Third Street Gallery archive: 2006 Exhibitions: Ingrid Nickelsen: A Life's Work

Ingrid Nickelsen's Inner Eye by M. Elizabeth Boone

Gutherie Creek Dusk, date unknown

Walking up the lightly trod path toward the house in Eureka, I notice the garden. It is asymmetrical, surrounded by evergreens, hidden from the street, with a hint of Japanese design. I enter through a glassed-in porch—perfect for use as a painter’s studio—and make my way into a rustic kitchen. The bowls and mugs are hand-made, ceramic with cobalt blue outline drawings of a lizard, a newt, a hammer, and a wrench. Area rugs in the living room cover the wood floors in a riot of color, the walls are painted the color of orange sherbet, and a small stained glass window casts iridescent light onto the wooden floor. An impressive Vermont Castings wood stove with river rocks arranged on top stands to the side. On one counter lies a high school yearbook; next to it is a scrapbook filled with pictures of a tall young woman traveling in Japan.

There is a collection of LP records, primarily classical, stacked on the floor. And there are books. Hundreds of books. They fill two hand-built bookshelves that stretch from floor to ceiling. Perusing the titles I find Peter Selz’s German Expressionist Painting; the Letters and Journals of Paula Modersohn-Becker; Herschel Chipps’ anthology, Theories of Modern Art; and Heinrich Wolfflin’s classic, Principles of Art History. This was the home of an artist. I look further and find Barbara Novak’s American Painting of the Nineteenth Century, a book on the Romantic era, and Josef Albers’ Interaction of Color, as well as volumes on Japanese painting and the craft of stained glass. A pair of binoculars sits perched in front of the volumes. Other shelves expand my knowledge of the artist who lived here; she was drawn to the work of other women—there are monographs about Diane Arbus, Georgia O’Keeffe, Käthe Kollwitz, Berthe Morisot, Alice Neel, even Marie Laurencin—and she read the works of Linda Nochlin and Lucy Lippard, two of the most important feminist thinkers of her generation. She was interested in spirits, myth and nature; the Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets and American Indian Myths and Legends have both found a place on her shelves, along with a copy of the Birds of North America, June Fleming’s Well-Fed Backpacker, and a Tony Hillerman mystery novel. I meet Ingrid Nickelsen by meeting her books. They offer me entry into the depths of her inner eye.

Ingrid Ingeborg Nickelsen (1943-2005) was the eldest of three children born to Ralf Edgar Nickelsen and his wife Ingeborg. Ralf Nickelsen was from Hamburg, Germany, where he studied mural painting and stained glass before immigrating to the United States in 1922. He attended the Art Students’ League in New York and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, then worked on the WPA Federal Art Projects during the Great Depression. Eventually he joined Charles Connick’s stained glass studio in the Back Bay of Boston, where he collaborated on commissions for many of the most beautiful churches in North America.1 Ralf and Ingeborg spoke German with each other and English to their children. As a child, Ingrid Nickelsen visited her father in his stained glass studio, and his influence is one of many she integrated into her work during the course of her career.

Growing up in Newton, a suburb west of Boston, Nickelsen pursued drama, art, and sailing. The family owned a summerhouse on Cape Ann, in Rockport, Massachusetts, and Nickelsen spent many hours on her sailboat, alone with the sea. Cape Ann was also the home of mid-nineteenth century luminist Fitz Henry (Hugh) Lane, and a young artist can view one of the finest collections of his landscapes at the Cape Ann Historical Museum. Luminist
painting, as defined by Novak in Nickelsen’s copy of American Painting of the Nineteenth Century, is characterized by crisp light, precisely delineated form, invisible brushstroke, and an anticipatory stillness. Some have called luminist painting “a calm before the storm,” the storm being the war over slavery and abolition that ripped the United States in two. Others note connections between the luminists and the American transcendentalists. Henry David Thoreau immersed himself for two years on the solitary banks of Walden Pond to live off the land and know nature in all its forms. He and Ralph Waldo Emerson believed in the essential unity of all creation, the innate goodness of man, and the supremacy of insight over logic for the revelation of the world’s deepest truths. There is in luminist painting, as in Nickelsen’s, a correspondence between what the eye can see and what the soul feels, a desire to lose oneself in nature, a focus on insight and revelation, and a belief that formalized society oppresses the individual. “Certain sites capture me,” Nickelsen wrote in a passage echoing Thoreau in its expression of intimacy with the natural world. “Often, I know these places well by visiting them throughout many years in different seasons and weather.”2

