Nicola Ellis – Metal-Morphosis – Art in Manufacturing 2

Nicola Ellis Metal-Morphosis

Art in Manufacturing 2 Residency – Ritherdon Limited, Blackburn


Nicola Ellis
portraits and workers. Image David Allison Photography


Artist Nicola Ellis  has talked to BeeBlogs about her residency at Ritherdon Limited in Blackburn as part of the Art in Manufacturing 2 programme.

A sound scape experience in an eerily abandoned ballroom, the full-bodied embrace of a wallpaper mill’s colour capabilities, a cardboard cinema and the procession of tons of industrial machinery are all set to feature in the second year of Art In Manufacturing, returning to The National Festival of Making in Blackburn, Lancashire between Sat 12 – Sun 13 May 2018.

Placing the heritage tools, materials and expertise of a diverse range of companies into the hands of seven, specially commissioned artists, each will take up residency on the factory floor of busy manufacturers to create ambitious new works of art.

Nicola Ellis
powder coat ‘testers’ on scrap metal produced by powder coating team. Image Nicola Ellis

Nicola Ellis lives and works in Manchester. She studied BA hons Fine Art at The University of Central Lancashire and following this, completed an MA in Fine Art at Manchester School of Art. In recent years she has undertaken research projects including Sculpture: A Fabrication(2017), which focused on the mechanics of large-scale sculptural commissioning, and Play/Pause: the turbulent history of UK steel (2016). This project took place within large-scale steel production sites and their surrounding communities, for the purpose of understanding social and political factors brought about by a large-scale industry in decline. She is currently undertaking an open door residency at ACA and The North Pennines Observatory with a focus on metals that come from space and the history of mankind’s interactions with them.  Her work recently featured in exhibitions including; From A to C, this being B. Caustic Coastal, Salford. Da Vinci Engineered, Zebedees Yard, Hull; It’ll Hold Until It Breaks (solo exhibition), Platform A Gallery, Middlesbrough; More room for error (touring solo exhibition), Arcadecardiff, Cardiff, &Model Gallery, Leeds & Bloc Projects, Sheffield; You won’t see that bit anyway (solo exhibition), 20-21 Visual Arts Centre, Scunthorpe, UK; Head to Head: Nicola Ellis and Aura Satz, Castlefield Gallery, Manchester, UK; Part of the Programme, FAFA Gallery, Helsinki; and Cabedal, Plataforma Revolver, Lisbon.


BeesBlogs : Hi Nicola, and thanks for talking to BeesBlogs.  Nicola, tell me more about Art in Manufacturing 2, how did you become involved, and were you chosen by the company or did you choose them from the participants?


Nicola Ellis

Claire Mander – Director and Curator of theCoLAB Ltd to name one of the many strings in her bow kindly recommended me as a candidate for the residency after a chat about my interest in spending time in industry and giving a talk as part of my research and development project Sculpture: a fabrication in 2017. Elena Gifford – of Deco Publique the festival producers suggested pairing me with Ritherdon who are new to the AIM placements this year. I was particularly excited because Ritherdon is a family business founded in 1895 and the factory manufactures their own products from start to finish lots of different processes and skills under one roof!

Nicola Ellis
A drawing thinking about the simple but powerful hooks becoming sculpture. Watercolour and ink on paper. Image Nicola Ellis


BeesBlogs:  Does your use of the scrap/offcuts/ detritus resulting from the manufacturing process  place limitations on your work.


Nicola Ellis

Using scrap is limiting in terms of what material is available at any one time, which is something I’m fairly flexible about. Whatever the material is, it will always have tonnes of practical potential (terrible pun!) and come with its own history to decode, so the ‘limitations’ actually provide some initial infrastructure for the work to inform the rest of the process. I’d call them parameters physically and contextually rather than limitations.  They set the scene.

My work comes from an interest in materials, processes, and subverting their associated traditions and associated culture. The material and its function/ the processes that it has been removed from as scrap contributes to the layers of information in the work.

I have recently been thinking about how I behave when encountering sculpture or other manufactured/fabricated things in the world. As a person who is interested in logistics with some experience in making, I like to decode how something has been put together and think about the processes involved in its making. I know that other people who have experience in making or maintenance do the same, it’s a kind of compulsive speculation based on decoding the visual language of fabrication processes and manufacturing techniques. Appropriating scrap materials into sculpture or installations not only triggers a decoding of the base material and our individual understanding of it from personal experience, but it demands an additional decoding of how it came to be considered scrap material. All of this speculation contributes to the layers of information in the work, which are therefore constantly shifting according to individual experience. Maybe this helps keep a bit of mystery. The materials are solid but the work is physically temporary and shifting in this way. Then there is a whole other conversation about value happening because the scrap materials are often loaned and then returned  after the work is dismantled. The monetary value of scrap is always slightly fluctuating, and it has a  different kind of value to me as sculptural material, and again to an audience who may know about steel making, manufacturing, engineering, or none of those things.


