometric formations that mimic growth patterns in nature.
“I believe that public art should serve a function in that it creates a transformative experience for the people viewing the piece and serves the community that encounter the piece,” explained the artist. “I spend an enormous time on a project researching what is important to the people who will work and interact with the artwork on a daily basis. It should leave the viewer filled with a sense of wonder.”
Nickles bought her house in Germantown, which she loves, in 2003. “I can go to the park in a few minutes and be in thousands of acres of forest right in the city as well as run into interesting people while walking a trail. I think this makes Germantown special. I think Germantown is full of potential, but it is not there yet.”
Elisabeth also hopes to enlist private students to her newly built studio in Germantown. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.elisabethnickles.com