Medium: Sculpture, cermamic sculpture and ceramics
Location: Toronto and Kingston, Ontario
Image: Nurielle Stern. A Copper Nail to Kill a Tree (stay close and far away), 2021. Porcelain, wood, greenhouse frame. Dimensions: 25’ x 14’ x 9’ (7.6 x 4.2 x 7.6 m) . Photo courtesy of Nicholas Crombach and Nurielle Stern.
Toronto-based ceramic sculpture and installation artist Nurielle Stern and Kingston-based sculpture artist Nicholas Crombach first worked together in 2017. Petrichor, curated by Sheila McMath, at the MacLaren Art Centre in Barrie, Ontario from June to September 2023, was their latest duo exhibition. With subject matter derived from the human relationship to the natural world, from formal gardens and horticultural practices to aviaries.
1. How would you describe your work? The media in which you work?
Nurielle Stern: I see myself as a ceramic sculpture and installation artist. I have in-depth training in the medium of ceramics, but I also work with a wide variety of materials and technologies. For example, I incorporate video projection into some of my ceramic sculptures. The freedom offered by clay to create something tangible purely from imagination has definitely influenced the way I approach all the materials I work with.
Nicholas Crombach: I am a sculpture artist and I work with a wide variety of materials and processes. I often use materials that conceptually add to the work. I model, mould, and cast material, but I also assemble things using found objects to create something new. I have an interest in metal casting, which I’ve been doing myself with a small aluminum foundry setup. This has allowed me to explore experimental possibilities in the material as well as work on several large-scale public art projects.
2. What was the inspiration for this particular collaboration?
Nurielle and Nicholas: From the start of our work together, we’ve been exploring the human relationship to the natural world from historical and contemporary viewpoints.
Our most recent collaborative exhibition, Petrichor, curated by Sheila McMath, took place at the MacLaren Art Centre this past summer. For this exhibition, we continued exploring this theme, but from the perspective of historical horticultural practices and ornamental gardens. For us, the garden became the synecdochal embodiment of human attempts to control and alter our natural environments, and a microcosm for the consequences of these practices. Our combined works touch upon grafting and training of fruit trees, garden aviaries, and folklore surrounding plants and animals.
Image left: Left: Nurielle Stern. A Copper Nail to Kill a Tree (stay close and far away), 2021. Porcelain, wood, greenhouse frame. Dimensions: 25’ x 14’ x 9’ (7.6 x 4.2 x 7.6 m). Right: Nurielle Stern. Signal Wicking, 2021. Single channel video. Dimensions variable. Image centre: Nicholas Crombach. Espalier I, 2021. Cast aluminum, wood, stone, ceramic, polymer gypsum, polyurethane resin, found and altered materials, cement, steel. Dimensions: 4’ x 7.4’ x 2’ (1.2 x 2.25 x 0.6 m). Image right: Petrichor, installation view. Nicholas Crombach and Nurielle Stern. Gallery 3, MacLaren Art Centre. Photos courtesy of Nicholas Crombach and Nurielle Stern.
3. You have been working together since 2017. Is the collaborative nature of your work important to you? What does it bring to the fore, compared to working on solo projects?
Nurielle and Nicholas: When we started working together, we realized we had a lot of common interests and themes in our work. For example, we both make work based on historical references such as still life painting or archaeological finds, and we also have a fascination with materiality and material processes.
One thing that really drew us to pursue our collaborations was a clear mutual respect for each other’s work, and common goals in the type of work we wanted to make.
Our first collaborative effort, Whale Fall, was unique in that we really made every artistic decision and constructed every piece together from concept to execution. Through working together we also shared knowledge, techniques, and skills.
For Petrichor we took on a different collaborative approach. We each created two individual bodies of work while collaborating on the theme and the exhibition design, including deciding to incorporate greenhouse structures. As we each developed our works for Petrichor, we kept in conversation to bounce around ideas, and to share our research. We still run ideas by each other even though they aren’t for a shared project.
4. For Petrichor, your work had a wealth of inspirations – from haunted Gothic landscapes and abandoned greenhouses, 19th century garden follies, to bones and bell jars, how did you ensure your pieces remain in conversation with each other?
