Nicole Ellis


Time-Lapse 6, 2016, acrylic paint on fabric, on canvas, 150 x 110 cm.

TO: What was your earliest intimation that you were going to be an artist?

NE: Quite early, I grew up with art. My aunt was an early modernist painter, (Kathleen Sauerbier) who studied in London in the 1920s and my father was an early modernist architect, (Russell Ellis), both from South Australia. I was always making and finding things. I wanted to be a clothes designer for a while and earlier on an archaeologist.

Was there a specific artwork, piece of writing or music, which revealed to you the power that art can have?

I read a biography of Mondrian, which I picked up by chance on a bookstall in Adelaide. It was very important to me and influenced my decision to go to art school.

Who were the most important of your teachers?

Lynne Collins, who was a lecturer at the South Australian School of Art, (now the School of Art, Architecture and Design, University of SA), once demonstrated to me the power of combining just two or three found objects together. I saw the potential for transformation in this quickly. He later became the head curator at the Hyde Park Barracks Museum where I exhibited a large site-specific installation, Arrested Sites in 1993. Clifford Frith, Ann Newmarch, Virginia Jay and Cecil Hardy were all important teachers in different ways at the South Australian School of Art.

Are there aphorisms, are there words of advice you were given which you sometimes bear in mind when you are making a work?

The idea of construction/destruction was helpful early on. It was instructive in the importance of risk-taking and being prepared to lose something in the process of finding something. Now I am interested in the idea of a dismantling/reorganising process, rather than the putting-back-together principle of traditional archaeology. I dismantle objects to discover how they are made, to reveal their hidden structure. I think about a contemporary archaeology.

How do objects or found material influence your approach to making art?

I worked with found objects at The South Australia School of Art in the 70s. For example, I collected different women’s hats, (feather, straw, felt, etc.) and made a wooden hat rack for them. Another piece was a collection of small, industrial tin objects. I made a wooden box with individual sections to hold them (as if they were precious objects). I took a series of photographs based on drawings into the ground with a nail, this revealed different coloured layers of sand, gravel and soil. This was later developed into a group of paintings using sand and marble dust with paint. I also worked on tea chest panels, which already had a history of use printed on them.

Since then, I have continued to work with the idea of a trace or remnant of something, in different ways, making abstract works using found objects, which reveal different cultural and material histories.
(This paragraph below comes from some writing I did earlier but may be helpful in terms of process and thinking)
More recently I have looked at urban and industrial artefacts (early modern design techniques, being rapidly superseded by new technologies), in Rome, with a potential for transformation. I sought less permanent equivalents for the precious/semiprecious materials of gold, silver, lapis, Byzantine porphyry and marbles, in materials such as: paper and metallic foil, wax paper, cardboard watercolour and fabric. In doing so the work reflects on the impact wrought by contemporary consumer societies, on the fragile nature of world resources and the force of the industrial process of production on the traditional skills of artisan/artists (different layers of social historical material).

When you make a work, what are the qualities you would like it to evidence?

The history or traces of its making.

Who in your estimation are the greatest artists (any field, not just visual arts)?

There are a lot I admire but wouldn’t want to say who are the greatest. (I tend not to think that way: hierarchy)
The greatest modern artists? The greatest abstract artists?
Again too many to list or to say the greatest. I would prefer to leave it for the critics to make pronouncements.
Velasquez, Matisse, Mondrian, Titian, Malevich, Sonia Delaunay, Cezanne, Kandinsky, many others…Manet, Warhol, David Novros, Bryce Marden (also his marble works), Dorothea Rockburne.

Which Australian artists do you admire and respect the most?

A lot…
Fred Williams, Brian Blanchflower, Rover Thomas, Emily Kngwarreye, Kitty Kantilla, Ralph Balson, Grace Cossington-Smith, Grace Crowley, Russell Drysdale, lots of others.
Which artists have influenced you longest and deepest?
Hard to say. There have been a lot of artists I have looked at and admired over different periods but not sure about influence.
Eva Hesse, Ellsworth Kelly, Matisse, Sonia Delauney, Annie Albers, Max Ernst, Robert Rauschenberg, Sigma Polke, Gerhard Richter, Robert Morris (felt works) to name a few.

What are the qualities you prize in your chosen medium/media?

Colour, colour pigments and dyes (historical and contemporary), linen because it so strong and also the oldest fabric. I love intricate and also historical textile technologies (hand and machine), texture and surface qualities (touch), the sensuous. I enjoy incidental elements, flaws, traces of human touch and gesture, and I seek out different assemblage techniques through experimentation and research. I also enjoy the qualities of the worn, aged, broken, torn, the seeming casual, the imperfect, traces of paint and reversals.

