Common scenario: You’re at Philadelphia International Airport, you’ve missed your flight and you’ve got a few hours to kill. Solution: Put down the stale bagel, head over to the walkway between Terminals A and B and feast your eyes on Elisabeth Nickles’ sea-inspired installations.
Known for her mournful, ancient-looking glass and bronze sculptures of animals and birds, Nickles’ new work at PHL is a big surprise—the pieces are bright-colored paper sculptures that capture the spirit of a tropical snorkeling adventure. The rosy, sandy, seaweed- and creature-filled world in four large Plexiglas museum cases perfectly captures what Nickles calls “the essence of the sea.”
In the terminal, Nickles, who started out as a painter, discusses her work. “When I work with paper I feel connected [to nature],” says the Germantown artist, community gardener and nature lover. “It’s less forced than bronze.” And her love of plants and animals is all over this installation. There’s a memorial to a dead cactus in one long, thin shape; and a group of totemic seaweedlike forms that she calls “plant weapons” for imagined epic underwater battles where the plants need to defend themselves.
There’s no attempt at realism, although with their aqua-painted backdrop, most everything is believable—and the works could almost be natural history museum dioramas.
There’s a “sea chicken,” a jaunty reddish creature with multiple legs that seems to be paddling doggy-style. Some shapes look like large open-ended bracelets with heads on each end, inspired, Nickles says, by ancient jewelry. There’s an homage to a giant sea turtle; a little egglike cave colony, some starfish and many biomorphic forms. The artist makes the shapes a variety of ways, mostly by wrapping handmade paper sheets over armatures of recycled Styrofoam or newspaper and then finishing them by smoothing or roughening the surfaces as needed. The starfish have the crusty ambiance of a really great loaf of bread from Sarcone’s. Which is a plus for Nickles, who says she loves food and is happy when her work looks delicious.
And people like it, too. Several groups came over to the exhibit to look, talk and take pictures. “I think it’s a big turtle head, sweetie,” says a mom to her young daughter. Later, two women pose for cell phone pictures in front of the art.
Nickles, who, like many artists, wears a variety of hats and works multiple jobs teaching and making art, has another public art project under way—at Septa’s 63rd Street El station in West Philadelphia. That project—also nature-centric—was made with the help of kids from the Conquerers Christian Academy, a private school formerly on 63rd Street. This week, two major components will be installed. And judging by the timeliness of public transportation, you should have plenty of time to scope it out.
“Elisabeth Nickles: Essence of the Sea." At Philadelphia International Airport. Through June 30. phl.org
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