Nurielle and Nicholas: All those images touch on tropes from Gothic Romanticism in art and literature which we’ve explored with a contemporary lens. These include references to ruins being reclaimed by nature vs human destruction of the natural world, and rational vs supernatural elements such as the hybrid and monstrous. The exhibition is atmospheric, and our works explore times of change, transition, and uncertainty – Gothic literary tropes as well.
Making new work is a lot like swimming in a primordial soup of ideas and associations. It requires a lot of risk-taking, trust in oneself and others, and making leaps in the dark. Keeping in contact as we work through everything really helps, but also we just have to trust the creative process and not be afraid to edit.
Image left: Nurielle Stern. Greensticks: Honeycomb & Vine (detail view), 2021. Porcelain. Dimensions: 19” x 8” x 4” (48 x 20 x 10 cm). Image centre: Nicholas Crombach. Concert of Birds (detail view), 2021. Patinated cast aluminum, velvet, wood, painted polyester resin, greenhouse frame. Dimensions: 14’ x 7.5’ x 10.25’ (4.2 x 2.2 x 3.1 m). Image right: Nurielle Stern. Greensticks: Branched Arm, 2021. Porcelain. Dimensions:20” x 5” x 36” (50 x 13 x 91 cm).
Photos courtesy of Nicholas Crombach and Nurielle Stern.
5. How do you find and choose the materials with which you work?
Nurielle: The flexibility of using ceramic materials allows me to create a fictional world of my own imagining. All the seashells and honeycomb clusters throughout the exhibition are made, not found. I mix all of my clay and glazes using my own formulas. I add ceramic colourants directly to the porcelain clay that I mix from scratch. For Petrichor, I coloured a lot of the porcelain mint green. The porcelain clays I developed can be handled in ways that commercially available clays can’t– for instance, I use an icing bag to create some of the texture in my pieces, like the fur on the lioness. I also over-fire some pieces, like the porcelain hands, so they have a sweat-like sheen and a texture like goose-bumps.
The only found objects I used were the vintage TVs, the tree branches which I cut, altered, and dyed to match the green ceramics, and the greenhouse frames which both Nick and I cut, and altered to make them look like wrought iron.
6. Could you walk us through your creative process, from finding/choosing materials to incorporating them into a piece?
Nicholas: When considering the combination of materials to incorporate into a piece, I am always thinking about their associations, and how they direct the interpretation of the work. For example, in Petrichor, I used a deep red velvet in two of the works to convey the storage of precious objects, and museum displays. In my piece Burial, the bones of a calf skeleton were cast or carved in a variety of rich materials with the intent that they would allude to objects from the history of the decorative arts. These are embedded in a velvet covered surface that does double duty: evoking a museum display, and also unexpectedly mimicking a natural history model in form and texture.
7. Are there any significant challenges to working with materials such as ceramics, pressed flowers, glass, resin, cement and found objects?
Nurielle and Nicholas: Every new way of working with any material provides its challenges which is often the fun part of developing work. This is the best part of being an artist! In a way, we are alchemists using new combinations of materials to create serendipitous moments of magic, to convey a feeling, or to communicate something in unexpected ways.
Image left: Nurielle Stern. Conduit, 2020 -2023. Single channel video, projector, porcelain, slumped glass, mirror. Dimensions: 36" x 36" x 24" (90 x 90 x 60 cm). Image centre: Nurielle Stern. Greensticks: Moth, 2021. Porcelain. Dimensions: 22” x 12” x 5” (56 x 30 x 13 cm). Image right: Nicholas Crombach. Burial, 2020. Velvet, soapstone, resin, wood, cast aluminum, foam, cement, found and altered materials. Dimensions: 30" x 39" x 30" (76 x 99 x 76 cm). Photos courtesy of Nicholas Crombach and Nurielle Stern.
8. Are there any new ways or new types of materials you're interested in using?
Nurielle: I’ve been working with steel– welding and plasma cutting– to create large scale armatures that will be encrusted with ceramic pieces. I’m really loving this new process, and it’s letting me work larger than I would be able to with ceramics alone.
Nicholas: Recently I have been exploring inlay, taking the craft and applying it in unexpected ways such as transforming a black plastic compost bin into an ornate antique furnishing. The embedding of one material into another was also the focus of a recent series of works I created where I poured molten aluminum around groupings of found brass objects.
