Nicole Dextras: ice typographies

detail from "Les Noms," Nicole Dextras, Dawson 2008
detail from "Les Noms," Dawson 2008. Dextras froze surnames of Klondike francophones listed in the 1901 census ...
... and placed them in a cascading descent down the front stairs of the Dawson City Museum
... and placed them in a cascading descent down the front stairs of the Dawson City Museum





November and December 2008. Through some stroke of luck, Vancouver artist Nicole Dextras and I were both artists-in-residence in Dawson City, Yukon, through the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture (KIAC).


We hadn’t met previously, so I was delighted to discover that Dextras makes eco-sensitive ephemeral artworks, and that many of them – including the ones she proposed to KIAC – are made with ice. Since I had been working with ice and string to make temporary outdoor drawings in the summer, I enjoyed watching an artist with more experience in the fickle medium.

Dextras is a Vancouver artist with franco-Ontarian roots. She works with sculpture, photography, ephemeral land art, and textiles. Her Yukon art included a set of large ice letters spelling out LEGACY on the Yukon River; a series of French surnames in ice (detail pictured above); and an ice-dress with a skirt large enough to be a tent for telling her site-specific tale “The River’s Bride.” 

In this post, I’m specifically interested in her ice typographies. What’s going on with these massive letters, and why “build” them from ice?

Dextras initially started working with ice and fabric several years ago, freezing lightweight materials in water inside rectangular forms to create transparent blocks. 

"Strapless," silk in ice, no date or dimensions (photo: Nicole Dextras)
"Strapless," silk in ice, no date or dimensions (photo: Nicole Dextras)

A residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts  (winter 2005-06) allowed Dextras to play with the frozen clothing sculptures at a larger scale. Banff’s climate is colder than Vancouver’s, but still fluctuates. Dextras made diptychs like this one, and allowed the blocks to melt and shape-shift over time.

dextras-un cover
Look at the sunlight playing off the cracks here, and turning the clothes into semi-silhouetted ghosts. I haven’t seen photos of the melted and refrozen cloth forms, but I had the chance to watch Dextras make some more human-sized sculptures with frozen, hollow lacy dresses in the backyard of Macaulay House (KIAC’s residency house). Both uses of ice invoked the feeling of a drowned, or at very least suspended, presence.

Maybe it was something about the implied vanishing (or missing and mourned) body that led to Dextras’ interest in language – itself ephemeral, speak a word & it’s gone. Consider these shots from her artist residency on Toronto Island (2007).

dextras-reason in  sun

dextras-reason most melted


Just typing names for the images onto my computer, to fit my own filing system, I write miniature poems: “reason melting in the sun,” and “reason most melted.” Visual art leads us away from verbal language much of the time, anyways, since it comes from our non-verbal thinking and dreaming; is Dextras asking us to fuse or to divide linguistic and visual kinds of intelligence?

Through many conversations over coffee and/or wine, plus listening to Dextras’ artist talk at KIAC, I don’t think she would describe her ice sculptures the way I’m about to. But the more I look at her ice typographies, both through her textured close-up photographs and also personally seeing the massive amount of work, wood, water and plastic involved in making the moulds for the LEGACY piece in Dawson, the more I see them as a fusion. They combine the pleasure of poetic language with a strong, literally massive physical sculpture that claims big space – and then falls back into the humbleness of cracked ice, and then the fluidity of water.

setting up LEGACY after 2 months of hard work to build plywood & plastic forms and freeze their thick water
setting up LEGACY after 2 months building plywood & plastic forms. I'd already left Dawson so couldn't watch the large moulds being pumped full with water bored up from under the frozen Yukon


Dextras says in her artist statement (on her website) that she’s drawn to the “mercurial” nature of ice: “Its ability to transform, crystallize and abstract reveals ice as a shape shifter which appears impenetrable one moment and precariously fragile the next. This new work investigates the dichotomy between nature’s capacity for stability and its capacity for flux, between order and chaos.”

Environmental messages are central to Dextras’ ice typographies. Her careful choices of 4′ x 7′-8′ words for different eco-locations include: VIEW at Toronto Island; EGO in downtown Toronto; RESOURCE as an ephemeral commentary on the balance between nature and resources at Lake Nipissing for the Ice Follies Festival at North Bay in 2008; and LEGACY for the landscape viewed around the Yukon River and of course the Yukon River itself.

Here’s her statement about the LEGACY project in particular, from the much more complete suite of her KIAC residency photos on Flickr:

“Legacy refers to the landscape as being the heritage of the inhabitants of this region. The gold that was found here a hundred years ago is what attracted people to come to this remote area. Now the inherited legacy of this pristine landscape is theirs to protect and pass on.”



All photos generously provided by Nicole Dextras.

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