by Lou Mancinelli
In February of 2014 artist Elisabeth Nickles, 45, woke up at three o’clock in the morning to find her studio engulfed in flames in her backyard. For years she had wanted a place of her own to work that was not just a room in her house. But now, a lifetime of memories was swallowed in fire. Within a half hour the studio behind her Germantown home, only recently completed, vanished into the soil and wind.
The next morning she went outside and looked at the remains of the studio, frozen now in the snow. She was unsure if this fire that had illuminated the night hours before was a bad omen or an oracle. Her insurance wouldn’t cover everything. Should she sell the house? Raise money and start anew? Give up altogether?
“I would look out there and see this blackness,” said Nickles, who has made a living with her art and teaching since 1991. Lost in the fire were paintings, sculptures, tools, her kayak and car. “This was like a diary of my life, and it’s gone.”
For nearly a decade before graduating from Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) in 1999, Nickles had lived as an artist exhibiting her work. She’d moved to Philadelphia in 1995, seeking lower rents and wanting to improve her skills. As a young painter, she was always frustrated and wanted to improve.
Nickles also has a degree from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and an MFA in sculpture from Alfred University in New York State. During the past 15 years she’s taught at PAFA, Tyler School of Art, Moore College of Art and Design, and more.
At the 63rd Street SEPTA Station on the Market-Frankford El, you’ll find her mixed media piece. In 2010 another mixed media piece hung at the Philadelphia International Airport. In Philadelphia in recent years, she’s exhibited at Artists’ House Gallery and Fleisher Art Memorial. And locally, at Imperfect Gallery in Germantown.
“I finally had a space,” Nickles said. She had bought her home in 2003. “I was starting to feel really focused … [The fire] really just halted it all.” She felt like “everything that’s ever protected you is gone. I just felt completely exposed.”
She wondered about why the fire had come at that time. Regardless, she still had to survive. She went on, making numerous community art projects throughout last year. She did two with The Center for Emerging Visual Artists and a project with Masterman School in Center City.
For Nickles, the past year has been an existential marathon. Teaching drawing at Villanova University is one of things that’s helped her move on, keep focused and keep drawing. Recently, a friend mentioned a residency in Nepal.
She’d had residences before, e.g., at the Vermont Studio Center in 1992 and more recently with the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. So Nickles submitted her proposal and was accepted, and this June, she will be the Artist in Residency for one month at the Katmandu Contemporary Arts Centre. The Centre is situated among a plethora of sculptures of religious deities.
In Katmandu, she’ll find a daily life rich with color. Nickles said she’ll work with items she can bring home, like clay and paints. Working far from home is nothing new for her. In her early 20s Nickles moved to New Mexico and lived in a remote mountainous area, built in traditional adobe style. One homestead had no electricity or running water. She stayed a few years, at times traveling to different places, like San Francisco, to earn money.
“I think growing up in New York City, I needed to see that,” Nickles said about the wilderness. Born in Cleveland, she moved with her family to Brooklyn when she was two and to Greenwich Village when she was seven.
She was always around art. Her father was an industrial designer, a lead designer for John Deere tractors. He’d studied at Cleveland Institute of Art. As a kid, she and her parents were friends with artists, and she visited the museums in Manhattan.
Much of Nickles’ art is an exploration of our place in the natural world, where aesthetic meets science. Even if she loves the idea of immersing herself in a remote area to create, Nickles always wants to come back to the big city.
“There’s always been this struggle,” she said. “I want to be free, but I need the money to be free.” But out there, so isolated can get “very hard for me after a while … You don’t have that engagement or interaction with other people.”
She’s always had that dream of living as a recluse in a wood cabin, and “I’ve tried it at different times [one summer she lived on a Greek island], but I find I need the Yin-Yang of it.”
For more information visit elisabethnickles.com.