From an early age, Manchester-based artist Nicola Ellis inherited an interest in the production and application of industrial materials. Her father, an engineer working in steel profiling, provided the thirst for ‘a culture of repair’ which the artist now implements in large-scale sculptural projects.
Recent commissions have seen her develop relationships with skilled people in industry. She now looks into how these skills create an economy of labour, and how materials can have a value in themselves.
To further her research Ellis is currently on residency with Ritherdon & Co Ltd, a family-owned manufacturer of steel enclosures in Darwen, Lancashire. Beginning last month and continuing until August 2020, she will learn more about the factory’s ecosystem having previously worked with staff there to make Chemistry and Magic Straight Down the Line for the National Festival of Making 2018.
Tell me more about how you seek problems through materials used for sculpture, and how your process then realises solutions to these problems?
In earlier works like Lassus, the ‘problem’ would relate purely to the formal qualities of the work; creating a continuous covering of straight lines around something round and bulbous. It was a bit of a riddle. This expanded in works such as Dealing with Length. I began looking at the tradition of a process to subvert the rulebook, to get as far away from functional welding as possible.
How about problems and solutions in relation to how you work with industry?
My motivation to interact with industry came from realising that working with processes in a studio environment is a strange and abstract thing to do. I began thinking how it is possible to maintain a large-scale sculptural practice nationally and internationally. This was resolved by loaning material from factories, which was then returned, recycled or cashed in after the take down. This informed parameters for the context and content of my work. It plugged it into local and global steel economies, along with giving each work an economy of its own.
The following problem was how to develop that relationship further, which was tackled through more recent work made with people in places of industry. The scope of the ‘problem’ has widened over the years but it’s always been about about the logistics of making something happen.
The idea of resolving something is inherent in art making. For me, it’s getting to a point in which the work is at its most efficient: minimum input for maximum output. This doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a lot of material, there just shouldn’t be anything erroneous. It should be streamlined.
Your work deals with the skill of handling and manipulating materials, just as much as your research hones in on skill as a method. Could you tell us more about this?
Traditional skills are at the foundation of everything I make. I try to understand a system in place, otherwise I don’t think I am able to subvert or navigate it. There has to be some solid parameters to enable the chaos of play, experimentation and enjoyment of making. If I know everything else is in hand, I can work with a clear head and be intuitive.
It’s important to have tacit experience with the processes I am subverting or studying, such as welding or powder coating. That isn’t to say I’m an expert. I want to do what I can to learn and then produce some other kind of understanding. This non-expert status makes it much easier for me to disrupt processes – I don’t have the weight of years of doing things properly on my shoulders.
How about the connection you make with skilled people?
The practical skills and knowledge I have are a starting point. But I am now equally interested in the skills of others and this has shaped how I work over the years enormously. My dad enabled me to access material and advice to begin working with metal, and this was followed by research projects that focused on the past and present production of steel in the UK, along with the social and political issues affecting communities in Middlesbrough, Scunthorpe and Port Talbot. I am now working with literally every person at Ritherdon & Co Ltd to understand the factory ecosystem, which ultimately relies on the skilled factory and office staff being generous with their knowledge and time.
How did you get involved with the residency you are currently undertaking with Ritherdon & Co Ltd, and how is it adding to your practice?
I undertook an Art in Manufacturing (AIM) commission for the National Festival of Making 2018. This involved a short placement at Ritherdon, to produce material for a large improvised installation. Elements of the installation were informed by conversations with factory staff, disrupting the highly efficient powder coating process, making and exchanging old equipment for new, and video documentation of processes that became video works.
Ben Ritherdon invited me back to use the factory facilities. I proposed a longer-term project, Return to Ritherdon, to build on work made during AIM with an expanded focus on the factory’s use of ‘Lean Manufacturing Philosophy’. To contextualise this activity in the sculptural canon, I will research the Artist Placement Group activity at Tate Archives.
The project is an opportunity for me to develop an anthropological approach to studying steel as a material and its associated manufacturing environments. There will be new work and a deeper understanding of factory operations, but I will also consider what function I have at Ritherdon as an artist, over an extended period of time.