Nicola Ellis
Some of the final ‘metal canvases’ going into the wash in preparation for powder coating. Image Nicola Ellis


BeesBlogs: Do you use your drawings as plans for the works you produce, or does your sculpture develop organically?


Nicola Ellis

The drawings are kind of rehearsals for the points in which  all the materials are on a site and I start improvising the works into existence according to the space and the material properties/visual language. The idea of rehearsing for improvisation doesn’t really sound right but my guts tell me the drawings function like this in the grand scheme of things. However, I can’t plan or predict what I’m going to be working with for future works exactly, or more precisely, how it will fit together/use the architecture of an unknown space, so the drawings are ultimately always fantasies. They are a solid and lasting record of improvisation with materials I don’t know if I’ll ever work with, in unknown spaces. The exercise of thinking about how all this imaginary stuff fits together lubricates the moments in which I have to actually make it happen. I have a little rolodex of possibilities in the back of my mind that is expanded by constantly producing these kinds of drawings, so they are just as important to the development of work in the long-term as the larger, more punctuating, installations are.



BeesBlogs:  Most artists work to a brief from a client when commissioned to produce a work. Did you have a free hand to develop your work, or did Ritherdon have any pre-formed ideas of what the work might look like and which material you should use?


Nicola Ellis

There are a few very broad parameters given to the AIM residency artists, one being the work and residency should in some way engage with the heritage and history of the places of manufacturing.  Ritherdon has a really interesting 123 year history, including important work for the war effort and bespoke fabrication for a famous illusionist to name a few,  way before their current lines of smart metalwork in fire protection and passive roadside enclosures that save lives. It’s been a pleasure to consider how this archive of information might somehow shape the residency and commission. Ritherdon have kindly given me a free hand in terms of the content of the work. Deco Publique did introduce my work to Ben Ritherdon (current MD) before our initial meeting though, so they had an idea of what they would be taking on before I started!

Nicola Ellis
An experiment from the first session of mixing powder coating colours ever in Ritherdon’s history, coming out of the oven. Image: Nicola Ellis


BeesBlogs: In a lot of the work of yours I’ve seen, the results have been in their base metal form, ie, without colour. Ritherdon have a powder coating facility. Will that change the work you are producing?


Nicola Ellis

Absolutely! If there’s a long-standing process in operation, I’m up for observing and twisting it in some way with and for the work! There are two elements of the final work that reference the powder coating area of the factory, one is a series of 14 large industrial abstract powder coated paintings. The staff at Ritherdon are really good at what they do because their system is efficient and they have a lot of experience. This also means that there has never been any real need to mix powder coating colours before now, in fact it would be described as contamination of the process at this point. The paintings have created a situation in which colours are required to be mixed for once. The powder coating team have managed the production of colour swatch testers and we have selected the most successful ones to turn into the final larger scale paintings. Ultimately this element of the final work references ‘contamination’ and what can come from that.


Nicola Ellis
textures backgrounds details Image: Daniel Allison


BeesBlogs: How involved have Ritherdon been in producing your exhibition?


Nicola Ellis

As mentioned above, some elements of the final work have been at least in part project-managed by teams of the wonderful staff at Ritherdon. Ideas for some of the elements of the work came from individual conversations I had at the factory during the initial weeks of the residency, relating to the work carried out there and life in general. The staff are experts in their areas of production and have skills to make things happen that I can’t, because they know their materials inside out. Therefore in some cases I have been more of a facilitator than a maker, which is new to me. There are other elements in which I have identified scrap materials and shaped them myself or made new equipment and traded it for old, which will then be re-appropriated by me on site. It’s a mixed bag really.  There are also elements of video in the final work in which we witness the camera trying to cope with being in a very specific and demanding environment, and therefore acts as an external witness to the manufacturing processes.

Beyond the making, everyone at Ritherdon have been very generous with their time and experience, and this experience has really set me up for the next wave of ideas that will help me continue to develop new ways of operating alongside manufacturing, industry and most importantly, skilled and interesting people.


And finally, a quote from Ben Ritherdon, Managing Director of Ritherdon Limited and the man who agreed to put his factory, equipment  and staff at Nicola’s disposal. As someone who has worked in manufacturing, I think Ben and his team should be applauded for their commitment to Nicola’s project and to contemporary art. Fantastic!

Ben Ritherdon

“I think working with Nicola over the last few weeks has given us a reminder of what the feeling must have been like as a new magic trick was nearing completion at Ritherdon in the early 20th Century.  There has been a definite buzz in the Company since Nicola’s creations left the building last week to be installed in Blackburn, ready for the Festival.  After involving so many of us at the factory we are all on tenterhooks to see what the final result will be.

Nicola’s incredible creativity and insight have made us look at ourselves, our history and our products in a new way.  I would suggest that all manufacturing businesses should adopt a good artist into the family for a period.  Ritherdon has gained so much and the current excitement is just slightly tinged by knowing that we’re going to be quite sad once it’s all over.”


My thanks to Nicola Ellis and you can see  The National Festival of Making in Blackburn, Lancashire between Sat 12 – Sun 13 May 2018.