A couple of years ago, Gordon Nicholson was driving down a road outside of the city and saw a series of abandoned buildings that made him stop and take a picture. “They looked like at one time they were a series of road-side shops or flea market stands. They were falling apart and leaning together in a way that only nature can fabricate,” he says. As he was shooting pictures, someone came out of a small house nearby, got in an old red truck, and headed toward him aggressively. The approaching man shouted at Nicholson, who explained that he was an architect and an artist and he admired the buildings. “There was what felt like a long pause, and the next thing I know this guy starts into a whole story about the buildings, his plans, and how he’s waiting for his son to come back from Afghanistan to help him fix them up. He told me he’d fallen on hard times.” Nicholson says these unexpected conversations occur frequently when he’s roaming the city, and pieces of the conversations become the text on his trademark works.
Nicholson’s technique of writing over the watercolor paintings of buildings and figures began with a letter to his newborn daughter Cayleigh. Nicholson wrote the letter on top of several loose sketches of her. He explains the technique as a surrealist, automatic process that is heavily influenced by the subject matter. “The text is part of the making and experience of the work,” Nicholson says. “The paintings I have been trying to do of McCleod Plantation include text about the way the small buildings barely touch the ground, how this is offset by the massive masonry fireplaces and chimney, and how the large oak limbs appear over the thick roofs.” Nicholson admits that the grammar and spelling is terrible and says sometimes he can’t even read it, but that’s not the point. The point is to create a contrast between the hard lines of the buildings and the rhythmic, curling lines of his letters. The resulting paintings feel private, as if we’re looking inside someone’s journal. They seem to give a voice to the buildings, like they’ve been turned inside out to reveal their history.
After growing up outside of Toronto, a very modern city where fragile, aging buildings can’t stand up to the heavy snow, Nicholson has embraced the ruins and history of the Lowcountry. His first solo show at the Corrigan Gallery, Unmasking, was inspired by his daily commute from West Ashley to his daughter’s school in Mt. Pleasant; he says the renovation of the Crosstown is like an archaeological dig. “The process of making something new means that things are revealed in what’s left behind,” he says. Not interested in capturing the cleaned-up world of Rainbow Row or South of Broad homes, Nicholson wanders the parts of the city in disrepair for inspiration. It’s the muddied, rotten parts that are more revealing to this artist than the sparkling and brand-new.