But for Paducah residents Dawn and Rob Robertson, spring blossoms, as well as summer and fall flowers, bloom year long. They are the clay botanicals created by local artist Jimmy Nichols, so expertly done that it takes a very close look to determine that they are not real. You may have seen Nichols’ art as mantelpiece or table decorations in rooms featured in such upscale magazines as Veranda, Traditional Home and Architectural Digest. And now, in Posh, which recently visited the Robertson home to enjoy the beauty of dozens of ceramics the Robertsons have collected over the years. Nichols estimated that the collection numbers 57.
Jimmy Nichols has always been interested art in one form of another and has been successful in each medium. He began in the 1980s as a dress designer and tailor. He was employed at Hancock Fabrics, where clients would seek him out for his sewing skills. Some involved fixing zippers and sewing on buttons, he said, but occasionally he would be commissioned to design and create prom dresses and wedding gowns.
“Sometimes, I did a whole wedding,” he said. This included creation not only of bridal gowns, but bridesmaid dresses, mother-of-the-bride dresses, and cumberbunds for male attendants of the wedding party.
His designs were always a hit and much sought after. An exception was a cocktail dress commissioned by the owner of the Maggie Young shop on Broadway. It was displayed in the shop window without any interest until the owner changed the modest price tag to a more expensive one. When the price went up, the dress sold immediately.
Nichols decided on a career change, thinking that perhaps that his creativity could be expressed in the food business. He attended cooking school in Baton Rouge, La. After graduation, he went to work at a Nashville restaurant. His new career went well, but “Paducah was calling me back,” he said and returned to be with family, his wife and his parents.
Deciding that the restaurant business was not a career goal, he went to work at West Kentucky Ceramics, where he learned to make clay figurines.
“There were lots of how-to books,” he explained. “That’s where I learned about paints, glazes, how to use a kiln.” He made ceramic items for the store’s gift shop, such as piggy banks and “lots of little Christmas trees.”
The store sold and he found himself unemployed, but with a new skill that could be satisfying and profitable.
“I started showing and selling to customers I had tailored for,” he said. He got his first big break when interior designer D.J. Lyon featured his art in her shop at 32nd and Broadway. By 1994, he was fully self-employed and incorporated his business as J. Nichols Clay Botanicals. Working from his home, he sold ceramic art through Mamphis sales representative Patsy Albritton, who marketed it in several states. He neither showed nor marketed his art in Paducah until 2003, when it was shown in Lower Town artist Mark Palmer’s gallery. By that time, he had been living and working part time in Costa Rica. He had become attracted to that country when a group of friends persuaded him to travel with them.
“I just fell in love with the place,” he said and eventually bought a home. As a foreigner, he was allowed to remain in Costa Rica for 90 days, after which he had to leave its borders for a short time before returning.
“I would come here for three months, take things to Mark, then go back to Costa Rica,”he explained.
Jimmy Nichols recently opened a gallery and studio, J. Nichols Clay Botanicals at 215 Broadway. The decision to locate downtown was fortuitous as many customers are passersby, who stop in for a look, become enchanted with his botanical look-alike creations, and leave the gallery with a lighter wallet, but with a happy look on their faces. The pieces sell from $75 to $1,000, but after all, they are flower arrangements and plants that never fade and die and never have to be watered!
Early in his career, Nichols crafted ceramic fruit, but they were not as popular as botanicals, and took three times as long to make.
Nichols works alone, but would like to hire young students to work for him and learn his art.
“I would like to leave someone behind to carry on my work,” he said.
Recalling the people who helped in his career, Nichols said, “I would like to inspire another young person. The reason I am here is people helping me, showing me, letting me try something. I could do this anywhere, in any state, but being here in Paducah is special.”
Nichols’ botanicals are hand-made from clay indigent to Kentucky and Tennessee. After shaping, they are painted, glazed and fired in a kiln. They are always modeled after living plants and intricately detailed. They can be as simple as a single iris or as complicated as a flower containing 450 individual pieces.
For more information, go to jnicholsclaybotanicals.com.