Refuge in the Art of Nicole Tee

We often think of place in both a spatial and psychological sense. The corners of our room feel as tangible as the corners of our minds. We shut ourselves off from our surroundings as if our emotions were locked rooms. Our thoughts and memories are stowed away in private mind palaces. Are we shaped by the spaces around us, or are our spaces extensions of our innermost selves?

'The House Allows One to Dream in Peace' installation shot.

Perhaps any connection with place is indeed a connection to home. That unspoken, intuitive bond that ties us to a place evokes a home we might not have even known of. We find home in places far and wide, its presence fixed, familiar, and constantly evolving. In his seminal text The Poetics of Space (1958), Gaston Bachelard described the house as a “psychic state”. The house is a reflection of ourselves—our happiness, inner turmoil, deepest thoughts. In its purest form amid the chaos, the house is a moment of quiet. 

Nicole Tee’s The House Allows One to Dream in Peace, which just closed its run at Finale Art File, is a portrait of comfort, meditation, and the stillness of home. Tee’s art delves into the slowness associated with domesticity. She turns her ruminations on textile art to the sanctity of spaces, both external and internal, that give us a respite from the often unflinching immediacy of contemporary life. The show takes its title from Bachelard’s Poetics: “... If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace”. Tee extends an invitation to her viewers to take a moment to rest.

Detail shot. (foreground) 'Flower Bed' series, 2023. Fabric flowers on cotton linen and fiberfill, 7 x 7 in. (background) 'Ground Cover', 2023. Naturally dyed fabric on cotton linen quilt. approx. 52 x 69 in.

What one may immediately notice upon viewing Tee’s works is the way she both occupies and reimagines space. Instead of taking up the entire Upstairs Gallery space, her works are situated in a withdrawn, cozy corner. Through painting, soft sculpture, and fabric art, Tee weaves together different aspects of her textile practice to create her comforting sanctuary. There’s a careful haphazardness to the way her works are arranged across the floor—the kind that makes one tiptoe around the clutter to preserve a unique, unspoken order. At the same time, there is relief in finding familiar and seemingly intimate clutter in such a typically clinical space. The curation of Tee’s pieces allows one to trace unconscious paths between each work, the same way we might do in the privacy of our own rooms, where we can observe the different elements that make our spaces what they are each day. 

Detail shot. 'Flower Bed 1', 2023. Fabric flowers on cotton linen and fiberfill, 22 x 23 in.

Fabric has been a staple of Tee’s art. Whether through painting or the use of the material itself, she highlights the capacity of cloth to seem both expansive and tender at the same time. In this “house”, Tee uses fabric to plant a garden. She sews colorful wildflowers onto linen surfaces and simulates embroidery with vivid painted accents. Her 'Flower Bed' series is lined neatly with them, appearing both as quaint as a throw pillow and picturesque as a floral field. At the intersection of sewing and planting, both rote and laborious activities, we find calm. Observing the work, we are reminded how a slow and intentional process, no matter how painstakingly detailed or intricate, can lead us to a state of mindfulness.

Detail shot. 'Still Life: Rocks', 2023. Oil on canvas 72 x 72 in.
Detail shot. 'Still Life: Ground Cover', 2023. Oil on canvas, 72 x 72 in.

What is the color of comfort? Comfort manifests different hues for different eyes. For this show, Tee strips her works of a dominant color. The overarching brown she uses resembles the base colors of an oil painting: unfinished, and the undercoat upon which all other colors rest. Her neutral shade allows the hues of her wildflowers to pop through, harmonically cultivated by their nurturing soil.

'The House Allows One to Dream in Peace' installation shots.

Even with similar subjects, Tee communicates a kind of comfort that transcends both medium and visual dimension. Her flowers bloom across different levels, from two-dimensional oil painting, to quilted embroidery, and finally, to three-dimensional forms that burgeon outward from cushioned ground. Tee’s decorative, textile-based body of works has been largely associated with craft and the female nature of the domestic. Her skill with textile that seamlessly traverses across the corners of home highlights the pervasive power of such an art. Tee’s works bring to light just how deeply integrated this slow, stereotypically feminine practice is in creating our image of home.

Detail shot. (foreground) 'Flower Bed' series, 2023. Fabric flowers on cotton linen and fiberfill, 7 x 7 in. (background) 'Ground Cover', 2023. Naturally dyed fabric on cotton linen quilt, approx. 48 x 56 in.

People viewing The House Allows One to Dream in Peace are often in a state of passing, going from one exhibit and gallery over to the next. In this state of unceasing transition, how can we find time to pause and reassess the spaces that make us feel comforted and safe? Tee’s works remind us that rest is just as valid a form of resistance against ingrained cycles that have us always moving forward. As Bachelard says in his text, “I will be an inhabitant of the world in spite of the world.” Similarly, we can always retreat into our literal and figurative homes where the seeds we plant are free to grow.


Nicole Tee’s “The House Allows One to Dream in Peace” ran from September 29 to October 23, 2023 at Finale Art File in Makati City.


Mara Fabella is an artist, writer, and occasional fitness junkie. Tap the button below if you'd like to buy her a coffee.