Article by Gloria Hickey

N
icola Hawkins and her husband Andy Perlis are both seasoned travellers logging months in Japan and especially India to document – on successive years – the rural tradition of handicrafts and domestic decoration. But in 1999 a different, unadorned landscape and authentic experience called out to them. Instead of the hot and crowded terrain of India they set out to discover a cold, sparsely populated landscape in Canada’s northern Atlantic province of Newfoundland and Labrador. It was barely touched by habitation, where they were more likely to encounter a moose or an iceberg than a palace or villager. They made the long drive from their home in Boston to Labrador eventually making the windy sea crossing to the island of Newfoundland.


Hiking along the southern shore of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula they made an unexpected but fateful discovery – a small tumble down church for sale. In comparison to the soaring cost of real estate in Boston the forlorn church was a bargain. And to Andy, who is a professional carpenter, and Nicola, who is a visual artist with skills honed by years in stage and set design, the church was irresistible.

Built in the 1950s by the residents of Admiral’s Cove, the small clapboard church appears older than it actually is. It reflects the old school tastes of the parish priest at the time, Father Michael Kennedy, who wasn’t fond of the brick “boxes” that were gaining favour. According to the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador’s inventory of churches, the building is classified as Classic Revival because of its blend of architectural styles. Originally intended as a satellite for a larger church in the neighbouring community of Cape Broyle, its modest scale made the Admiral’s Cove building suitable for a family home by the sea.

Nicola Hawkins is emphatic about their reasons for making the dramatic move to rural Newfoundland. “I knew here was the opportunity to live a simple life in an unspoiled natural setting.” Fuelled by idealism and a rigorous work ethic, Andy and Nicola transformed the dilapidated church into a comfortable and uncluttered living space.
Most notable in their new home are the large number of reclaimed domestic items. Abandoned sinks and wrought iron fencing were pressed into service. Wine bottles and candy dishes became stained glass windows.
Old clothes were cut into strips and hooked into carpets. Biscuit and tea tins were hammered out and cut apart becoming the raw material to give new life as a second skin to battered and discarded furniture. Along with the new home a new art practice was taking shape.

One extraordinary piece is a generous chest of gleaming silver and blue drawers. Nicola explains that this piece took extra muscle, fashioned as it was from large, heavy-weight institutional cans, the kind you find in restaurants and school kitchens. After pounding out the tin cylinders into sheets she used the grooves as decorative textural elements, placing them at various angles. Souvenir cookie tins depicting scenic locations in Canada supply flashes of vivid sky blue. It is tempting to read the picturesque scenes as a personal narrative but Nicola explains that it is simply what she had to work with. “I am always amazed by what people will bring me or what I find at thrift shops.” Nicola concludes, “The only things new in my work are the nails.”

Hawkins’ objects are characteristically soaked with labour but animated by a sophisticated
organization of visual detail; even large objects, such as the hooked carpet that adorns the central
living space, look lively and fresh. A slate blue fl ashed with energetic red, the composition is a
fi ne balance of circular motifs of different proportions combined in overlapping and contiguous
patterns. Asked about the formula that generated the design, Hawkins blinks in surprise, “I don’t
know how many circles are in it. I never counted them. My only thought was that I guess people
didn’t like red clothes. It’s what I kept fi nding but I’m attracted to red.” Her approach to design
may be instinctive and her materials may be reclaimed but she is not a naïve artist. She was trained
at art schools in Britain: Camberwell, Goldsmiths and Brighton.

What is behind her inspired recycling? In part it is a creative solution for a rural community’s
limited access to art materials and in part it is an expression of environmental concerns. To help
stem the tide of waste paper and packaging that accumulate in her home Nicola has become an
ardent recycler, in part because rural Admiral’s Cove in Newfoundland, like many small communities,
does not have access to an established city-run recycling program.

Piles of cardboard egg cartons become pulp in her studio and eventually outspoken decorated
vessels that are sold in craft galleries. Graphic images from the labels of canned chickpeas or tomatoes
dance like the medallions on a Turkish carpet or wall carving. Hawkins’ decorative style
is a blend of American pop art and fourteenth-century Islamic geometry. Regarding the boldly
coloured bowls Nicola concludes with a bright smile, “that was better than sending the cartons and
paper to the dump’s landfill.”

Hawkins grew up with a reverence for the handmade that was fed by trips to historic homes in
her native U.K. The Charleston farmhouse in East Sussex, decorated by the famous talents of the
Bloomsbury group, stands out in her memory. But it was her repeated trips to the villages of India
that jump-started her passion for decoration and salvage. “Here are people who are desperately
poor and still fi nd the time and means to unabashedly decorate almost everything” she stresses.
Simple clothing is embellished with elaborate embroidery, multicoloured chalk drawings invoke
protective blessings and act as welcome mats, even the village camel has patterns buzzed into its
coat. Ultimately, it was the efforts of the poor to add meaning and beauty to their daily lives that
inspired Hawkins to adopt “making and decorating things by hand not as drudgery but as breathing
or meditation.”

The little chapel beside the sea in Admiral’s Cove, now a lovingly renovated family home, is
a tangible example of Andy Perlis and Nicola Hawkins’ approach to both life and art. Inside and
outside, the house is an harmonious space punctuated with useful and delightful objects that
speak proudly of their past but have been given a new life.

Gloria Hickey is an independent curator and writer based in St. John’s NL.

Images (Left to right):
Bar code box, 2008
100% reused materials (except nails) Tea tin, metal bar codes, 15.3 x 7 x 7cm

Authentic Atlantic, 2008
100% reused materials (except nails) Chest, tin, nails, paint, 99 x 53.3 x 109cm

Food for all (Unico), 2008
100% recycled materials (except varnish) Egg cartons, food labels, non-toxic acrylic varnish
63.5cm diameter