Nicki Green was watching an episode of Sex and the City a few years back, when she got to the part where Charlotte enters the Jewish ritual bath known as the mikveh, in preparation for her conversion to the faith. “I jumped up and froze the screen,” recalls Green. “The mikveh is a tiled space. Tile is ceramic. The mikveh is a ceramic object. Oh. My. God!” For someone who uses clay to explore her identity as a trans, queer, Jewish artist, this was nothing short of a religious epiphany.
“Mikveh is about being with our bodies in an intimate space used for healing, celebration, and transformation,” says the San Francisco artist, who earned her MFA from the University of California, Berkeley, last year. “I wondered: How could this happen in an aesthetic way for folks like me, whose bodies are by nature fluid and who have traditionally not been part of this ritual?” A grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission helped her research the subject at the progressive Mayyim Hayyim center, near Boston.
At first, Green created smaller vessels such as fermentation jars “that also offer magical transformation.” Crock for Dinah and the River (2016) refers to the Old Testament story of Leah and her daughter, Dinah; some interpretations say Dinah’s sex was changed in utero from male to female, the effect of her mother’s prayer. Inspired by the portrayal of Dinah in The Red Tent, a novel by Mayyim Hayyim founder Anita Diamant, Green depicted Dinah “as a queer, trans, biblical hero with a profound relationship to water.”
As with many of Green’s pieces, the crock is handbuilt and has a tin-glazed surface, with purple brushwork suggestive of Delftware, a ceramic medium also used as a canvas for illustrative history. Her interpretation of a classic Dutch tulip vase, It’s Almost As If We’ve Existed (Tres in Una) (2015), sprouts phalluses and portrays the Three Graces as a come-hither, gender-fluid trio.
Intricate pictorial detail is typical of much of Green’s work, which has its own iconography, including a motley of genitalia, flowers such as pansies and carnations that are often connected to queerness, and mushrooms. The passion for mycology was sparked when Green, 32, discovered Der Giftpilz (“The Toadstool”), a picture book from 1938 that likened Jews to poisonous mushrooms hiding in German society. “Just as Act Up used an inverted pink triangle as a call to action and the word ‘queer’ is now embraced, I want to celebrate mushroomhood as a positive, anti-assimilationist stance,” Green explains.
Green is now a graduate fellow at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin County. And she continues to scale up her exploration, as in Mikveh for Mycotheology (2018), which she made just before moving to the Headlands. The piece mashes up her fascination with fungi, queerness, transformation, and the alchemical mandala. Depicted around the glazed white interior is an androgynous figure who alternately crouches down to harvest mushrooms and stands to release their spores – which rise up to create a halo, in a kind of spiritual ecstasy.
When a new kiln arrived to replace the one installed by Peter Voulkos, founder of the ceramics department at UC Berkeley, Nicki Green rushed to rescue a pallet of his kiln bricks from a dumpster. An MFA student at the time, she saw the potential to comment on both his legendary contributions to the field and his reported history of sexism, which has received renewed attention in the #metoo era. “Here I was, a trans woman, witnessing the deconstruction of a space he built,” she says. “It felt like ripe material.” She incorporated the salvaged bricks into several works, including Soft Brick (2017), which unites the Voulkos artifacts with a vessel filled with cast-off shards from Green’s own practice.