Luminism is an American manifestation of European Romanticism, and Nickelsen’s work also relates to the landscape art of northern Europe, particularly the paintings of Danish painters Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, Christen Købke, and their German contemporary Caspar David Friedrich. These painters studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen in the early years of the nineteenth century. Nickelsen’s father was from northern Germany, as was Friedrich, and the German Romantics looked as much to Scandinavia as to Italy for education and inspiration. They also read Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), a treatise in which God and nature are fused and the experience of awe becomes dependent upon a profound sensation of pleasurable fear, or even pain. The paintings of these northern artists, too, are characterized by a directness of vision, purity of form, and a clear, penetrating light. Friedrich went directly to nature, creating from his intimate encounter with the land an introspective spiritualism, one closely in tune with his Protestant background and its tradition of personal independence and direct communication with God. Nickelsen, fascinated by Nordic myths and fairy tales of all kinds, possessed a strong connection to the land of the midnight sun.

After graduating from Newton High School in 1961, Nickelsen began studies at Earlham College, in Richmond, Indiana. Earlham had been founded by the Quakers and from its unique combination of idealism and practicality it evolved into a liberal arts institution known for such controversial actions as enrolling Japanese-American students during World War II. Nickelsen was attracted to progressive causes and had a keen sense of social justice; friends remember her environmental activism and involvement in community politics. She was also interested in Japan, and in 1962 took an extended trip to this East Asian country. Later in her life, she visited Mexico and Turkey. By the mid-1960s, she was living in New York, where she met ceramicist Jolyon Hofsted at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. Nickelsen asked Hofsted where she could find a small town in which to study pottery. Hofsted, who had graduated from Humboldt State University (HSU) and later went on to become a professor of art at Queens College in New York, recommended Eureka. Nickelsen arrived in Humboldt County shortly thereafter.

For the next ten years, Nickelsen worked as a potter with Mike Mullen, who had studied with Bay Area ceramicist Peter Voulkos. It was during this period that Nickelsen created many of the utilitarian vessels that I found about her house. She decorated her dishes with salamanders, turtles, and frogs; after purchasing her home in Eureka—a fixer-upper requiring lots of work—she began drawing tools. She also turned to weaving, delighting in colorful rugs and brilliantly dyed textiles. Nickelsen returned to college in 1981 and enrolled in classes at HSU. Taking painting, ceramics, and the history of women artists, she graduated with a degree in art in the spring of 1984.

The paintings in this exhibition, created from that time forward, display a rich coloration and strong sense of design similar to that found in the work of John La Farge and the American Renaissance. Her father’s training in muralism and stained glass, and her long involvement with clay, undoubtedly drew Nickelsen to such applied arts’ movements. The artists of the American Renaissance promoted an integration of art, architecture, sculpture, and design, and two of the most impressive artistic collaborations from this period—McKim, Meade and White’s Boston Public Library and Henry Hobson Richardson’s Trinity Church—are in easy walking distance from Ralf Nickelsen’s studio. LaFarge, remembered as one of the first American painters to travel extensively in Japan, designed many of the windows and painted murals for the gilded interior of Trinity Church. His friendship with men like Boston philosopher William James (older brother of novelist Henry James) link him to turn-of-the-century religious experience that, according to James, trusted in “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”3

Nickelsen’s paintings glow with the light of stained glass, their color serving as a path toward spiritual fulfillment. Her landscapes employ as well the language of Symbolism, and her brilliantly hued views of Tish Tang, the Klamath River, and Guthrie Creek recall the famous exchange between painters Paul Gauguin and Paul Sérusier. A painter, Gauguin explained in 1888, should translate what he sees into pure color; if a tree is green, it should be the most beautiful green on the artist’s palette; if a shadow is blue, then it must be truly, deeply blue. Maurice Denis, who with Sérusier became a leader of the Symbolist group known as the Nabis (Nabi means prophet in Hebrew), explained that “all the sentiment of the work of art comes unconsciously, or almost so, from the state of the artist’s soul.”4 The Symbolists were anti-naturalistic, anti-bourgeois, and interested in mysticism of all kinds. Nickelsen, in describing her process explained that she painted in nature all day, watching “the slowly shifting changes in the place as the moving light successively reveals and conceals . . . . Eventually a presence emerges on the canvas and at this point I stay at home to finish the piece. Away from the site, I relate to the image before me as well as to the memory and feeling the place evokes in me.”5

