The artist, Nicole Page-Smith, discusses the beginning of the contemporary sculpture and drawing project, recommended by the British, for review. The first three month, London residency, was established, in 2004. Starting her career in the late eighties, Nicole Page-Smith, has exhibited in both the commercial and public gallery arena, and started her career, exhibiting with American artists, in Melbourne, Australia. Nicole Page-Smith, went to live in New Zealand, in late 2000, and is co-director of a privately owned museum, studio complex, Harris Smith Art Museum, based in Dunedin. The museum is mainly funded by private collector support and private commissions. Nicole Page-Smith, has completed several bodies of work in the period from 2000, when the museum first opened, to the present day. A permanent exhibition is currently on display and open, by appointment only. The interview, conversation, mainly concentrates on the first bodies of work completed until 2005. A large stone installation, Sermons in Stones, 2002, a large figurative, plaster series, Balthazar's Dream, 2003, and the work completed before and after, Page-Smith's London residency, entitled Ducks, 2004-2005, a painted, padded, fabric and steel rod, abstract series. Nicole Page-Smith is currently writing a companioning book series to her sculpture and drawing project, for an exhibition catalogue series and this is accompanied by her own original photography. Nicole Page-Smith, travels throughout European centres, on a regular basis, focusing on Germany and looks forward to her next visit.
This is an interview between contemporary artist, Nicole Page-Smith and art writer (a former employee of, The Hocken Collections Library, in Dunedin) Pennie Hunt. The interview was conducted on the 8th of December, 2005, at the Harris Smith Art Museum, Dunedin, New Zealand
Pennie Hunt: You started drawing from a young age by copying pictures of animals from books. When did you start making sculpture?
Nicole Page-Smith: It probably started at art school. I started by doing printmaking, in the first year and initially, when my lecturers looked at my portfolio, for the entry into the course, they both commented on how sculptural my portfolio was, and suggested I try a unit of sculpture. So I did, loved it and never looked back.
PH: What was it about the work that they saw as being sculptural?
NPS: I don't know ... it was physical, had sculptural elements. I did a whole year of folio preparation, prior to getting into art school because I was quite young, when I first applied, only 17 and most of the other students where ten years older than me. My mother was a potter, while I was growing up and I would follow her to ceramic workshops, on the weekends. So, maybe I got it from her.
PH: Your work has a real tactile sense about it. There is also something very earthy about the materials as well.
NPS: It also comes from me. I like these materials and think sculpture suits me because I like the physicality of it.
PH: But many sculptures begin in two-dimensions, where do your sculptures start? Do they start with drawings?
NPS: No, when I draw, I draw separately. Drawing is just another art form, for me, it is not really to do with sculpture. I think, also, in moving from Melbourne to Dunedin, everything, my whole studio, was packed into cardboard boxes and was really light. So, when I got here (to Dunedin), I wanted to make something that was really permanent. And stone, you could not get much more weighty than the stone pieces, I have made. They are a couple of ton, each.
PH: Do you think three-dimensionally? When you are making sculpture, you must be thinking differently than a painter or a draughtsman, would be?
NPS: I actually find my sculpture very thin and flat, quite often more two-dimensional than three-dimensional and think that is because I have done so much drawing, in the past, so, it is hard to get your head around it (the third dimension). I find it is in making that you have to think about three-dimensions.
PH: How did you begin to make these large works from the "Balthazar's Dream" series, like the Medusa and Daphne?
NPS: Hard to say, really. I have talked to you about looking at the history of art and wanting to find out about the history of sculpture, for myself. I think because I did not imagine my personal study voyage, to be as stimulating, as it was, so all the references, I was looking at, had to come out somewhere. I see a lot of them as being a homage to the history of art and there have been so many people, who have referenced, Medusa and Daphne.
PH: But the sculptures are not exactly didactic. They are more like shadows of some larger mythological idea, but they are not telling you to read them in a certain way.
NPS: Well, they are interpreted through my own vision and my own ideas. Initially, before moving to Dunedin, I had all these ideas about what I was going to make, when I arrived and still have not made them, yet.
PH: The black and yellow works... they have a similar structure. Do they have any relationship to the creatures in the, "Balthazar's Dream", series?
