Peter Clement Fife Nicholls
27 April 1936 – 3 February 2021
Writer David Eggleton knew Peter Nicholls over a number of years. He visited the “kind and helpful” artist in his Dunedin studio near the art school, interviewed him, wrote about his work, and often saw him out and about – mostly at art gallery exhibition openings.
Sculptor Peter Nicholls was born in 1936 in Wanganui and spent his childhood around the lower reaches of the Whanganui River, and this remained his spirit country, though his family shifted to New Plymouth. His maternal great-great-grandfather Richard Taylor was a Treaty of Waitangi negotiator and, as a Christian missionary and explorer was responsible for naming the settlements along the Whanganui River. This ancestor figure became an important reference point for Nicholls the artist.
As a teenager, Nicholls spent four years as a farm cadet in the Waikato region, which involved hauling logs through the bush. After a spell as a stock agent in New Plymouth, Nicholls went to art school in Christchurch, then attended Elam School of Art in Auckland. He worked as a high school art teacher in Auckland in the 1960s, making sculpture in his spare time. By the early 70s, after a phase of figurative works, he had become known for his command of a sculptural vocabulary that employed assemblage: shaped pieces of timber bolted or cleated or strung together. In 1979 he became Lecturer in Sculpture at the Otago Polytechnic School of Art.
Wood was always Nicholls’ primary sculptural material. He adopted the essentially utopian aspirations of ecological art, and his work demonstrated an ever-changing understanding of the landscape.
In the series New Land (1976–1978), Nicholls revisited the colonial age of wood, when industrial processes helped shape the wilderness. Emblematic implements — axe handle, scythe blade, railway spike — were embedded in, or bound to, chunks of timber. Fossicking around sawmills and farmyards, Nicholls resurrected bits of machinery which he incorporated into sculptures.
Blood, sweat and tears went into the nineteenth century’s kauri dams, totara wharf pilings and matai fence posts. Nicholls’ 1970s analogues – his plough, pump, and drill forms, his buttresses, wedges, and king-posts – were acknowledgements of the honest toil and craft of these vanished artisans. If this was all there was to Nicholls’ works, they would be period pieces, an art history lesson. What gives them continuing vitality is the way they also evoke an organic constant, the human body and its movement. This was Nicholls’ other great theme: making timber dance.
Early works deployed wires to catch heavy beams mid-hop, with logs balanced like circus artistes. One cable-linked assemblage, in the loose configuration of a cross, featured truck springs held in place by steel caps. The effect was of tension and buoyancy working against gravitational pull. Such works evoke land clearance, when trunks would plunge through forest canopies and tree crowns crash to earth.
The notion of arrested kinetic movement was something Nicholls continued to explore in the 1980s, using stepped or fanned blocks of wood collaged together with skilful joinery. Stacks were made to appear to teeter, to twist and to fan out. Stacked timber seems in its statuesque way to flex and ripple and conjure the image of weight pushed up into the air by a skeletal structure of bones or struts. Typically lobbing a sequence of blocky shapes into the air, Nicholls evoked the lyrical play of sails and wings, of arms and fronds reaching up. A prominent work from this time, Toroa (1986), climbs and furls to evoke what he called “wing essence”. The sculpture, made of heart macrocarpa and recently restored, is located on Custom House Quay in Dunedin harbour’s Steamer Basin.
In 2008 Dunedin Public Art Gallery presented a retrospective of Peter Nicholls’ work. At first glance Journeywork looked like salvage from an axemen’s carnival: wood everywhere – splayed and flayed, trimmed and notched, curved and jointed. But it was actually neatly arranged, with a well-ordered spareness and simplicity. Log butts were trussed; planks were wired together; small curved and perforated shields of metal, shaped like foliage, hung precisely on walls; and shiny wedges of aluminium embraced tiny branches of swamp kauri in lyrical tabletop entanglements.
Memories of the colonial age of wood sprang to mind – the bushwhacker, the sawmill worker, the bridge-builder, the pioneer putting up a post and rail fence – and then you saw that Nicholls was not just memorialising the construction of some backblocks bush town, or the clearing of ghostly paddocks full of stumps and burnt trees. His journeying was deeper, more elemental: it was about cycles of renewal and recovery. Here, working with wind-fallen trees, with driftwood, with discarded industrial timbers and metals, Nicholls proved himself an artist who meditated on our dialectical relationship with nature by telling his personal story.
Peter was married to Stephanie Bate. He was father to Copelia, Kirk, Patrick and Ashley, and step-father to Stephen and Emma. He was also the grandfather of eleven children and great-grandfather to ten children. He was previously married to the artist and sculptor Di ffrench (b. 1946 - d. 1999).