Many observers who encounter the art of Ingrid Nickelsen connect it to the twentieth-century traditions that developed from these rich nineteenth-century sources; Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc—Nickelsen had Peter Selz’s German Expressionist Painting prominently placed on her bookshelf—jump readily to mind. Kandinsky’s famous 1910 treatise, “On the Spiritual in Art,” and Marc’s empathetic essay, “How Does a Horse See the World?” both appear as excerpts in Nickelsen’s copy of Theories of Modern Art. The German Expressionists were fascinated by modern Theosophy, as were their Americans contemporaries, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, and Georgia O’Keeffe, three key members of the Stieglitz group. Theosophy, a synthesis of religion, science, and philosophy originally derived from Indian thought, starts with the assumption of the essence of God, and then deduces from it the nature of the universe. Because everything is seen through God, the natural world is essentially spiritual.6 Nickelsen was also interested in the Group of Seven, painters applying a similar complement of ideas to the Canadian landscape, another region that, like northern Europe, is illuminated by the midnight sun.

Moving further into the twentieth century, Nickelsen’s work may be connected to that of Milton Avery, one of several mid-twentieth century artists who abstracted from nature to create powerfully reductive and visceral responses to the American land. Like Nickelsen, Avery summered on Cape Ann; his glowing fields of color link him to Abstract Expressionist painters Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb. Modern art in the western United States, with its connections to the Pacific Rim, led to a fusion of European and American attitudes with the aesthetic traditions and religious philosophies of the Far East. Nickelsen responded to the work of the Pacific Northwest School—the calligraphic white marks of Mark Tobey and the visionary birds, plants, and flowers of Morris Graves. “I paint to evolve a changing language of symbols,” Graves wrote in an artist’s statement from 1942, “a language with which to remark upon the qualities of our mysterious capacities which direct us toward ultimate reality. I paint to rest from the phenomena of the external world—to pronounce it—and to make notations of its essences with which to verify the inner eye.”7

Graves, too, had traveled to Asia at a young age. And like Graves, Nickelsen made her home in Humboldt County. She knew Northern California intimately; she backpacked through the Trinity Alps, along the Lost Coast, and into the Siskiyou Mountains. She was comfortable in nature; she liked to be alone with it; she was not afraid. She was looking for the essential, the profound, and the spiritual. In setting off on a trip, she packed a small backpack. She left her books behind, explaining that there would not be time to read, to paint, or to draw. Being in the wilderness required her complete presence of mind. She looked for nature’s patterns, the connections, the things that are real and can be made visible to others. Nickelsen made her final journey during the summer of 2005. She left a book, Morris Graves:Vision of the Inner Eye, in her truck, waiting for her return.

Notes from Ingrid Nickelsen’s Inner Eye by M. Elizabeth Boone
I wish to thank the many individuals who provided me with information related to Nickelsen’s life and work: Christine Aus, Bob Benson, Sigrid Casey, Becky Evans, Mannie Angell Garza, Carrie Grant, Lou Marak, Jane Meyer, Linda Mitchell, Laura Mullen, and Terry Oats. I could not have written this essay without their memories and insight.

1 The Ralf E. Nickelsen (1903-1990) Papers are in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
2 Ingrid Nickelsen, undated quote provided to the author by Becky Evans.
3 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902); quoted in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available online at
4 Maurice Denis; quoted by Stephen F. Eisenman, Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994), p. 306.
5 Ingrid Nickelsen, undated quote provided to the author by Becky Evans.
6 Herschell Chipp, ed. Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), p. 321.
7 Morris Graves; quoted in Ray Kass, Morris Graves: Vision of the Inner Eye (New York: Braziller, 1983), p. 32.

M. Elizabeth Boone is Associate Professor of Art History. Her book, Vistas de España: American Views of Art and Life in Spain, 1860-1914, will be published by Yale University Press in 2007.

