One reason for my slow awareness was that I had only recently moved to New Zealand and was still getting to know its contemporary arts scene. Furthermore, Peter had recently turned 70 and was beginning to lose his hearing, so he was sometimes slow to join in discussions (a hearing aid soon helped with that). But the main reason was that Peter, though a giant of a man, was a genial, soft-spoken, and generous conversationist. Occasional stories about an early meeting with Mark di Suvero or mention of praise for Peter’s work from Richard Serra just didn’t register for me. It came as something of a surprise when, in early 2008, he told us that the Dunedin Public Art Gallery was preparing a major retrospective of his career.
The title of that retrospective, Journeywork: The Sculpture of Peter Nicholls, was apt: Peter was an artist who just got on with it. But the title also called attention to the remarkable artistic journey he had taken since his sculptures first came to prominence in the early 1970s.
Nicholls’s work might be positioned at a meeting point between the reimagined Russian constructivism of Mark di Suvero and Kenneth Snelson and the environmentally informed sculptures of artists like Andy Goldsworthy and David Nash. His sculptures would certainly sit comfortably with the works of these contemporaries in a gallery of 20th- and 21st-century art. But Nicholls is a remarkable New Zealand artist because of the way that his nation’s complex history informs his most interesting works. This engagement with national history became more evident, and more personal, over the course of his five-decade career.
Nicholls’s best-known sculptures are those situated in public spaces — which is a blessing and a curse. The problem with public art is that it’s hard to be both subtle and appreciated at the same time. New Zealanders encounter Nicholls’s sculptures from a train in Auckland, or on the Whanganui waterfront, but we don’t always give them their due. Only big, showy works (à la di Suvero) get noticed. For 35 years, students at the University of Otago have walked past, around, or even under Nicholls’s Bridge (1986), but how many pause to contemplate its dramatic form, which brings to mind both a gateway and the prow of a ship? Or how the great cuts of wood, themselves recycled rail beams, suggest the trestle bridges of the early train lines? If this work is a reminder of movement and passage — an appropriate image for the heart of any university campus — it is also a mountain, a symbol of the tenuous climb every serious scholar (or artist) must make.
I imagine more people stop to appreciate the beautiful Toroa (1989), situated beside Otago harbor. In its angularity and curving lines, this stunning work owes its own debt to Russian constructivism, but Nicholls reimagines that style for our Antipodean context. A monument to the albatross (there is a large breeding colony of Northern Royal Albatross near the city) and to nature’s grandeur more generally, it manages to capture both the ruffle and the strength of these avian wonders. Standing before it, I can’t help thinking of those silly and sublime words from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Windhover”: “my Heart in hiding / Stirred for a bird.”
Toroa was originally created out of macrocarpa (Monterey cypress), a California import that was often planted in rows as a windbreak on colonial farms and properties. Though Nicholls usually worked with native woods, this choice makes sense for these occasional visitors who spend most of their lives overseas, and who depend so much on the wind for their own movement. In the months before the pandemic, Nicholls was able to oversee the complete reconstruction of this work, as the original wood had rotted away in places. This new version, in South American purpleheart, should last several more generations.
Nicholls thought deeply about our environmental impact on the landscape, and there was always a strong ecological element to his work — from Counterpoise (1978), an early commentary on oil drilling commissioned for Edmonton, Canada, to the forest bloodstreams of his great works in the Auckland area, Rakaia (Gibbs Farm, 1997) and Tomo (Connells Bay Sculpture Park, 2005). In the latter work, red ribbons of steam-bent pohutukawa meander through the trees, suggesting the travels of a forest spirit. Yet, on reflection, the viewer realizes that this artwork is also an imposition on the landscape: carefully shaped and constructed, held in place by steel poles. The work’s title, Tomo, is a Māori word with several meanings, one of which is an arranged marriage. It’s an appropriate metaphor for any kind of artistic intervention into the environment.
