Gazing into one of Nancy Nicholson’s hand-crafted bowls is like having a good day at sea when fish fly, turtles lounge and boats breeze by. Each piece of her pottery is layered with hues of the sea; turquoise on indigo, foamy white on cerulean. Those striking colors and lively characters, anything but ordinary, became her signature style but only after years of trial, tribulation and endless tests with clay, minerals and hot, hot heat.
It’s no surprise that Nicholson’s art mimics nature; her ties to the sea were formed several generations before by adventurous, seafaring grandfathers and parents. It was inevitable that boats and oceans would play a role in her life that began in Antigua. But how, I wondered, does someone born and raised on a tropical island find inspiration from a shovel full of earth?
Antigua was a wondrous setting for Nancy’s energetic childhood. The dockyard, an extraordinary place to climb and crawl, provided the perfect playground; the surrounding hillsides held archeological treasures to find and unearth. English Harbor protected her as she learned to sail small boats and the Caribbean Sea tested those growing skills. Back then, in the 1970s, educational opportunities on the island were limited, so she went to America for schooling, and there she discovered the joy of art. She painted, sculpted, dabbled in different crafts. “It was in high school,” she explained, “that I realized I loved doing things with my hands. That’s when I started working with clay.”
Once school was checked off the list, she returned to Antigua to work on boats and in the family business, Carib Marine. It was a job that presented plenty of opportunity, but for Nancy, it just wasn’t enough. Something was missing so she set off to find an apprenticeship; in what, she did not know. Fate-filled winds or luck introduced her to David Mischke, and from him she learned the actual physical techniques of working with clay. In 1984, after two summertime apprenticeships in the states, Nicholson purchased and loaded kiln bricks onto a boat in Newport and sailed with them home to Antigua.
There, she scoured the island for the best quality clay that to this day, she digs and hauls herself. In the beginning, there were no other options; now, she could ship it in or delegate the chore, but she doesn’t choose that path. “I can’t give that up because I still get cracking. The clay has to be just right.”
To help me understand the many steps required to ready the clay for the wheel, she grabbed a hunk from a recently dug bucket. From that rough state it has to be wet, soaked and put through several screens before placed in a fabric-lined hammock that allows it to dry evenly. After aging, it’s then put through a pug mill.
Standing in her studio that overlooks the entrance to Falmouth Harbor, there was little more than water before us. “I love the ocean,” she said. “It’s all around me.” Reverence for the sea along with years of experimentation to create her own glazes brought about an attachment to all colors blue. One of her favorites, an intense shade of turquoise, was inspired by an ancient Chinese urn. “I use copper to get this blue,” she explained, holding up a bowl. “Copper normally is green but barium makes it blue. I started out with seven glazes but narrowed it down to two.”
“Would you like to see how a bowl is completed?” she asked. My enthusiastic nod prompted her to pick up an earthy bowl and place it on the wheel for a few final turns and adjustments. She grabbed a brush loaded with glaze, flipping the bowl repeatedly and placed the drab substance in just the right spots. Before my eyes, two fish emerged in a pool of wiggly waves from deft pulls on a Scraffito blade. Finished, she held it up for inspection.
“Wow, you make it look so easy!” I observed.
“It is, but after doing it for so long,” she replied, “I’m still made humble by the fact that there’s so many elements of change in the medium. It still surprises me.” We walked to a table holding seconds, pieces with small cracks, each imperfect for a different reason. “The results of my pottery reflect what’s happening in my life. It shows up in my work. When things go wrong in my work, I can sort of connect it with things in my head.”
Her passion as an artist, a potter, is evident in everything she does, at home, in the studio and especially in her gallery, Rhythm of Blue. Located in Falmouth, it’s like a gift box from a jewelry store, small but full of gems. Shelves and hand-made fish traps display her pieces complimented by scrimshaw from Michael “Scrim” Stralkowski, Aragorn’s metal sculptures, paintings by Bruce Smith and more. To learn more, call Nancy at 268-460-1614.
Jan Hein divides her time between Washington State in the United States and a small wooden boat in the Caribbean.