The Legacy of an Intrepid Spirit by Laura Oppitz

Ingrid Nickelsen has endowed our community of Humboldt County with two legacies to remember her by. The first is her legacy of inspiring landscape paintings. The second is a legacy of local artists who have benefited from knowing and working with Nickelsen. The path to these achievements was a culmination of a lifetime of personal growth and experience.

Born the eldest of three children to a German immigrant family that moved to New England in the 1930’s, Nickelsen’s father was a master stained glass artisan, who worked in Boston, but of her mother Ingeborg little is known. Despite showing an interest in the arts at a young age, her parents did not encourage her to follow that path. Instead, she left New England after high school to attend Earlham College in Indiana for two years where, it is thought, that she studied history and political science. Friends of Nickelsen recall her having an interest in the social and environmental injustices of the time that would later surface as themes in her artwork.

By the mid-1960’s, Nickelsen found herself living in New York City. Her friend Jane Meyer introduced her to The Brooklyn Museum Art School, which was the beginning of a lifelong journey in creativity and art as Nickelsen began to seriously consider a career in the arts. She turned to something she grew up with, creating a few stained glass pieces and loving the effects of lighting and the use of brilliant colors employed in stained glass design. At the same time, Nickelsen began experimenting with ceramics. Although it would have been interesting to follow in her father’s footsteps as a stained glass artisan, she had a passion for working with clay. Elements of both stained glass artistry and ceramics would find their way into her later landscape works. With the hope of getting out of the city, she determined to move to a small town where she felt that she could focus her attention and efforts on her artistic goals. This led her to ask her ceramics instructor Jolyon Hofstedt where she might find a good school. He recommended Humboldt State University.

Moving to Humboldt County in the late 1960’s, she found Northern California to be a perfect fit. She loved spending time outdoors and Humboldt County furnished endless options for pursuing her spiritual quests and communing with nature. While studying ceramics at Humboldt State University she began to develop a naturalistic pottery style. Her ceramics palette emphasized the use of cobalt blue over grey or all black. Experiments into biological imagery began with drawing frogs, salamanders and turtles on her pieces. Her inspiration changed when she bought a house and began drawing tools on the pottery. With the onset of arthritis in her hands, she had to look for an alternative creative outlet. She turned to painting.

Holding paintbrushes proved to be easier on her hands than working with clay. By the early 1980’s, Nickelsen took her first painting class, earning her Bachelor’s Degree in Studio Arts in 1984. Unlike the naturalistic tendencies she pursued in ceramics, Nickelsen’s paintings had an abstract flavor. College friend and fellow painter, Christine Aus said, “Ingrid’s early
paintings were abstract social images. She reduced everything to a spiritual quality through a sense of color.” The juxtaposition of color associated with stained glass work found its way into her landscape paintings where she often juxtaposed bold passages of color. She may well have borrowed from ceramics as well in her landscapes: after all, she was still able to shape the earth, but with a brush on canvas instead of clay in hand. It was not long before Nickelsen amalgamated her abstract style and sense of color with her love of nature. Her work began to reflect her spiritual insights.

Nickelsen manifested her spiritual visions of nature through her plein air painting approach. In an expressionistic way she reduced landscapes to big shapes and brilliant colors. It was the physical presence of a place transposed by her experience of it that mattered most. Drawn to specific locations known for their spiritual importance or geological complexities, Nickelsen observed:

“There is something about certain configurations of land, water, and sky, which set them apart. Such sites are honored in a myriad of ways. In a spiritual context they are considered sacred, in a secular one they are set aside as a park and in a personal one they carry unique meaning for the individual.”

Places recur in her California landscapes, places with great spiritual significance to her. Anna Lake, in the Trinity Alps; Tish Tang along the Trinity River outside of Hoopa; and, Guthrie Creek in Humboldt County – these were locations which gave her a unique opportunity for spiritual expression. Friend Carrie Grant said of Nickelsen’s interest in painting at Guthrie Creek:

“Ingrid loved Guthrie Creek because it had a raw energy due to its new and unstable geology, and as such exhibited a type of raw, changeable, unpredictable but also starkly beautiful example of nature surviving amidst all odds. I think Ingrid identified with this metaphorically.”

