Local comics artist, writer, and illustrator Sylvia Nickerson has been tackling everything from artificial intelligence to Mer-creatures to city encampments in her 18-month-long extended Artist Residency at the AGH.
Begun in March 2020, Nickerson’s original aim was to develop content for a new fantasy graphic novel exploring the future of artificial intelligence. Her ideas expanded into a sculptural installation, Dark Mirrors, comprised of papier–mâché figures that are a three-dimensional evolution of the drawn figures in her comic style illustrations, that she has become so well-known for. Her plan was to use Dark Mirrors as a vehicle for imagining the characters these figures would become in a speculative technological future. Visitors could create their own characters and help to generate identities for the figures. But with the temporary closure of AGH due to the pandemic, the project took some turns.
While Nickerson was working away on ideas for the novel, through illustration and writing, the world was changing outside the gallery doors. She recalls that “in the fall of 2020, pressures of the pandemic had built up to the point where more than a hundred people were camped out on Ferguson Avenue North in Hamilton, as well as in parks, trails and greenspaces throughout the city.” Still working with papier–mâché, Nickerson created a new figure and laid it on the gallery floor, next to a camping tent that she had pitched there. Drawing connections between displacement of the house-less and the dismantling of Defund HPS’s Freedom Camp at City Hall and the arrest of its Black Lives Matter protestors, “the tent became a symbol of shelter for the displaced, and house-less-ness was being debated quite a bit, especially before the city of Hamilton order to clear the major encampment at Ferguson Ave.”
Reflecting on that time, Nickerson recalls: “As the pandemic wore on, I often thought about how many of us craved a connection to memories of a nicer time, to spaces of safety, that seemed out of reach. Like camping peacefully, or sunbathing on a warm beach. So, the tent person sculpture now had the resonance of both protest and escape. Inside the tent is a rainbow of paper and outside on the ‘beach’ there are lots of different thoughts, textures and experiences referenced in the paper cut-out clouds and other shapes scattered there. Those scattered cut-outs kind of represent the lost thoughts and scattered detritus of 2020.”
Nickerson was also at work on a new illustrated children’s book, titled The Time We Met The Mer-One, co-created with author and friend Luke Hathaway. The mer-one, a gender fluid creature formally known as a mermaid, lives in a chamber covered in a veil of keys. Nickerson decided to cover the gallery walls with stamped keys—“I enjoy the repetition and modulation of an element that repeats but is never uniformly the same. By the time I got to the end of the book I really felt it was a celebration of colour, of transformation, and of all the elements that had gone into imagining the environment for this story.”
Upon the AGH re-opening, visitors will get to experience the tent person, the key mural and see the original illustrations from The Time We Met The Mer-One.
Situated in Hamilton for the last twelve years, Nickerson has previously written comics examining parenthood, gender, social class, and religion. In her two-decade-long practice, she has explored the emotional underworld of urban life, as she thinks about the way humans connect or feel disconnected. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post. Her graphic novel Creation won The Nipper Doug Wright Award for Best Emerging Comics Talent.