Four Interviews/ Nicola Ellis

Our upcoming exhibition Four features exciting new commissions from four UK artists. Alex Leigh, Liz Gibson and Neetu Roy are the young curators who devised and developed Four. Here, they ask artist Nicola Ellis about the challenge of making her 400kg sculpture Peragro

Tell us about your new commission
Peragro is a large irregular tube-shaped sculpture completely encrusted with green, plum and black paddlestones. It is freestanding and once complete will stand at over two metres long, just under a metre wide and one metre tall.

Where did your idea for the piece come from?
The idea for the shape came from a drawing I did earlier in the year and the surface is a development of a method I’ve used before, slotting slate together in a particular way to make a continuous surface out of irregular shaped stones.

Is Peragro typical of your practice, or a development/new direction?
I’ve got a preference for working with stone at the moment so Peragro is typical of my choice of material right now. Using large paddlestones is a natural progression from the slate chippings I used for my last smaller sculpture Indentare Major, firstly because the material needed to be larger to take into account the physical size of this sculpture, and secondly because I feel I’ve learned all I can about the process of working with smaller chippings. It is important to me that each new sculpture I make tests a different material or process in some way. Keeping things fresh by introducing even slight changes in materials or processes helps me to avoid repeating myself, so I am constantly learning about the properties of the materials I use. When you look at it like that I suppose Peragro is typical of my practice, because I work with a particular material until I feel satisfied with my understanding of it, and then move on to another form of that material, or something else altogether. This doesn’t necessarily mean a final piece of work comes from every material I use. Sometimes playing with one thing just acts as a springboard for another.

Where do you source your natural materials from – do you think about sustainability?
The paddlestones came from an aggregate supplier who regularly works with artists on creative projects and stocks a range of new and reclaimed materials. The paddlestones used for this sculpture have not been reclaimed to my knowledge, but I also found some fantastic reclaimed tumbled glass chunks in their supplies which I plan to play with after finishing this sculpture. I also recently collected a large amount of rendering that was being removed from the front of a house and piled in a skip ready for landfill. The state of a material tends to come hand in hand with how I come across it. This does mean that sometimes I use new materials that have not yet been recycled, so I actively recycle old pieces of work within my own creative processes. The synthetic materials I use, such as polyurethane foam, are designed to have a long life, which makes them good to re-use as innards or supports for new pieces of work. Also, I often take prints from remains or surplus material, which is another method I like to use to gain an understanding of a material’s surface. I enjoy keeping material in circulation within my practice for as long as possible in some way or another because it reduces material consumption, encourages a kind of material life-cycle and is also the most cost effective way I can work.

What challenges have you faced when creating this piece?
There have been a lot! But negotiating challenging works is how I learn about materials and the logistics of working with them, so it’s the best bit for me really. One of the main challenges with this sculpture has been dealing with a material and process that results in a sculpture weighing around 400kg, which is much heavier than the work I usually produce. Also, this is the first time I have used this type of stone, so I could only approximate the total weight of the work when it reached its final stages. I didn’t have this information when designing the internal structure, so it had to be designed to support an unknown weight far greater than the work could ever reach. The unknown weight and length of the structure also had to be taken into account when making the inner structure, as I had to consider how the work would be transported to Cornerhouse from my studio.

What influenced you when you were our age… so 17/18 years old?
The natural world and rock music. Also, my parents have an engineering business so I came from a creative environment where I was able to watch and learn manual skills and processes. It was around that age that I went to study Fine Art at UCLAN and those skills and a problem solving approach began to form the foundations of my practice.

What’s next after Four?
I am looking forward to working with the glass chunks I mentioned earlier, and maybe I will start off thinking about how they fit together. I can’t really go any further with that idea until I actually begin to do it because the outcome of that and the properties of the material will tell me what to do with it next.

I like the idea of making something as hefty as the works in stone, which could also be transparent or translucent. Because this commission has taken a good few months, I have been stockpiling materials as and when I find them, so I have a lot of playing to do when this work is complete!

I also draw and paint constantly as it provides a good place to throw around ideas for new sculpture, to study existing work or to closely examine other objects or materials. Drawing is a good way for me to consider aspects of sculpture separately, such as shape, scale and surface, or even how to develop ways of manipulating and applying materials.

Four previews on Fri 25 January in Gallery 1. The exhibition runs until Sun 24 February.