Journeying out alone into the wilderness, she would take along only a few necessities and her drawing and painting gear. Reminiscent of a vision quest, she found her spiritual path in the quiet solitude of the unmarked trail. To bring forth this shamanistic approach in her paintings was her desire, which she expressed this way:

“Everything I have tried to spend my life understanding funnels into this- all my experiences feelings & thoughts. But always a hunger to transfer into a kind of reality, action, communication. I know it possible to touch directly to speak more powerfully to a world of humans. And the other element, the sheer action of painting the beauty of color the magic transformation of a dream image of the mind and hand into a visible form.”

Believing in an “interconnectedness” of all beings on the planet, she brought this transcendent philosophy into her paintings. Her subjects were derived from real life, but her palette related to the “essence” or “spirit” of the location as she saw it. The colors, she believed, were truly there if only one took the time to really look. Painting in nature allowed Nickelsen to explore the language of color. The effects of color vibrations based on natural lighting offered at different times of day and season. The artist wrote: “Certain sites capture me. Often, I know these places well by visiting them throughout many years in different seasons and weather.” She would paint her canvases offering a striking scheme of bold reds, yellows and blues, often pairing them with complimentary greens, violets, and oranges, each color bringing out the richness of the other.

While Nickelsen had been content to carry out her artistic journey in solitude, a life-changing event took place in 2004. Fellow painter Terry Oats invited Nickelsen to paint with a group of women artists. After spending just one week together, this loose-knit group realized that they had become something of a tribe. This coming together as a tribe fit well into Nickelsen’s shamanistic spiritual belief system and gave her an opportunity to share knowledge and visions with other women who shared many common beliefs. The members of this tribe of Northern California women artists were: Ingrid Nickelsen, Liz Pierson, Kathy O’Leary, Judy Evanson, Terry Oats, Linda Mitchell, Joan Dunning, Carrie Grant, and Becky Evans.

They stayed at Liz Pierson’s 110-acre ranch located under the Iqua Buttes running along the Mad River. The women spent their days going off to individual locations to pursue their art, while in the evenings they would come together to prepare a meal and share their stories. Built around a shared creative energy, the women developed a special connection. “Nature inspires all of our work,” said Linda Mitchell, adding that, “We are all very drawn to the earth - love nature, we all paint from life.” This was a group that saw value in work and personal growth. There was a shared sense of mutual respect and support for what each artist wanted to accomplish at the ranch during their time alone.

On the final day of the 2004 women’s plein air excursion, Terry Oats, painting alone, had encountered a mountain lion. This incident led the tribe to make the decision in 2005 to paint in teams. Whistles were purchased for each group member to use in case of trouble. Nickelsen was reticent to take the whistle. She had not encountered problems in the past, and was experienced at going out in the wilderness by herself. Linda Mitchell recalls that, “she reluctantly took the whistle.” The acceptance of the whistle metaphorically carried with it a new connectedness for Nickelsen. During the summer 2005 plein air outing, Nickelsen confided in one fellow tribe member that: “The group of women artists had given her a true sense of family,” that she had not felt before. She no longer saw herself as alone. This was a family that shared ideals and mutual respect.

On her final vision quest, Nickelsen set out on her own, journeying to Doctor Rock, in the heart of the Siskiyou Mountains. Just two hours northeast of Crescent City, California. This location is thought to be the center of a spiritual vortex—a perfect place to capture the spirit of the landscape. Tragically, during the arduous solo trek into the mountains, Nickelsen fell and was unable to make it back to her truck to get help. On August 1st, 2005, she had
shattered her ankle, and threw out both hips. It took eighteen days to find her. During that time, Nickelsen had done her best survive. Ingrid Nickelsen died on location in the Siskiyou
Mountains at the age of sixty-two.

In life, Nickelsen’s fearless spirit and creative drive won out over the many adversities that stood in the way of pursuing her dreams. Her legacy includes a future trust that will provide grants to local women artists. Her life continues to inspire the tribe of plein air artists, and many others as well, to whom she is remembered as a role model. Her artistic and spiritual legacy is here, for us, in her paintings.

This essay comes from Laura Oppitz, a student intern in the Museum and Gallery Practices Program at Humboldt State University who has served in the capacity of Associate Curator for this exhibition.


Loose handfuls
Of ashes and bone
Dust sift down
Stream a milky stream
Swirls uncoiling trails
Away within another
Clear and cold
Always and forever
Ghost the mouth
Measuring out into
Goodbye white
Wave after wave
Unrepeatable a now
Dissolved ground
—Laura Mullen