NPS: I have done them afterwards, so, they have gone backwards, in a way. I see them as being half-way, between, what I was doing in Australia and these more figurative works and for me a lot of them are sort of animals.. there are very few of them that are purely abstracted forms. They are things that are in the act of metamorphosis. After three months overseas, I was just dying to get back inside myself and do some more work. In New Zealand and Australia, you feel like there is only one sort of fashionable work and style, which is the only thing that exists, in the world, but when you go over there (to Europe), you just realize that idea is completely abolished, and there are tons of varying styles, everything you could possibly imagine is available. The current fashion is barely noticeable, but perhaps it would be different if you lived there.
PH: I'm interested in the colours you have used in your work. The Balthazar mythological creatures are stark white unpainted plaster, so the contrast between, the most recent works- in acid yellow and black, and the earlier ones, demonstrates quite a shift.
NPS: Well, I just like plaster in it's raw state. I never intended the plaster works to be coloured. After I made the Balthazar's Dream series, I actually hurt my wrist and had to do drawing, with my left hand, for six months. I had thousands of yellow pencils in my studio because I have never really liked yellow. But, anyway, I just decided to use it because there was so much of it, here. Yellow, also, reminds me of illness. It also has that dual sunny, frivolity quality...
PH: Bile and sunshine.
NPS: Yeah, two things, I did not really like, so, I have never used it. But, I quite like yellow, now. I like yellow because it is industrial. I keep seeing yellow everywhere.. I was walking along the road and suddenly realized, you know that there are those yellow lines, on the road, but you have never looked at them, before. I have always got black pencils because I normally draw in black.
PH: Many of your sculptures seem to be in the act of transformation, either, part human, part animal or into something more inanimate. For example, in contrast to Bernini's sculpture of "Apollo and Daphne", your "Daphne", has become transfixed, she has transformed into a tree and is rooted and unchangeable.
NPS: I think the Daphne work... I do not find it stagnant because for me, that one is about death and the transformation into a tree would be something quite serene. The fact that it has got feet is just to let you know it was human, once. In death we become nothing and everything.
PH: What about the more recent works? They recall alien sacs, seem ready to move or in the process of changing into something else like insects.
NPS: I like the little creatures in life, like, for example, we study frogs and things, to see how the planet is going.
PH: Small things can be indicators of bigger issues.
NPS: I guess they are transforming, into what, I do not know.
PH: Joseph Campbell has written about myth as the 'secret opening through which the energies of the cosmos pour into our culture'. Do you think there is something, in myth, that is inherently attractive to us?
NPS: For me, we are animals anyway, we are just at the top of the food chain. So. I guess, it is a comment about that. But, there is a small movement, anyway, there is even a show on at the moment called "Becoming Animal", and there has been several others, that have related human/animal. I think there was one called "Hommeanimal". Yeah, there is a lot of it that has been done. In primitive cultures, animals are quite big, as symbols, especially, in Aboriginal culture, there are lots of animal spirits and human/animal stuff, going on. I, also, used to go to Aboriginal dance performances, in primary school, Brolga dances, bird spirits.
PH: Have the animals you used from the Egyptian and Greek traditions transformed into more contemporary manifestations of myth?
NPS: A lot of them are like a homage to something that has been done before, interpreted through my own vision, once again, but, often with things like monsters, Medusa's, the She-devil and things, it is probably how society makes me feel.
PH: So enraged, you just want to turn men into stone, at a single glance?
NPS: Yeah, or just society makes you feel like a crazy, possessed, devil-woman.
PH: What about society makes you feel like that?
NPS: Just because of my art making and art practice, which is not often thought of as being very normal.
PH: So, this is not a normal life?
NPS: (laughs) No... well, it probably is fairly normal. I mean, it is not what most people do.
PH: In your sculpted "Self Portrait as Bug", you have portrayed yourself as a bug. You have mentioned that this is a reference to the character, Gregor Samsa, in Kafka's "Metamorphosis", but, it could also be read as a portrayal of the self as insignificant?
