Nickel’s elegy of ceramics, salt, text, reflects on ruin of Juan, reconstruction

Manitoba artist Grace Nickel was amazed when she took her first walk in Point Pleasant Park in August 2006.

“It was incredibly moving and powerful. It still surprises me every time, just the scale of the loss there.”

Nickel has created an elegant elegy to the devastation of Hurricane Juan in an installation of white porcelain trees encrusted in a bark of printed text, handwriting and woodsy textures. The eight trees stand as stumps, as tall figures with broken tops or as leaning pillars on a floor of rock salt that is shaped into a giant teardrop pattern. The lights at the Mary E. Black Gallery are dimmed to allow for reflection.

While this piece, called devastatus rememorari, is specifically inspired by the trees in Point Pleasant Park, it is more broadly about loss in nature and in human life, about remembering and rebuilding.

“There seem to be so many natural disasters and other types of destruction that are human-made,” says the recent NSCAD University graduate. “I didn’t imagine I’d live to see what I’ve seen and I’m constantly in need of memorializing events and people.

“I hope it extends beyond my personal need,” she says. “We need a place collectively to bring some of that grief and I hope for healing and recovering.”

To build the ceramic trees Nickel worked from three sections of one storm-wrecked tree that came from a friend’s cottage “from a friend who’d died so it was very meaningful,” says Nickel. (Point Pleasant Park officials don’t allow the removal of wood.)

Seven trees are variations on this one tree and the tallest is imprinted with newspaper stories published Sept. 30, 2003, after Hurricane Juan. One can read the headlines but not all of the print. “I want them to be about memory and the way memory can be somewhat fuzzy and faded,” says Nickel.

“One nice thing about the show is people tell me their stories. People who were here feel compelled to tell me.”

Nickel has also handwritten in looping patterns of slip clay the words devastated and the Latin devastatus and remembered and the Latin rememorari.

Text is very much a part of memorial monuments, says the artist and university instructor, who also refers to the history of monuments in her use of bronze glaze. “I find in Halifax there are a lot of commemorative monuments.”

Seven trees are skeletally white and the eighth has a dark, non-metallic bronze glaze. It leans in a fall towards the grouping of white trees. “I wanted it to stand apart. The idea is it is reaching out to the others. The others will be out of reach and that connects to memory or loss.

“When I was here I actually lost many people,” says Nickel.

She became fascinated by road salt, which is not used in Winnipeg, when she came to Halifax to study for her masters degree at NSCAD University. “In Halifax I saw this white residue on everything.”

When she started researching it, she realized the box of Sifto she’s always used comes from Nova Scotia, so she decided on glittering chunks of road salt, from both the Sifto mine in Amherst and a mine in Pugwash, as a base for her work.

The salt metaphorically links to the duality of recovery and destruction within the whole piece. “It’s been used as a preservative for many years. In terms of trees and the idea of rebuilding trees it would be devastation. Salt destroys.”

Raised in Winnipeg, Nickel has been photographing trees, often the ones damaged in flooding, for the last five years. She first made art about trees last summer when she made an uprooted tree for Winnipeg’s Subconscious City exhibit.

Nickel went to China last October with a group of 10 Canadian artists invited to create work for the permanent collection at the new Canadian Ceramics Museum, one of a series of 10 international ceramic museums being built on the site of the Fuping Pottery Art Village.

“You can’t bring any work with you and I decided to make a tree there. It started to evolve into a commemorative tree idea. There they often put petrified trees on pedestals with the text on them.”

Fuping is 70 miles from Xian City, famous for the terra cotta warriors and horses, and only 600 kilometres north of the site of last week’s devastating Chinese earthquake. “Apparently, of all the ceramics in the museum only five broke and three can be repaired,” says Nickel, who received an e-mail about the damage. “None of the Canadian pieces broke.”

Leaving Halifax soon to move back to Winnipeg, she says she is not done working with trees. “I don’t feel I’m finished. I’m going to teach this summer on Vancouver Island and I will go to Stanley Park because it’s also suffered a huge loss and I want to photograph the devastation there.”

Devastatus Rememorari: Grace Nickel’s Memorial to Point Pleasant Park is at the Mary E. Black Gallery, Nova Scotia Centre for Craft and Design, 1061 Marginal Rd., right next to Pier 21, through Sunday. The gallery is open today, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. [The exhibition concluded in May 2008.]