We all begin as children: This simple, fundamental truth is at the core of new work by artist Richard Nickel.
His show at Metro Space Gallery, “Songs for Children,” features ceramic and wooden sculptures. It offers up unforced poetic images, as if a child picked up a storybook and told the entire story without ever being able to read a single word.
Nickel is the director of ceramics and art education at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. Working from his campus studio and inspired by a recently revamped university woodworking shop, he's evolved from his earlier work with ceramics to develop two-dimensional wooden sculptures as his new form. His shift to wood as a medium is a song from his own childhood.
“My dad was a woodworker with a shop in the basement of our house in Rochester, N.Y.,” Nickel says. “He taught me to use the lathe and the band saw and the table saw. I was reluctant to use the table saw — that thing can be scary.”
His evolution from ceramics is a way to break away from figurative, ground objects, he says. Each of his new pieces is constructed of individual wooden shapes attached to a wooden form and hung on the wall. Their colors are simple and the structures can be mazelike. The wooden sculptures carry original patterns found in his ceramic pieces.
“I really didn't plan it out. I would just make a form and then make another form and let it dictate itself,” he says. “I would have all of these forms and rearrange them until I had the composition that worked.”
These final pieces also reflect his influence by self-taught artists and the obsession to detail he finds not only in their work, but also in their process. “They make art,” he says, “like cows give milk.”
The wooden and ceramic compositions are both filled with images of men, trees, babies, women, buildings and animals. “I have been fascinated with the idea of the mother and child,” Nickel says of one of his recurring themes. “The child was the symbol for the future. Everyone has a dream and they carry it with them.”
His current images deliver their narrative through the portrayal of action — simple snapshots of people working together and being together. “I want this dreamlike space where there is no up and no down,” he says of his arrangements. The scenes portrayed offer a wonderful story if only in a glimpse. He works without focusing on superficial elements that might add nothing to the story except for ego, vanity and distraction. In the art we find the beautiful bones of simplicity.
“I want my art to speak to everyone,” Nickel says. “In a lot of ways we are very much like children.”
“Songs for Children,” featuring new work by Richard Nickel, is on display through Nov. 28 at Metro Space Gallery, 119 W. Broad St. 307-9420.