Text < Message: Heather Nicol interview

When I walked into Heather Nicol’s studio in Art Scape Young Place, she and her assistant Megan were playing with wet abaca sheets, placing them delicately over top of glasses and crystal stacked up high in the studio. There was classical music blaring on the speakers into the hall so I made sure to knock hard. Walking into the studio is overwhelming, I threw my coat onto the leather couch she uses in her studio parlor exhibits and looked around at the boxes and precarious displays of glassware Heather has been working with. I arrived 15 minutes early so I was invited to play with the sheets of wet abaca paper, arranging and sculpting them over the glass forms. “I broke my arm so I usually don’t have any hands on assistance”. The pieces are for the upcoming paperhouse studio show. One of my own greatest fears is that I’ll wreck anyone’s art while it’s a work in progress. But my apprehension to help with, let alone touch, an artists work I admire so much was killed when Heather began to interview me while we worked. “What do you do phoebe? What are you all about?”

After our interview I walked Heather home to make sure she didn’t re-break her arm on the icy February sidewalks. We bundled up and carefully skated to her home around the corner. In our short time walking Heather asked me some of the most motivational questions about my own practise. Every time I talk to Heather I leave feeling anxious and inspired to get back into the studio, this is exactly why I love spending time with her.

Heather Nicol moved to Toronto with her husband and children from New York. In the short time she has moved back home to Canada, she has made an impact on Toronto’s west end neighborhood greatly and the Canadian art scene. Her curated show “Art School Dismissed” set the ball in motion for the Art Scape organization to buy and refurbish the 1914 schoolhouse. It now is home to artist studios, non-profit art programs, music schools and youth programming for the community. Working with installation, audio and curatorial practice, Heathers tenacity and talent within her practice has pushed the modern curatorial format and has broadened the accessibly for art engagement throughout her career.

Walking into the building is so fun, you pass buy so many different ages and working groups. Do you feel so proud everyday you’re here, after all the work you’ve put into it?

I do feel like I’ve put a fingerprint on it for sure, but you know its got a life of its own now. One of the things I love about now that I work here and im here all the time, is how many kids there are around, there’s a lot of children’s programming. I just saw someone in the bathroom who I didn’t know but who knew me from what or where, but she had a baby and she was so pleased and excited and it was really fun to meet her baby, and embarrassing for because I couldn’t remember her name. And she was like “baby this is heather” and I said, “oh hey baby”. Its so fun to just see what’s going on. Some young artist that’s now a mom, and coming into the building.

Do you find the building a source inspiration that way?

Oh totally, the interdisciplinary part of the building is very cool. Next door to me in the centre for indigenous theatre, which is only and largest specifically indigenous theatre training in the world. My husbands an actor and I work with voice a lot so I work with faculty here. So I see unexpected cross overs.

You have an artist space that so injected into the community, which is so rare in Toronto, and a place that suits your personality.

I fee like it’s a good home for me. Its fun to see different kinds of people here all the time, I wish they were programming the hallway gallery differently.

The language of curatorial presentation of art, which then contextualizes our reception, is very delicate. Its not an easy thing, galleries put a lot of effort into, what it looks like when you approach, what the signage is, is there a handout? All of those things are highly highly considered, and it’s those nuisances that create a really good environment for sort of discourse that you want. And I think the subtitles of that langue are lost on them.

Your community is participating and they can access the building and its programs. But you have a divide. The Toronto art scene is inaccessible that way. You have to know the guy that knows the guy. You have the programming, you have the space, but if the people who run the building aren’t generating that careful curating, it’ll be lost.

I know.

Like the AGO rentals list that you rent out for a dinner party, that stuff makes me so mad.

Yah, just buy the fucking thing. Want that at your party? Excellent, you go support somebody. I hate those rentals things for that reason. It just dampens the value.

Where as if they don’t want to spend a lot of money on art, come to the paperhouse benefit sale! You can buy art for not much money and support artists that are still working and bring that into your community.

What else does Toronto need then?

I lived in new york for 22 years, and I love that we have artist run centres, and public galleries. Their fantastic, the underbelly of them is that they can kind of create a bubble world of their own.

I was on the board or Mercer, and its changing, and becoming more like the American models. I feel like alternative galleries there, or anything that’s trying to run print programs, or that sharingness idea with Emily (from paperhouse studio) in the New York art world the artists and the patrons are in closer connection with one another. And in not a bad way, I think here people think “EW collectors are over there, and were the cool people we have our secret parties over here”.

That’s so, one-dimensional.

Well you need them.

And that’s nothing to be ashamed of! Artists and patrons have always worked together. No artist was born and wanted to paint the baby jesus, that is what patronage wanted. And within it they did everything they needed to do.

