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From Magazin Art (Fall 2005), courtesy of the publisher

Nicola Prinsen:Sculpting the Intimate Connection

Nicola Prinsen is a sculptor who works in ceramics and bronze. Her subjects are domestic and wild animals, ducks, cows, bats, bears, sheep, rabbits and others. Her work can be highly realistic or it can take on a distorted sensibility, like her cows that have elongated udders that almost reach the ground, which still somehow seem to convey a certain bovine essence.

While Prinsen has a serious side to her work she also has the courage to let her abundant sense of humour shine through. One of her ducks has the title, "So there was this Duck," the end of the gag being of course, "and he walked into a bar." Prinsen, however, doesn't add the tag line to the title. Instead she wants the viewer to get it. One of her rabbits is titled Jack, and whether it is because of her sense of word play or a certain whimsical nature in the sculpture, the viewer's sense of humour has been massaged.

That being said Prinsen's "serious" message is simple. "I really don't want to sculpt the animal as much as I want to sculpt the animal in the moment. I think it all comes down to a gesture or a movement. There is a time, and I think everyone in their life experiences it, with an animal in the wild or a domestic animal where you see them look at you and it's a split second recognition and your eyes meet theirs and there is something there."

Prinsen doesn't know or care whether it is the animal in humans responding to the animal in nature or whether it is the humanity in animals responding to us. It is that sense of connection, perhaps the circle of life, that she wants to capture in ceramic or bronze. "Whichever way it goes it's there and that's the moment I want to capture, moments and gestures." And she does so remarkably well.

The artist first experienced the defining moment that changed the course of her life when she was in grade four and the art teacher brought in a pottery kick wheel to turn pots on. She was the first one to volunteer to try it out and she became hooked. "I was fascinated with it and then of course, in came the clay. I can remember making a pot and entering it into the Pacific National Exhibition. I think I got a second ribbon for it and from then on I went to clay like someone who can't get enough of paint or canvas. There were times in my life when I wasn't involved with art but I just kept coming back to it."

Prinsen moved from pottery to sculpture when she was at the University of Alberta and throwing pots. She kept changing the shape of them because she was bored with round forms and finally her instructor said, "I think you're in the wrong department."

She grew up in Surrey and Langley, British Columbia on a kind of small farm which had horses and maybe a goat or two. She and her sister showed quarter horses and rodeoed. That experience gave her a love for animals. "I love clay. It's the medium of my choice. It's a great medium. It just grew out of that plus my love of animals in the way that I almost see them in a human form. So I could take my love for animals and my love for clay and combine them."

Prinsen only started working in bronze roughly four years ago and it came about inadvertently. "I was feeling somewhat repetitious with some of the pieces I was doing because people would say, I love that cow or this piece and they'd want me to reproduce it. I didn't enjoy doing that. Working in bronze has opened up an avenue for me so that I can express myself in clay and there can be an edition of four or five and that gives me the ability to move on to another piece.

Working in bronze has also given Prinsen the ability to go beyond the structural limits of clay. " A good example is that I did a series of crows and that was a group of sculptures I wouldn't even consider doing in clay because you have this big body mass and then you expect these little legs to hold it up and in clay it just wouldn't work. Clay is unforgiving. You have to be nice to clay or it will fall off. It will do everything it can to not go in the direction you want it to. With bronze, which defies gravity, I can put my four legged creatures on three legs.

Prinsen works in two styles. One is highly realistic and the other might be described as elongated distortion. She doesn't believe that her work could be described as abstract. "I don't think I am an abstract sculptor. My thoughts may be abstract but I don't like to put my sculpture in that category. When I work on a piece I try to stretch it or move the dimensions. I am stretching the form. But to stretch it to the point where someone will come into my studio and say, what is that, then maybe I've gone too far." She is a firm believer in knowing what something is before she alters its form.

Prinsen has lived on Salt Spring Island in the Gulf Islands between Vancouver Island and Vancouver for the last five years. She lives and works in a converted dairy barn that was built in 1926 overlooking Ganges Harbour.

"When I am going to sculpt an animal it's nice to have some time to sit and listen and see the way they move, the way they walk, the way they look and the way they interact with you or the environment. On Salt Spring Island I have four legged subjects everywhere and the people here are very creative so when I call up and ask if I can fondle their Jersey cow they say sure, come on down."

For every ten or so pieces that are elementally distorted Prinsen goes back and produces one highly realistic sculpture and this accomplishes a number of objectives. On one hand it grounds her work in pure anatomy. It gives her the knowledge she needs so that she can then go ahead and alter or erase anatomical features in the next and it allows her to say, "I could do a realistic piece if that's where I wanted to go but I'm having more fun doing this. You have to know where all the parts are first before you start moving them around."

Prinsen worried for a long time about whether or not she was developing her own style. She also worried about how casting her clay creations would affect them. She worried about whether or not their softness and fluidity would be curtailed by the sharp hard edges of metal.

She says she works in chaos, on three or four pieces at a time. "I was jumping all over the place and I was thinking when will I get a style. When will someone look at a piece and say that's a Nicola Prinsen and for me it happened without knowing. I'll do pieces now and realize that I have developed a style. My pieces tend to be somewhat flowing and I think that's because the bronze pieces are coming from the clay and the clay is very manipulative."

Sometimes the pieces do lose something in translation. Her bats, for instance, originally looked something like the dog in the Taco Bell commercial. After they were cast, however, they had lost something of their soft fluid nature. This hasn't been the case with her Old Bear which looks marvellously soft and fluid: the hallmark of her style.

Prinsen has just celebrated her fiftieth birthday. "I'm worried that I won't have enough time to achieve all that I want to. I have more ideas than I have time." On the other hand she is happy and fulfilled with what she is able to accomplish and that's good for all of us who like their beauty with a trace of humour.