What are the things that attract you to abstraction? What is it that attracts you to specific objects? How do these two streams intermingle and relate within your own work?

Colour as a way of organising space on a flat surface or sculpturally. I think this goes back to a long appreciation of early Sienese painting (14C and 15C) and the Italian primitives. I am also interested in Indian miniatures from Murshidabad, in West Bengal (I see similarities between the two). There is an interest in finding the underlying essence of something: structure, colour, texture, a reductive pairing back. I seek/see different parallels in the small objects that I pick up on the streets and parks, which can be used or transformed in an abstract way. Rome has been instrumental (for many years), in this process with its intense backdrop of antiquity (and the social).

The idea of developing something that can communicate in different ways: distillations, still containing the essence but not working with narrative in any direct way. Closer to poetry.

Where do you find the objects that inform your artwork? Do you collect other objects that sit outside of your art practice?

I find a lot of small objects and food wrappers, cigarette boxes, paper foils etc., on streets and pavements mostly in Rome but also Beijing, Paris and Sydney. I have used a lot of different cigarette packets and their colour registers or codes, hidden under the flaps, for small collages. I equated them with the late antique and medieval church floors in Rome and tiny geometric abstractions. I am often on the lookout for new or different versions of objects. My textiles, linens, cottons etc., have come largely from Reverse Garbage near my studio in Sydney, but also fabric shops mainly in Sydney.
I collect a lot of different small objects, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Italian. For a long time I collected early modern Australian hand knotted (home made) rugs. I now collect abstract paintings (mainly small) and aboriginal painting (not much lately). I have a large collection of textiles.

How do objects facilitate the visual language within your work? How do found objects coalesce within a composition/arrangement or direct its form and structure?

The found objects are often central in a work or they are what the work is made of rather than being a small unit within the overall composition.

Do you feel any affinities or connections between your own work and that of say Picasso, Braque or Motherwell? Have they influenced your own practice directly / indirectly?

I have studied them and they have all had an underlying influence on my work over a long period and at different times. Picasso and Braque through their use of collage very early (cane chair material and wood grain and papers). I was also interested in Picasso’s use of parody in these early painting/collages using industrial objects (as a play on traditional painting). I was interested in Motherwell’s collages and I later I became interested in and still strongly admire his A la Pintura artist book of aquatint images and letterpress texts – his response to Spanish poet Rafael Alberti’s celebration of painting (1972). His edited book on the Dada painters and poets was also important as was his painting the Little Spanish Prison (1941) and Mallarme’s Swan (1944). Schwitters was an early influence and Max Ernst at a later period. I have looked closely at Ernst’s frottage works, especially the Histoire Naturelle series with wood grain and other textures, when I was doing my floor lift works in the early and mid 90s. I also did a series of grattage paintings (using paint on fabric and a roller), in Paris, of hand-incised dates in the (wet) pavements, going back to the fifties through to the nineties.

Who are/were the writers who have been most important to you during your lifetime?

Again too difficult to say, too many. The philosophers are mostly for my work and read over different periods.
Walter Benjamin, Baudelaire (Les Fleurs du mal), Anthony Vidler (The Architectural Uncanny and Warped Space), Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Barry Unsworth, (novelist who has written on the Byzantine era which fascinates me). Peter Ackroyd, books on London and Rome and the Thames. I have read widely but love history and often find footnotes very interesting.

What are the most inspiring books about art and artists that you have ever read?

Too many. Firstly the book on Mondrian, then many others on Picasso, Agnes Martin, Ellsworth Kelly, Max Ernst, Anne Truitt’s day book. Jean Clay, Impressionism to Modern Art, Chartwell Bks, 1975. Lots of others.

Download PDF of interview nicole-ellis


Sydney-based artist Nicole Ellis was born in 1951, Adelaide. She grew up in a very creative environment, her father was the early modernist architect Russell Ellis, her aunt, the painter Kathleen Sauerbier. She studied painting at the Adelaide College for the Arts and Education and later completed a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Tasmania in 1982. Since the late 1970s, she has been actively exhibiting in Australia and overseas. Her work has been collected by Artbank, the National Gallery of Victoria, and the Museum of Sydney.

Ellis is interested in the idea of historical recycling. She uses discarded factory samples and other found fabrics as her canvas. Her long time studio was located alongside Reverse Garbage recycling centre from which she would source materials. Using an archaeological framework, Ellis dismantles objects, takes physical impressions, and rebuilds from found materials. She has lectured at the College of Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales and mentions that while much of her inspiration comes from Aboriginal art, it is often her students that provide the freshest insight.

Updated:  4 November 2016/ Responsible Officer:  DHG Director/ Page Contact:  Drill Hall Gallery