As the merchant class arrived, people want portraits of themselves, SNAP! Done! Artist do work together with the people.

It was true for quite a long time that artists here could live on Canada council grants, and regional exhibitions because during the Trudeau years, this is 25,30,40 years ago; there was a lot more money for the arts. It was important then to separate Canadian culture with American culture; we needed that protection for awhile. The funding hasn’t kept of with the pace of the community, so that there isn’t enough money for that. That’s what affects the art scene here in a not good way. Artists here are either commercial, or alternative, and they don’t meet enough. Even within artist run centres, they don’t reach out enough to art enthusiasts.

I don’t think there is resistance to it, I’m sure impart why I was on the board of mercer. There were interested in what I knew. We started these studio visits evenings for members that paid a little more, just doing more things like that. Ive found being in that community that so many people that are interested in the arts are interesting. Maybe they’re a surgeon or whatever, but they’re coming to contemporary art with something, and its nothing to sort of be afraid of.

Just because there access point is economical, doesn’t mean you need to judge someone for it. Do you find as an artist… or what do you call yourself?

I call my self an interdisciplinary artist. Over the course of my career it has changed what I do, but there is sort of these underlying baseline areas of interest that find different forms of expression. Right now I’m really interested in this immediacy of my studio practice. I want to make little things for a while, because I just did a lot of large public things for a long time. I started feeling a bit too much like a project manager. I wanted to just come back in again, for me all of my work as a curator really informs how I make-work. Not that I make it with a show in mind, I’m thinking about comparing and contrasting, what are the relationships between object? These connection points that are conversations, I’m really interested in groups, what fits into the group, what doesn’t fit into the group. That’s what curating a show is like too, you’re creating a language and multiple ways of reading things. So the curating has been, informative that way, and my studio practice deeply informs my curating. I come at it not as an academic but with desire, desire to juxtapose things.

My practice is materially based, and my shows are heavily sculptural. I wanna see what things look like near each other! That’s what I do here! That same socially, my curatorial projects have had a kind of dimension or conversation.

Art school dismissed was because I was interested in bringing faculty together, and they loved it! We had an event the night before the opening over at the bar, and it was so fun. Because they were like OH people from York, UFT Brock or wherever they were teaching, could just hang out. So that sort of in a weird way relates to my art too. I’m going “oh these things meet these things”, it’s a lot about sociality of encounter.

I just like people meeting and getting along. I’m really trying to take a break from curating and take a set back but I just have all of these burning ideas. I need to find a curator that needs ideas so I can work.

I find as an artist sometimes when you come up with projects in your head you say to yourself “I can’t do that I’m not a sculptor, I cant do an installation, I cant possibly to that”. Its funny hearing you say that, it makes me feel more human.

Yah you, just cant do everything!

There are a lot of talented artists here; we’ve got bench strength. When I go to curate it isn’t hard to find great artists. There’s abundance of talent here.

What’s next for you then?

I don’t know what’s next. I’ve gotten lime disease, it was really intense. I was bit in June and was sick until December. It defiantly took the wind out of my sail. I finally got better, and was obviously having too much fun playing hockey and just fucking wiped out and dislocated my arm. It seems like this year, I feel like I’m just regrouping. And because of the intensity and scale with the projects, like the soft spin, soft spin performance, two curated shows both with catalogues and then going to New York with soft spin, I was a little shell-shocked anyway, and my house and studio were just a mess, it was just like “oh my god”. It had been a tornadoy period. And I was feeling the same way then, I just want to play around with my glass, I don’t know what I want to do next.

Do you think your last year would have been a lot different?

I think I would have pursued more public at then I was getting contacted in a way I never had, some one wanted me to fly to San Francisco but that has passed because I got sick. I don’t know the trajectory that would have happened if I hadn’t had gotten sick, but I did and it gave me a lot of time to just be very… quiet. And be more aware of the fragility of things, less about the celebration of things. Maybe that’s part of my attraction right now to these fragile materials and stacking things up. It gave me an idea of tentative or tenuous things are, but how lovely they can be. But maybe they wont last.

I’ve never gone on an artist residency, cause I’ve been a mom. My daughter is turning 20 tomorrow! So I’d like to travel, it’s been fun for me as an outsider to get to know the Toronto art scene, but I’m not as interested or enamored with it at the moment. Just hankering to live outside of Toronto.

How do you think that’ll influence you practice?

I don’t have outside contacts that way; I don’t know anyone in the art world in Europe, or Latin America. So that’d just be really fun. Some of my colleague friends from New York have done a little more of that then I have in the last few years, and it’s been really stimulation and good for them. So it’s been encouraging to try it. I might get rejected 5 years in a row of trying!


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