By Rachel Filipinas.
All images courtesy of Nicole Patel.
Artist Nicole Patel makes the type of pieces that require a closer, more careful look. In one piece, she runs extra fine threads of twine or wire across the warp and weft of stretched canvas. In another piece, she repeats tiny stitches to create a delicate, tone-on-tone pattern. Up close, Patel’s work is a study in geometry, subtlety, and texture as she reimagines textiles and deftly plays on the relationship between negative and positive space. Up close, her pieces are equal parts calming and mesmerizing.
Patel’s work is a reflection of her lifestyle. After studying fine art at Syracuse University, she traveled through London and Paris, where she studied painting and eventually delved into interior design. Driven by a minimalist lifestyle and Buddhist philosophy, Patel creates pieces that aim to elevate the “ordinariness” of the natural materials she uses in her work. It’s this refined touch that also makes its way to her interior design practice—whether working on a new piece or a new space, Patel offers a balanced, carefully edited approach.
Patel spoke to Handful of Salt about minimalism, what inspires her, and her creative process.
Your background in art started with studying painting in Paris. What was your journey as an artist like from then to now? In Paris, I took a few classes, one being painting, but my undergraduate studies in fine art were done earlier at Syracuse University. I had a loose idea that I wanted to be an art therapist, but did not study that formally. There were many studio classes, and I concentrated in ceramic sculpture, but when I graduated, I recognized the leading theme in my education was learning how to be creative. I set out with this notion of approaching all aspects of life in a creative way.
I traveled and studied in London and Paris, and when I settled in New York, I was determined to be a painter. I produced a significant body of work in the first year. It was primarily based on sacred geometry and mandalas, yet in reality, the gallery arena was not a place for work with rudimentary spiritual connotations and I had painted myself into a corner. When it came to work and supporting myself, I was lead by beautiful environments and eventually architecture and interior design became my field of interest.
I went on to hold various positions in sales and design, the last of them being at B&B Italia. Eventually a returning desire to help people drew me further into what became my first business, Homework. It was established to help people in their homes by way of organizing and design. Some clients would hire me for design and others for organizing, but my favorite were the ones that went through the full process to ultimately improve their quality of life.
About two years ago, I felt another need that wasn’t able to be met with the interior design practice, which was to express my sensibility with textiles more fluently, and create something that would be solely in my own hands for the production—very much like working as a painter. That’s when I began this formal body of work. The wish to promote something beneficial and clear to someone’s home still remains, but it has changed form, and the spiritual connotations have become tempered.
You work primarily with canvas and organic materials. How did you get started using those primarily? I find natural materials to possess an integrity that I have a particular reverence for. When working with the materials, namely linen, wool, cotton, marble, plaster, wood, and copper, I aim to uphold their inherent value. The cloth is tacked gently and otherwise unaltered, the wood is unfinished and joined without glue or screws, and the lines are made of one continuous thread, therefore conceptually they can be repurposed. Its presence then acts as a wellspring of potential.
Can you tell us the process behind your work, and how a piece comes together? Do you have any rituals when it comes to creating a piece? The work fundamentally is inspired by the materials that compel me. Then, there is a layered series of measuring which recurs on all of the pieces. Then, I work and rework until I find what I’m looking for, and that can only be revealed by process and contemplating what has been made.
On another note, I do think that in world where mass production is pervasive, a handwork needs to have mass production attributes to be accepted as valid, and I am settling into working in limited editions on the pieces. I have begun this body of work with a place in my mind for a production studio if the need arises, so there is also an ongoing refining and standardizing of processes along the way.
You mention in your artist’s statement the influence of Buddhist philosophy in your work. Can you expand on that? There are many facets to that influence so I will start with a formative one. In Buddhism, there is the notion of Right Livelihood, and that has always been something I have aspired to manifest for myself. In the most basic definition, Right Livelihood is supporting yourself with work that is non-exploitative and does not contribute to suffering, for oneself and others. I feel creating works of art that hold a space for peace is the best vocation I have come up with to satisfy that aspiration, for both myself and others.
Have you always been a minimalist, or was it a lifestyle that you developed over time? There are many reasons I have cultivated a life of minimalism. The most prominent one aesthetically being the discovery of minimalist architecture and the work of John Pawson. The cover of his first book, with a staircase ascending anonymously into golden light captured my attention and I wanted to understand what it was that wasn’t there. I pored over his work, training my eye to see what was virtually invisible, and once I could see it, my life changed.
You are also an interior designer. What is your philosophy when it comes to interior design, and how does that play a role in how you approach your art? As an interior designer, I never felt it was right to go in with an additive approach, expecting to have a positive effect on a space. In my experience, a regular practice of editing is necessary for a balanced home that allows ample space for growth. So I would start from subtracting. Then on to establishing a formal layout, clarifying architectural elements, and from there, I would begin the adding. I am still led by materials, although the ideals I set out are not able to be upheld during the interior design process. But now I feel able to fluently express my sensibility that I have always wanted to provide for my clients, and I have satisfied myself with my artwork. Currently, I am providing design consulting for one project, a beautiful lake cottage renovation, and I am very happy being just the ideas person.
What, or who, is currently inspiring you? About eight months ago I moved to the Hudson Valley to a river town. It’s only about 30 miles north of the city but it’s a world of difference for me and my family. Here, there is so much natural beauty and virtually no need for the conditioned defenses I had become accustomed to. It’s so beautiful, it’s actually taken me time to open up to accepting it. So I’m just watching the first full cycle of the seasons changing. It’s the height of spring, the forsythia flowers have gone, and the wisteria petals are falling. The windows of my house are glowing green from the perimeter of foliage and there are stars out at night. I’m very inspired.
The Hudson Valley sounds like a beautiful place. Has moving there from the city influenced your work in any way, or the way you work? It’s a little early to tell how that is shaping my work, but I do know there is beautiful light and a simple, open space to work, and I enjoy it at each moment. Edward Hopper was raised here and began painting in this village, and I think of that as an indication of the quality of light that is being reflected from the Hudson River throughout the day.