NPS: I guess, bugs for me are not insignificant. I think, in hotter climates like in Australia, bugs are just so, ever present and they also feel like they could consume you, so, making a big bug is scary. Most insects are revoting. I remember having some books as a child and they where closeup views of bugs. They were so hideous, I could hardly look at them, they were like horror-movie books. Some of my other works, do look a bit insect like, as well. Animals are always there for me and I think it goes back to when I was a kid and drawing animals out of books, which was a past-time, for me. So, I do feel like this has informed my artistic language, it always comes back to it. I think, certain animals do have a really poetic sense.. like birds in flight. So, I found it quite easy, when I was reading early Greek literature like Homer, to relate to how he saw Zeus, coming down in the form of an eagle because eagles are such majestic looking specimens. Even Anubis, in certain references, they talk about how, the early Egyptians, would have seen jackals running around dead animals. Jackals are really weird looking beasts, they just look like they are from another world, so, it is easy to see how the early Egyptian people, made the connection with Anubis and the transformation into a god.
PH: What about the women in myth who are temptresses? Why have you chosen to portray them?
NPS: I thought it was interesting also, that a lot of the monsters and creatures, in ancient mythology, are female. Now, they are male. Can you imagine a female "King Kong"? It would not have the same impact. I do not think people would have been so interested in a female "Incredible Hulk". You sort of have women in Hollywood, now, who have guns but...
PH: ...but that is seen as some kind of novelty, women are not often portrayed being as powerful as a lot of the women in Greek mythology were, they were genuinely, powerful women.
NPS: Yes, they were scary monsters. I guess, because they have several female monsters, in ancient mythology, it hit a chord. I probably do really like strong female characters and female artists, I respect, who have contributed artistically. They are my heroes, in a way.
PH: So, which other artists have inspired your work?
NPS: Well, a lot of my early work was inspired by the work of Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse, especially, the psychological content of Bourgeois's work. I also discovered the work of the late 19th century French, sculptor, Camille Claudel, while working on my hairy hessian sculptures, of the mid to late 1990's. One of her sculptures called "Clotho", looked so similar to my work, so, I then made a whole series of the same title in 1999. More recently, I have looked at the artist, Tetsumi Kudo, the sculpture of Dorothea Tanning and Kiki Smith, whose work relates to my current black and yellow series... but then, I feel equally as inspired by the German Gothic sculptors, Tilman Riemenschneider and Gregor Erhart. With the "Balthazar's Dream" series, I was looking at everything from Ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman, through to the Renaissance, Baroque and the Aztecs.
PH: What do you want to start doing after you have finished working on these (the "Ducks"series)? Are you going to pick up on some of the ideas you had for work, when you first came to New Zealand?
NPS: I would like to go down that path. Every time, I go overseas, I just go and look at art, so, it is hugely stimulating. You cannot get the same out of books. I'm looking at all the stuff, I have studied, for the past 15 years and have not seen, so, when you see it, for the first time, it stimulates you all over again.
PH: What makes a really good artwork?
NPS: When you are making an artwork, I feel not every one is as successful as another. I don't know if it is your energy, on the day or what it is. But, with making sculpture of gods, which I have made two of, now, it felt really strange. Like I was digging up some old belief system or something, so you are creating another entity, in itself.
PH: Is that also partly because you are aware of it?
NPS: Possibly, I would like to think it comes from somewhere else, though.
PH: Is there some redemptive force in making art purely for yourself? How do you come here and work like this every day, your work is not known or shown in Dunedin. What is motivating you to come here and express yourself in this way?
NPS: I do have an Australian reputation. Starting in New Zealand was like starting again, I find it strange how unfamiliar New Zealand is with Australia. Making art is just something, I have got to do. I do enjoy making more than the getting out and showing or exhibiting. The whole art scene repulses me, it is nothing to do with art. Once again, it comes down to the animal within us. In life, I feel you have two choices, you dig your heels in, rise to the challenge and fight to the death or you run for your life.
PH: Are you happy for people to interpret your work how they want to read it. Do you hold dear the way you have created and thought about work?
NPS: I am probably happy for people to have their own interpretations - as long as they are intelligent ones. You get a bit frustrated sometimes... most artworks can be totally misinterpreted, also. People can go off in one direction and think it is something it is not. It will be interesting to see what people do think of them if they ever walk out of here.