9. In what ways do your techniques push conventional boundaries?
Nurielle and Nicholas: We enjoy finding out what happens when we don’t follow conventional ways of working with materials. We’re often looking for an accident or discovery that will lead to the synthesis of something new. We also intentionally take historical conventions and try to subvert them in order to add layers of meaning to our works.
10. Have you encountered anything particularly surprising or unexpected over your careers so far?
Our collaboration ended up surprising us–in a good way. We didn’t have any expectations when we decided to start working together and we ended up creating two large exhibitions and now count each other as close friends.
Image: Nurielle Stern. Signal Wicking (video still), 2021. Single channel video. Dimensions variable. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Crombach and Nurielle Stern.
11. Tell us about a favourite piece you’ve created and why it’s so memorable.
Nurielle and Nicholas: We think it would be fun to do this for each other for our works in Petrichor:
Nurielle: I think Nick’s wall-mounted piece, Fleuron I, is my favourite from our show. Materially, it’s jaw-dropping, and conceptually, it’s a wonderful memento mori. The broken glass sparkles like crystals, and there are little hidden treasures that appear with close examination– cast cement beetles and roaches along with architectural flourishes moulded from the interior of an actual gothic revival church in London, England. Bright pressed flowers are sandwiched between the glass pieces as if they’ve grown there. The piece is full of tension and contradiction. Natural and organic processes like growth, decay, and fossilization are juxtaposed with the growth and destruction of human civilization. Also evident are hubristic human attempts at slowing the passage of time which include the cataloguing and preservation of the natural world we are in the process of destroying.
Nicholas: Nurielle’s Lioness from her porcelain Greensticks series is definitely a favourite of mine. The lioness is quite confrontational although begs to be investigated closely. Materially, this work is fascinating. Up close you discover the lion’s form made of bands of clay covered with a spiky fur texture that's so different and unique from what comes to mind when I think about the typical qualities of ceramics. I'm always intrigued by how Nurielle pulls different references together and reimagines them. With the lioness, her use of relief is reflective of her interests in imagery from medieval tapestries, and illuminated manuscripts. At first the lioness appears to mimic a rampant lion, a symbol used in heraldry and throughout history associated with the power of kings. By contrast, Nurielle’s lioness is a mother lioness, both fierce and vulnerable.
Image left: Nicholas Crombach. Fleuron I, 2021. Plate glass, pressed flowers, concrete. Dimensions: 43” x 10” x 38” (109 x 25 x 96 cm). Image right: Foreground: Nicholas Crombach. Espalier II, 2021. Cast aluminum, wood, stone, ceramic, polymer gypsum, polyurethane resin, found and altered materials, cement, steel. Dimensions: 9’ x 3.25’ x 2’ (2.75 x 1 x 0.6 m). Background: Nurielle Stern. Greensticks: Lioness, 2022. Porcelain. Dimensions: 49" 29" x 4.5" (124 x 73 x 11 cm). Photos courtesy of Nicholas Crombach and Nurielle Stern.
12. What’s next for you? Or… In what ways do you hope your own practice continues to evolve?
Nurielle and Nicholas: We just want to keep busy, grow in our practices, and show our work!
13. Pay it forward -- tell us about something or someone our readers should know about.
Nurielle and Nicholas: Nurielle has founded a little project space/ gallery; The Lost & Found aims to provide space for the arts in downtown Toronto, where space is at a premium. It was created with the generous support of the City of Toronto’s storefront rehabilitation granting programme, and many artist friends volunteered their time and expertise to make it happen. The inaugural exhibition took place last April featuring the work of 25 artists who contributed to the gallery space. Nicholas and his partner, Tonya Corkey, were two of those artists. Since then, TLAF has exhibited the work of Elycia SFA, an amazing textile artist and weaver, and several more exhibitions are planned for the fall and winter with artists Garrett Gilbart (November 2023), Francis Muscat, Fly Freeman, Lynne McIlvride, and Rashmi Baird (December 2023) among others. Please check out www.tlaf.ca for more information.
Image: Nurielle Stern and Nicholas Crombach. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Cromback and Nurielle Stern.