A Conversation with Artist Nicki Cherry

Nicki Cherry: Speaking with Lions at The Border Project Space, installation view, NYC. 

JM: It’s a great pleasure to show your work at The Border Project Space. I always like to start from the beginning. How did your love for art begin, and what path got you to be an artist in New York? 

NC: Thank you, Jamie, it’s been really wonderful working with you and the Border! I loved to draw and paint as a kid, but I didn’t realize that being an artist was a viable path in life. I grew up close to Purdue University in Indiana which has a huge engineering school, so almost all of my classmates’ parents were scientists or engineers. I actually initially wanted to be a particle physicist and studied math and physics for a little over half of my time in undergrad.

During the start of my third year, I accidentally enrolled in a sculpture class. It was the first time I had exposure to contemporary artists. We visited Theaster Gates at his Dorchester Projects in Chicago and I was in complete awe at how expansive an art practice can be. I had also never made a sculpture before, so I really struggled with the class projects. The possibilities for form, material, and content were endless compared to drawing and painting. But I was way more energized by the challenge of creating something that existed in the same plane as me, that I could walk around. Art could also be a vehicle to navigate the ideas that got me initially interested in physics—how reality can be distilled into a handful of elementary particles and forces and how that distillation might break down barriers between us and the inanimate things that we interact with. 

So I took a leap of faith and switched my major to art. After I graduated I kept a studio in Chicago for several years, then went to grad school, and now I’m here in New York. 

Nicki Cherry, Look at her tears, they have been poured into a leg, 2021, ceramic stoneware, medical step stool, fiberglass reinforced gypsum cement, wax, latex tubing, fountain pump, water, oil of milk, 35” x 25” x 28

JM: I am also a big fan of physics, especially quantum physics. You use a lot of fiberglass in your work. How did you start incorporating it into your sculptures and what are the benefits and challenges involved with using fiberglass? 

NC: I started working with fiberglass when I was in grad school. Two of my classmates each taught me a different method—one the more standard way of laying down fiberglass with resin, and the other a method where you dip the fiberglass and saturate it in hydrocal. At first, I just approached fiberglass as a way to make my work sturdier, but I ended up being attracted to the range of textures and transparencies that you can create with fiberglass. Waxed epoxy and fiberglass have an almost skin-like translucency. Resin yellows over time just like a callus. With hydrocal and fiberglass, I’ve found methods of creating an eroded, geological, mineral-like appearance. 

The biggest challenge with fiberglass is obviously safety. With resin-based applications, I only use a low-VOC marine epoxy resin. Part of my process when working with fiberglass and cement is to sand back a lot of materials, so dust management is really important. There’s a lot of artists who develop sensitivities to resins and fiberglass, so I do all I can to protect my lungs and skin to avoid developing an allergy. One interesting challenge I’ve come across during the pandemic has been navigating material shortages. The only place in the US that stocks the kind of fiberglass that you can use with hydrocal is out of stock until 2022. There’s an enormous plaster shortage on the East Coast right now. Even the weird magic-shop material that I use to make the water look milky in the show has been difficult to source. It’s been a funny reminder of how artists navigate across a lot of different industries. 

Nicki Cherry, (L-R) Trepan III, 2021, plaster, polystyrene, paint, wax, aromachemicals, paint, glazed ceramic stoneware, 8” x 4” x 3” | Trepan II, 2021, Plaster, polystyrene, paint, soy wax, aromachemicals, paint, glazed ceramic stoneware, 7” x 5” x 3”

JM: When I did the studio visit I saw all the work without the milky water. It’s nice to see your vision come to life and the transformation it took once you added the substance. Did the use of resin lead you to eventually use liquids or was it the other way around? 

NC: The work totally changed the instant that I added the milky fluid! It was a really satisfying moment during install. 

My desire to use water in my works developed independently from my use of resin. In my second year of grad school, I was grappling with the hollowness of my sculptures. Although I had spent a lot of energy on the surface of each work, I hadn’t really considered their interiors. I gave myself the prompt of a sculpture with a visible circulation system, which became my 2018 work Fountain

The water-based works in this show stem from descriptions of ancient Levantine automata that were designed to sweat, spit, and pour wine. The automata’s mechanics are hidden from view, so it just seems like this miraculous occurrence of a stone sculpture able to move of its own accord. This desire to conceal reminded me of how our own bodies’ inner workings are often hidden from ourselves. I have sciatic pain that runs down my leg, but only an x-ray or MRI can reveal that the pain is caused by a herniation of my spinal disc. 

I wanted my ceramic sculptures to reveal their fragility by sweating, spitting, and crying. The circulation system—fountain pumps and latex tubing—is on full view so it becomes reminiscent of medical machinery designed to feed and support the sculpture. 

Nicki Cherry, Out of the calf, into the mouth, 2021, ceramic stoneware, shower chair, fiberglass reinforced gypsum cement, wax, oil, latex tubing, fountain pump, water, oil of milk

NC: Sorry to hear about your pain. Can you talk elaborate on the use of medical equipment in your work? 

NC: Both the step stool and shower stool act as pedestals for their human companions, but also act as prosthetic extensions of the body. I’m always drawn to objects that meld into ourselves. The step stool is the exact same object that I use in my physical therapy sessions. The medical equipment also emphasizes the sculptures’ fragility and prompts an empathetic reaction from the viewer. Several people told me the shower stool reminded them of taking care of an elderly family member. 

I also wanted to include materials that the viewer would instantly recognize and be able to place. Since the exhibition includes references to the ancient world and to futuristic sci-fi worlds, it was important that there was something that would also place the viewer in the present day. The medical equipment could be thought of as a modern-day artifact; it’s certainly something I frequently see out on the curb walking through New York. 

JM: Where do you see your work going next and do you have any shows or events coming up you would like to share? 

NC: There was something very magnetic about the more figurative elements in this show, so I’m excited to continue exploring that. I’ve been reading Olga Tokarczuk’s novel “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” which has some very visceral images that I want to work with. 

A few months ago I got an aromachemical set. Some of the scents made their way into the Trepan wall pieces, but I want to keep experimenting with ways to incorporate scent in my work. 

There’s nothing immediately coming up—I’m just looking forward to spending some time reading, resting, and playing in the studio for the rest of the summer.

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Jamie Martinez

Jamie Martinez is an artist, the founder/publisher of ArteFuse Magazine, and the Founder/Director of The Border Project Gallery. His artwork strives to disrupt the prevailing colonial paradigm in which we exist. His intentions are to ignite contemplation regarding the eroded indigenous beliefs, investigate the potential of art as a shield for the journey beyond life, and orchestrate meaningful rituals and communal assemblies that underscore the significance of cultural interchange in society, encompassing labor as well. Instagram: @jamiemartinezstudio

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