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Nicole Donnelly: Falling Water

A WSW Artist-in-Residence Profile

By Steven Andersen

Tucked away on her website, Nicole Donnelly has a 10-second video clip of a wayward book as it’s tossed and tumbled by waves on the banks of the Thames. It’s one of those strange, serendipitous moments where a random event takes on a kind of transcendence. The pages of the book, discarded and soon to dissolve, are turned back and forth by each passing wave. It’s almost as if they’re being read one last time.
Much of Donnelly’s work captures this ethereal quality, a lightness in which curiosity alone might transform one state or form to another. The work practically calls out to be touched and manipulated. Her works in paper might resemble paintings, skins, even rocks and other organic forms, but always with a subtle twist that seems to be guided by the material itself.

Nicole Donnelly

SA: What are you working on during your residency?

ND: I wanted to get back to a project I started while I was still finishing up at grad school. I was taking over-beaten flax paper and casting it around rocks, I wasn’t really sure why or what it was going to be. I think fossil imagery is something I come back to a lot.

SA: A lot of your work has something of a fossil texture to it.

ND: I have a whole fossil collection—about 25 or 30 fossils that I have in a box—and I had actually cast each one of these little fossils that just about fit in the palm of your hand. I wrapped them up in this very, very thin flax. They came apart when I unwrapped them, so I glued them back together and they were like little cicada shells. And so I sort of lined them all up next to each other.

SA: I saw that piece online. I thought they were actually rocks.

ND: The big ones are rocks, and then there are the fossil duplicates. There are several rocks in a row of little paper-wrapped things—these hollow-paper shells—and those ones are the fossils. I’ve drawn a lot from them and done a lot of print-making using that same imagery, using the idea of a still-life or a study and kind of working from there.

On the table before us lies a pile of rocks, and fine ropes like grapevines, all made from paper. The rocks are light and pliant, and covered with faint printing, yet retain a sense—almost like a memory–of mass and density.

Nicole Donnelly

These are a continuation of that project, and I was really interested in the idea of first just seeing if I could print onto them while they were still wet because flax, when it’s over beaten, is a pretty resistant surface. It doesn’t take pigment very well.

SA: They look like faded tattoos.

ND: It was an experiment, in that I didn’t know if the printing was really going to work, and then just to see where this goes as an installation. The other thing that I really liked about the idea was taking the weight out of something that is supposed to be pretty heavy. So, I was sitting by the Rondout Creek and both of the banks are lined with these big rocks, about 5 to 10 pounds each.

SA: You lugged them a mile up the road?

ND: No, I just sat outside and wrapped them and let them sit in the sun. We were lucky enough to have really sunny weather, so they dried fast.

Do you have to put anything else in to get them to set up, or is just that flax will take that form and hold it?

ND: Flax is really sculptural, especially if you over-beat it. It doesn’t take as much time in the beater as abaca. Abaca takes about eight hours to get the same properties, but you can do flax in about four hours. Once you’ve over-beaten it, it really likes to shrink, and if you restrain it in some way—say if you put about ten pounds of weight on top of it—it will shrink around whatever form you’ve set it around.

SA: And the ropes? Are you just going to suspend these or something?

I think so. I’m just not sure what direction they’re going. I like how right now it’s set up all along the table as a horizontal piece, but originally I was thinking about this as a vertical piece, or just an entire wall piece. It’s built out like some of the rock structures here where I guess they were mining … gravel?

SA: It was a cement mine, limestone. You can see the way it’s excavated they left pillars to support it—it’s really got a sculptural quality to it.

ND: It’s wonderful! So I was thinking originally that I wanted to sort of recreate those. It sort of animates these mountains. I’m always walking that line anyway.

SA: That’s an interesting element of your work, regardless of the medium—there always seems to be a tension and dialogue between the medium and nature. It’s as if one type of material is trying to be another. Where does that come from for you?

A lot of it comes from training as a painter. Even in abstract painting, you’re always trying to represent something with a material that absolutely is not that thing. When I started making paper, I started thinking about how malleable of a substance it is. At the time I was just interested in learning how to make paper that I could draw or print on, just figuring our how to get closer to the material. Sometimes you get too precious with it, and I needed to break down that barrier. And as I was working with it, I realized there’s so much more potential in this material than there is in canvas and oil and brushes.

SA: Is paper the direction you’re heading in, in general?

ND: It seems to have the most potential right now. In Philadelphia, I haven’t set up my paper studio yet. I’m sharing a studio space and I was just making some really big paintings before I got here, so I wouldn’t call it exclusively in this direction, but I think it’s going to stick around for a while.

Nicole Donnelly

SA: How long ago did you make the wall-scale dyed paper hangings?

ND: Just over a year ago.

Those struck me as being quite painterly.

ND: That piece was such a heart attack at the time. It’s not at all what it was supposed to be. I made big stencils, and I was trying to make a really big watermark. I thought it was really nice, the waterfall image and watermarking these large, 4’ X 8’ sheets of paper with a waterfall—by literally arching water up and having it fall down around this stencil. But, the stencil didn’t hold up against getting wet. It was suspended above the sheet and then it collapsed inward. It landed square in the middle of these two big sheets of paper and I didn’t know what to do. I started to pick up the stencil and realized that it was clinging to all of the pulp. I was pulling out pulp by the handful, so there were these big holes in my paper. I realized, ‘Well I’m going to have to fill it in with something or scrap the whole thing.’ It’s a three-person process to make sheets that large so I grabbed a bunch of pulp and dyed it blue and sort of “ketchup-bottled” it back in.

SA: It looks great.

ND: It was the best accident I could hope for.

SA: Sometimes those things pull you in a whole different direction.

ND: Exactly. And it was actually a fantastic reminder that I can’t plan anything better than what these materials will do on their own. That’s something that I’m constantly reminded of.

SA: That brings me back to that video clip of a book washing in the waves in the Thames. It’s such a union of these things that interest you: the water and the paper.

ND: I wish I pulled out the camera earlier and got more of that image. The book had been slowly coming up to the bank. At first it was sitting there totally closed and then it finally got itself up onto the shore. Then one wave came and knocked the cover open and it fell back. Then it knocked it all the way open, and then page-by-page it just started turning, it was completely mesmerizing. I’m never going to be able to do anything as good as that! I get that sensation a lot, when I’m really looking at things around me. You just can’t do any better than what already exists. So I guess in that way I end up mimicking through material.

See more of Nicole’s work on her website nicole-donnelly.com

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