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Even at an early age, the rare talent of Clifton Nicholson impressed those closest to him. When he was only five years old, his grandmother watched with fascination as the little boy drew a perfect Mr. Peanuts figure while looking at a Planters Peanuts advertisement. His family gave him total support and encouragement. An understanding mother purchased bar after bar of Ivory soap for him to carve. Several of these soap sculptures are still at Roughwood today. He made his first piece of jewelry using some old beads and junk jewelry that his sister had discarded.

During his boyhood in rural southern Indiana, his deep communion with nature began. Lazy summer days were filled with treasure hunts for a wide range of booty; crawdads in the creek, snake skins shed in the spring, a nest of tiny blue robin’s eggs, bright, iridescent beetles. He once picked up a skunk killed by a car and soon fashioned himself a fur hat. Plainly, plants and animals were his love even then. Clifton’s fascination with the endless variety of shapes, colors and textures in nature has only intensified with the passage of time as each of his works of art testifies.

Clifton attended a small high school where he had no opportunity to pursue his talent, since no art classes were offered. He was an honor student with outstanding achievements in math and science. He received a National Science Foundation Grant to study at Purdue for six weeks between his junior and senior years in high school and eventually decided to pursue a career in engineering. With this goal in mind, he enrolled at Purdue University. There calculus and physics made him miserable, but his one delight was an elective art class. After consulting with an understanding advisor and none-too-sure parents, he switched his major to interior design.

It was then that Clifton’s lifelong interest in antiques began. He owns many beautiful pieces including several Chinese rugs, distinctive sculptures and carvings, old Spanish chairs, and a massive old chest and armoire. An avid collector of depression-era glassware, he has acquired a complete set for twelve of the Parrot pattern. His most prized antique is a small Tiffany lamp. In his pursuit of antiques, the creative works of several master artists have been especially inspiring to him. Antoni Gaudi, Emile Galle, Rene Lalique, Louis Tiffany, and Frank Lloyd Wright are the ones whom he has studied most closely and whose work he greatly admires.

The knowledge of houses and their basic design that he acquired while studying engineering and interior design served him well when he developed plans for a house for his parents in 1968. The home was featured in Louisville’s Courier Journal and later submitted by their journalist to the Burlington House Awards where, in 1973, it won in the category of “Best Use of Found Materials.” The structure of the house is formed from old bridge beams and uses all natural woods for the walls and ceilings. The great room features century old, two-feet wide, poplar boards taken from an old boarding house and used for flooring. Creek stone forms the floors of the foyer and the library where an eighteen-foot high triangular fireplace is made from the same natural stones. Clifton not only designed the house but helped his father do most of the actual building.

While Clifton was still pursuing his undergraduate studies, he took a metals design class. Since then, jewelry design has been his consuming passion. In 1967, he completed a Master of Arts degree in jewelry and metal design with a minor in weaving from Purdue University. His jewelry designs were notable even in college. Entering many museum shows and competitions, he often competed against his own instructors and won! His early work appeared in the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City and in Craft Horizons Magazine.

Many people are curious about how the metal in Clifton’s pieces is formed into those fascinating shapes so accurate down to minute details. The method that he uses is called cire-perdue, the lost wax technique. First he carves and molds a piece of special wax into the shape he desires. He uses small probes and knives similar to dental tools to create the exquisite detail characteristic of his work. A small Bunsen burner is used to soften the wax and heat his tools in order to mold the wax more readily. He is constantly carving no matter the place or time. Often his bed is full of pieces of carving wax. He carves while basking in the sun. When he finally has the detail for which he has been striving (oftentimes to the casual observer, he works for hours on a piece which seems already perfect), he sends it to the casters. There they pour a mold over the wax model, let it harden, and then melt out the wax leaving a reverse mold. Next, the precious metal is thrown by centrifugal force into the empty space left by the melted wax. When Clifton receives this original casting, it has to be stripped of superfluous metal and polished to the high gloss that you see in the gallery. Finally the casting is returned for a permanent mold to be made. When a series is finished, the mold is destroyed.

After spending a few months in St. Augustine, Florida, where he was the silversmith for the city’s restoration commission, Clifton came to New York City to work as an assistant designer for a major costume jewelry firm. During this period, he had worked on his own designs at night and on weekends. He sold some of these designs to such stores as Neiman-Marcus and Bendels. Not long thereafter he has a beautiful shell-and-feather creation on the March 15, 1970, cover of Vogue and was promptly fired from his position. Now he was free to pursue his own projects full time, and he did so with zest. His being fired turned out to be his best break yet because that fall he won the coveted Coty Award – the fashion world’s highest accolade for excellence of design. Interest in and demand for his designs multiplied. Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar – even Look Magazine – featured his work.

Not much later, Clifton opened his own show room on Fifth Avenue in New York. His work began to take new directions away from the ethnic braided leather look with which he started. One such direction is typified by a sterling silver frog leaping from a lily pad of jade. This lively frog proved to be the first in a long line of magical, fantastical creatures which all Clifton collectors now covet.

Clifton has been a plant enthusiast for most of his life. His green thumb has produced many rare and beautiful plants including orchids and epiphyllums. When he first moved to New York and had not a piece of furniture, his mother sent him money to buy something for his apartment. What was this first necessary acquisition? A tree, of course! How could he live without something green and growing? This proximity to and affinity with the plant world has helped him to produce some of the most realistic pieces of sterling silver flowers and leaves to be found anywhere. A faithfulness to nature is the salient quality of these designs. For inspiration, Clifton has only to go to nature’s storehouse of infinite, intricate design. Each piece that Clifton has drawn from this repository seems more lovely and enticing than the last. His use of 14K gold to highlight certain parts of the plants is unique. A large dogwood blossom with a gold leaf, a bittersweet vine with berries in gold, a pink gold clover blossom with silver leaves, a banana blossom in four colors of gold are but a few examples from his spectacular plant world.

Clifton frequently makes excellent use of shells in his jewelry. Always the natural vibrancy of the shell is the focal point of the design. Brilliant oranges, lush lavenders and pearly whites are enhanced by dyed-to-match cords. He recently introduced a new line of shell belts. They have been the hit of the season. A single beautiful shell is chosen by Clifton, imbedded in sterling silver and then strips of beautifully colored Italian glove leather are attached. This leather is so sensuously soft that it defies description. Clifton combines this leather with his delicately colored cords, and the result is a versatile belt that is a feast for the eye and a delight to wear.

One can fully appreciate any Clifton piece only when it is held in the hand. As it is viewed from every angle, it becomes apparent that each piece of work is a small sculpture, faithful to nature in every tiny detail. Clifton treats each piece as a work of art. He signs each piece. The larger pieces are limited editions. Only a certain number, such as one hundred, will be made. Each piece will be numbered, for instance 10/100, meaning it is the tenth piece made in a series of one hundred. When the one hundredth has been made in that series, the mold will be destroyed.

Clifton is most happy and content when he has a dozen new projects going and ten more being planned. With his active mind constantly garnering fresh ideas for his competent hands, his daily life is a constant becoming.