Straight Outta Hamilton…A Review of Sylvia Nickerson’s ‘Creation’

by Koom Kankesan

When I went to Hamilton a few months ago to see the indie art show at the gallery there, a few friends went with me. One of those friends, who couldn’t afford to buy a condo in Toronto, was thinking of the possibility of moving to Hamilton. By the end of the trip, he had decided against this possibility because he found Hamilton a little too rough. Even the formidable downtown was run down, he said. That was the very thing I think I liked about the city. Unlike Toronto and New York and other high profile areas, Hamilton retains its older buildings – it’s not a small city by any means – and walking around, you feel a connection to past decades. This was how things might have looked and felt in the nineties.

Sylvia Nickerson’s book ‘Creation‘ (from Drawn & Quarterly) is all about Hamilton, especially from Nickerson’s new-ish vantage as an artist, transplant, and mom. The title has at least three main resonances: a) the idea of artistic creation b) motherhood and the act of creating life and c) Nickerson’s assertion that artists are changing the face of the town, or at least aspects of the town, into something better. Hamilton is known for its industry, once a boom town of manufacturing and processin; it has lost out to Toronto as Toronto has gone through its own mega-boom, and has been trying to shake off associations of squalor and crime. There are tensions in the book between the artists who have moved to Hamilton to take advantage of its lower cost of living (as opposed to Toronto, which has become almost unlivable unless you are well off) and the Hamiltonians who feel these nouveau emigres are co-opting their town.

Nickerson is caught somewhat in the middle, being an artist who has moved there and occupies a studio. She argues that the artists and those who have transformed her neighbourhood have as much a right to be recognized as those who have lived there longer. The book, rendered in a free-associative essayistic style, doesn’t convey a conventional narrative. Instead, it looks at various aspects of Nickerson’s encounters in Hamilton. Sometimes, these encounters are with people. As often as not, they are with objects or musings about existence there.

The art is rendered in an abstract style where the people (for the most part) are drawn in a Keith Haring-esque abstractness. Whereas Haring’s stylized figures had a vibrancy that echoed the graffiti covered buildings of NYC, Nickerson’s featureless ghosts react to the urbanity and decay that surround them. Although the ghost like people whose features and characteristics are missing aren’t unique to this book, their absence of individuality seems to be commentary in and of itself – they are vacant cogs in a machine, their lives determined by the nature of their surroundings. Drugs, urban decay, and garbage are very present in the book. Nickerson tries to remain positive against this tide of misery but the pace and vibe certainly bear a fair degree of sorrow. The displayed work I had previously seen by Nickerson at the gallery show of indie art in the centre of Hamilton had been rendered in beautifully harmonized watercolours and were excerpts from personal autobiographical stories by Nickerson. ‘Creation’ boasts a beautiful colour cover but its interior is all black and white, perhaps intentionally to suit the mood of the writing, though its aesthetic of stylized people and grey watercolour bear a connection with the previous displayed pages I had seen.

There’s something of the lost and found in Nickerson’s book. Lost people, lost relationships, lost purpose, lost identity, and yet there are hopeful, touching moments too: a text from her mom, community helpers, the ever present charm of her baby son in a stroller as they trek through what seem like industrial wastelands. The sizable book, divided into chapters, gives us slice of life observations and meditations in a stream of consciousness manner. However, Nickerson balances this with a wistful and light touch – the art itself is gentle instead of intense, even if the subject matter remains the opposite. The same things go for the meditations. I suspect the fact that Nickerson came to comics later in life, after having passed through art school and gallery sales, informs the nature of her craft. The most consistent story follows a homeless person who is murdered and mourned by the citizens who knew her. It is both sad and alarming and Nickerson follows the thread with a distant though sympathetic observation.

The Toronto comic store The Beguiling is currently displaying Nickerson’s art and I suspect that in the future, her name will become more well known in comics. There really isn’t anybody else doing comics like her, as far as I can tell.

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