How has your work developed over the years for you to take on commissions that are site-responsive?
My first site-responsive work was Porites commissioned by Castlefield Gallery in 2013. It was shaped by the direction my eyes moved around the downstairs gallery space from the bottom of the stairway. I enjoyed the contradiction of labouring over something so big that was initially shaped by a fleeting gesture.
You won’t see that bit anyway for 20:21 Visual Arts Centre in Scunthorpe was a similar process. The work had to be partially prefabricated but also had this element of sculpture kit to it, because it was made out of scaffolding. It was basically the guts of something presented as a finished sculpture; in some ways it was about the condition of sculpture being put forth in a material that made the conditions of making it as efficient as possible.
Later the larger works shifted to a more improvised and quick-paced response to the architecture of a site. I enjoy this as an intense activity and the works always turn out to be confrontational. Their improvised nature is visible and the energy it takes to haul the big sheets of material (and myself) around, sticks with the work. Building them into spaces makes them seem more real, like bits of infrastructure.
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How do you approach ideas of permanence in your work?
I am interested in the relationship between permanence and value. Larger works are built within a comparatively short timescale and are fleeting in lifespan. This makes them possible on most sites (so far) for a relatively low cost, materially speaking. The material also has monetary value, but is also valued differently by people who are linked to it through employment, family history, personal experience. Value is also referenced in the subversion of processes. The whole thing shifts again when the material is put back into circulation or recycled.
I do have sculptural works that I’m happy to keep hold of, exhibit and sell. This starts a whole new conversation about permanence and value in terms of the longevity of my practice, its legacy and my income. I don’t feel heartbroken about having to destroy the big works. Good documentation can be more valuable than storing a lot of material. The most important thing is how the work functions, then everything is dealt with.
What projects are you currently working on and how are you situating yourself geographically and financially to realise them?
I will be taking part in discussions throughout Return to Ritherdon – at various galleries in the North and at the factory – about resulting developing works and methodologies. I will continue to live in Manchester for the next few years to complete the project and any activity that comes as a result.
Major Conversations, the first of a two-part exhibition at Platform A Gallery in Middlesbrough, is currently on show until 9 May 2019. I have other confirmed exhibition opportunities for new work and will also be returning to Allenheads Contemporary Arts this year for their Continuum project, which is focused on art, science and speculative fiction.
At the moment I have a part-time flexible term-time job, so all of the money from my practice can go back into funding it. I do love an economy.
Nicola Ellis is this week’s featured a-n blogger at www.instagram.com/anartistsinfo.
Follow the Return to Ritherdon blog at www.a-n.co.uk/blogs/return-to-ritherdon
1. Nicola Ellis, An Orange Inclination, 2016, powder coated steel racking, approx 12 x 6 x 2m. And Critical Mass, 2016, steel powder coated racking and aluminium, approx 7m x 4m x 3m. Site specific installation at Caustic Coastal
2. Nicola Ellis, Lassus, 2012, polyurethane, straw and silicone, 110 x 100 x 80cm
3. Nicola Ellis, Barely functioning: In brackets, 2016, powder coated steel shelving brackets, mild steel weld metal
4. Nicola Ellis, Pole Jam, 2018, 1 x 2m sheets of stainless steel expanded mesh, galvanised threaded poles. Overall dimensions 1 x 2 x 15m, installation view at DOX Gallery, Prague
5. Nicola Ellis, Contaminated Panels, 2018, powder coating on mild steel, each 2m x 1m x 1mm with custom coloured bracket
6. Nicola Ellis, Leggy, 2018, powder coated steel racking, 500 x 300 x 250cm. Courtesy: Caustic Coastal UK
More on a-n.co.uk:
Art in Manufacturing for The National Festival of Making – the digital archive: 2018 blog by Nicola Ellis
Campaign to save Lincoln’s under threat Usher Gallery receives support from city council
MK Gallery reopens after £12m redevelopment: “We are proposing a new kind of accessible art centre”