For Nicholls, this question of environmental responsibility was personal: a maternal ancestor, the missionary and botanist Richard Taylor (1805–’73), had spread the Christian gospel among the people of the North Island’s Whanganui region, while also scattering European seedlings throughout the land. Many of Nicholls’s key works from the 1990s take their inspiration from this ambivalent legacy. Whanganui (1990), today in the Sarjeant Art Gallery, is one of a number of his sculptures that snake along the ground, tracing the movement of the mighty Whanganui River where Taylor lived and worked in the 1840s. Nicholls created Whanganui out of a mixture of woods from native New Zealand trees (totara, rimu) as well as from those introduced to the area by Taylor (willow, poplar), and he embedded various objects in the work — an adze head, a compass, a cross — that call to mind both the Māori and the early European (or Pakēha) settlers who left their mark on the river.
Nicholls expanded this meditation on the meeting of native and settler in a series of sculptures in the 2000s, many of which were exhibited at Gore’s Eastern Southland Gallery in 2013. You might argue that these works explore, in a smaller, more refined way, the same concerns as Whanganui. Perhaps so, but they are also remarkably beautiful objects that suggest one way forward for art as reconciliation in Aotearoa New Zealand.
These small-scale works combine two types of wood: swamp kauri and gorse. Native kauri forests, which once covered northern New Zealand, were nearly wiped out by colonial expansion and are now protected. Swamp kauri comes from ancient logs that have sat in peat for sometimes thousands of years. In contrast, gorse (or furze) was one of the plants that Richard Taylor introduced to the Whanganui landscape — an introduction that Nicholls bitterly regretted. Though used as a hedge or as a burning wood in its native Europe, gorse spread through New Zealand with unexpected rapidity in the 19th century — not unlike its European introducers. Its thorny branches and proliferating seeds are a gardener’s nightmare. And yet botanists have learned that, with the right attention, gorse-covered fields can provide a useful foundation for the reintroduction of native trees.
One of the works from this series, titled Dream (2010), sits on my writing desk. A beautifully polished, triangular piece of swamp kauri, perhaps a thousand years old, balances on a three-pronged branch of treated gorse of considerably more recent provenance. The triangular shape of the kauri suggests a perching bird, or perhaps a waka (canoe) coming ashore. The two materials are separate but combine to make something beautiful. If this sounds a bit naïve, even utopian, well, the sculpture is titled Dream. While Nicholls’s current reputation mostly rests on his impressive, large-scale sculptures, I think some of these later, smaller works may have an even greater legacy for New Zealand art, as they offer an aesthetic vocabulary for Pakēha artists to think sensitively and critically about their place in the nation’s colonial and environmental history.
I may not remember when I first met Peter, but I know exactly the last time I conversed with him. It was on December 22, 2020, at a party at my and my partner’s home. Near the end of a lovely night of laughter and stories, Peter and his wonderful wife Stephanie joined a small group of friends outside to admire our 100-year-old macrocarpa border. When they returned, Peter strode toward me with a wild glint in his eye, looking like some benevolent Ancient Mariner. “Tom!” he said, “that macrocarpa is extraordinary! Would you mind if I came by some time and sketched it?” He said it with such wonder and enthusiasm, as if he had just seen something miraculous in our back yard.
I will always regret that we never had time for that sketching session. But now, when I step under the macrocarpa and look at its twisting gray branches, like weathered veins and capillaries, like the nave of a great cathedral, I think of Peter and the awe of nature that creates great art, and greater souls.
Thomas McLean is an associate professor in English at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He is the author of The Other East and Nineteenth-Century British Literature: Imagining Poland and the Russian Empire (Palgrave, 2012) and co-editor, with Ruth Knezevich, of Jane Porter’s 1803 novel Thaddeus of Warsaw (Edinburgh, 2019). He has written on art, literature, and migration for The Migrationist and The Conversation UK.
Featured image: "Peter Nicholls Portrait March 2019" by Keepitsimplekarl is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped and desaturated.