Mike Nicholls’ work is powerful, primal and reductive. I met him when he travelled to Western Australia to exhibit last year with a mutual friend and photographed some of his smaller sculptural works. Mike generously gave me a book on his work and I was hooked. I quickly worked toward a time to come to Melbourne’s outskirts to see the farm where he grew up and continues to work from. The Grattons, as the property is named, is a marvel. The winding driveway dotted with Nicholls’ enormous sculptures approaches a hill where his mother still lives and further along, the workshop, studio, showroom and sheds he shares with his brother, furniture designer Brad Nicholls. Many readers will know I have a fair to high level fascination with sheds and this property has them in spades. I have resisted making an entire story on the sheds of The Grattons, but will satiate your curiosity on Instagram this week. Rolling misty hills and rusting corrugated iron, along with some spectacular gardens create a larger than life backdrop for Nicholls’ sculptures, which are absolutely everywhere on the property. Peeping out from behind trees, standing solitary in fields, attached to sheds and hidden in lush layers of gardens are figures, giant strong hands and shields – symbols Nicholls has worked with regularly since his exhibiting career began in the early 80’s.
Later, we drove into the city together to see some his paintings being shown with sculptures, in chronological order at Sagra Gallery in Melbourne and I have to say, his paintings are incredible. Again, large in scale, with a thick oil brush strokes that feel like the rawness of timber he also works with. But here, symbols of bottles and heavy figures balance precariously in works that feel somewhat autobiographical, but again, in his reductive, poetic visual language. Before I wax too lyrical, I think Damien Smith articulates this feeling well in his essay, ‘A powerful and indelible vision’ from Nicholls’ 2007 book, A Work in Progress, which is the book he gave me.
How does the sculpture begin? Is it the timber guiding you or is your vision pretty clear from the outset?
I usually do a rough drawing of the image l want to turn into a sculpture, then hunt around for a piece of timber that the image will fit into -taking into consideration where knots are on the timber and any other faults. I then cut out any faults and draw the image directly on to the timber, slowly reducing the log with the chainsaw to make it more manageable to handle as a 1 metre sculpture original log can weigh half a tonne.
It’s then a process of redrawing, chiselling, looking – until the sculpture is finished. I have the sculpture around the house for quite a while where l spend time contemplating it and observing if to see if it needs any reworking. Once l am happy with it, l put it in storage until l have the opportunity to exhibit it.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just taken down one exhibition. My good friend and talented sculptor Stephen King is kindly sharing his exhibition with me at Maunsell Wickes Gallery in Paddington this October. l’ll also be having an exhibition at the Merrick’s Store Gallery on the Mornington Peninsula in the near future. I’m mainly working on small works for a series that evolves around humanity taking responsibility for the environment and their destructive behavior to one another. I am also in the early stages of producing two large public sculptures.
Are there any opportunities for the public to come to The Grattons?
If people would like to come up and view work they can contact me through my website. I am fairly open to people coming up to the farm to look at art works and aim to do a open day in Autumn, if my work schedule is not too busy, as l am away a fair bit, taking workshops in indigenous communities in Cape York and the Torres Strait.