A future moulded by serendipity But after Grace Nickel made her choice, ceramics shaped a life of acclaim, accomplishment and love of learning
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It’s amazing what can happen if you don’t own a car.
Grace Nickel was working on her bachelor’s degree at the University of Manitoba School of Art in the late 1970s when a fateful decision steered her to a career in working and teaching ceramic art.
It’s also led her to winning the Saidye Bronfman Award, one of several Governor General’s Awards for Visual Arts and Media that were announced Tuesday in Ottawa.
Nickel’s option four decades ago? Study one of two three-dimensional art subjects she’d had little experience with: sculpture or ceramics.
“At the time, sculpture was off-campus and I didn’t drive. I didn’t have a car, so I chose ceramics,” Nickel says with a laugh. “It was out of convenience because I had never at that point touched clay before.”
She had talent for drawing though, and encouragement from a high school teacher and her parents led her to the School of Art, where she eventually found she enjoyed using her newly found sculptural skills to create moulds.
“I became quite enamoured with clay after about three months and I just couldn’t stay away from the ceramics studio,” she says. “I wished (then) I was more proficient at the wheel but I realized I was better at sculptural work… I could make these interesting forms that kept growing and growing with my career.”
By 1987, she was displaying her works at the Aceartinc gallery in the Exchange District and has kept her foot on the potter’s wheel ever since.
That eventually led her back to the U of M, this time as a professor, where she teaches the next generations of artists how to overcome their own initial awkwardness with clay, pottery wheels, moulds and kilns, some of the tools that help ceramicists create.
She also creates sculptural ceramics and installations out of her studio on McDermot Street and from there her works have been shown and are part of collections around the world, including at the Museum of Modern Ceramic Art in Gifu, Japan, the New Taipei City Yingge Ceramics Museum in Taiwan and the Fule International Ceramic Museum in Fuping, China.
Besides the Bronfman award, handed out annually since 1977 for excellence in fine crafts, Nickel’s works have received honours from the International Ceramics Competition Mino and the Taiwan Ceramics Biennale.
One of her installations is at Ottawa’s Memorial Centre at the Beechwood National Cemetery of Canada, the country’s national military cemetery.
Her most recent exhibition, however, was close to home. Eruptions, which was inspired by tree fragments and felled branches, combined her limb-like porcelain beads with experiments in 3D printing with collaborator Michael Zajac, was on display at Gallery 1C03 in 2022 at the University of Winnipeg.
“I called them lifelines,” she says. “I started thinking of them as a root system and then they morphed into veins and even an umbilical cord. It’s a whole network of beads that grow up the wall.”
Nickel has been on sabbatical from the university during the 2022-23 school term, but she’s continued to keep her hands dirty.
Earlier in 2023, she took part in a six-week residency at the International Ceramics Studio in Kecskemét, Hungary, and learned from instructors in Faenza, Italy, about Haban ceramics, which originated in central Europe during the 16th century by Anabaptist artists.
Nickel, who is a Mennonite, an Anabaptist faith, had become a student again, and she found she was back where she began in university: starting from scratch.
“It’s super-humbling to put yourself in that position,” she says. “I was really pushing myself to let go of what I know I already can do, what’s comfortable and push myself beyond that comfort zone.
“In both cases I was working with masters, and it was phenomenal… I would say pretty much set for my career with information and inspiration because I saw the most phenomenal collections there.”
Nickel, 66, said the award came out of the blue — when she received a call from the Canada Council for the Arts about her winning the award she thought it was about another matter — but she gives credit to Tammy Sutherland, the head of the C2 Centre for Craft, for her help.
Beyond her work with the university, Nickel also has served on the Manitoba Craft Council board, has volunteered with Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art (MAWA) and with the Winnipeg Art Gallery Studio.
Nickel wins a $25,000 cash prize along with the Bronfman award and the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa acquires a work or series of works by the Bronfman winner. She says the Winnipeg Art Gallery is planning on an exhibition in May of some of her creations in honour of her award.
“It’s very important for artists to get this kind of affirmation from time to time. It helps you know you’re on track,” she says. “It’s nothing to be taken for granted, that’s for sure.”
Another coincidence is that Nickel’s award is named after Bronfman, a philanthropist who, like Nickel, grew up near Plum Coulee, a community of about 1,000 people, 100 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg.
“It’s a bit of a full circle thing happening,” Nickel says.
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Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.
Updated on Friday, March 31, 2023 7:12 AM CDT: Changes preview text