Interview with Nell Nicholas

JO-HS Residency June 2023

JO-HS: Please describe the body of work made here during the residency, what have been your main influences?

Nell: This collection of work is called "mercado". During my residency at JO-HS I've made seven big oil paintings and about fifty works on paper.
With a particular focus on markets and street vendors, this collection is a bit like an oversized travel journal, or a giant sketchbook. It documents some of the things that have caught my eye since arriving in Mexico four months ago. The country captured my heart in 2017 when I came here to canoe down the Usumacinta River. I've wanted to return make this project ever since. I came back in March 2023 and travelled for three months before arriving at JO-HS.

When I want to learn about the people who live somewhere, (anywhere), the market is always a good place to start. Under the striped tents you can excavate all sorts about a place and its people..... food and flowers, what grows here and how to eat it, fashion, furniture, fabrics, haircuts, hair removal, hair extensions, hair dyes, religion, relics, history and how it's remembered, handbags, music, medicine, design, decoration, animals, pets, sacrifice, superstition, breakfast lunch and dinner, - it's all for sale on the market.

My paintings often depict markets and shops. I love it as focus point because they're so universal: where there are people, there are markets. This makes them a perfect visual motif with which to explore differences, and (perhaps more interestingly) the great many similarities, between the world's markets and the people they serve.

JO-HS: How has your time in Mexico and your residency at JO-HS impacted your work?

Nell: This trip has influenced my work in a myriad of ways! Colour is a big one. Mexico is so vibrant, especially after the rain. I love the blocks of bright colours everywhere - from the plastic stools that skirt the sidewalks, to the birds and the flowers, the green, orange and purple juices on every corner, and the glorious pink taxis. The paintings are such chamelions, and this year they've definitely got brighter.

JO-HS: What do you think has shaped your work stylistically?

Nell: I think I started to get fluent in my own visual language the day someone pointed out to me that it's possible to draw with paint. Drawing is my strength. Most painters are better at painting than me, but I know I can draw. So I try to approach a painting as if it were a big drawing. The more I focus on this, the more alive and expressive the work becomes.
I'm also a musician. This is a very important part of my painting practice. Just as playing music in a group is more an excercise in listening than playing, I see image-making as more about looking than drawing. And I try to employ the techniques I use when I want to give a heartfelt performance on my violin to mark-making on paper or canvas . Painting is drawing, is music, is dancing. For me this is the recipe that can turn paint to blood, bring artwork to life, and turn an emotion into a physical mark on canvas.

JO-HS: How does symbolism play a role in your practice?

Nell: It's everywhere! (Although perhaps not immediately obvious to the viewer). I adore thinking about the symbolism within everyday scenes and objects. Nearly everything I include in my paintings represents a greater conversation. 'Stuff' can offer us a wealth of information about the place we find it, and about the people who exist within that place.

Take for example, a flower stall (I'm always painting florists). In an immediate sense, a flower stall is a visually beautiful and unremarkable part of the everyday urban landscape. But! When you think about the actual role these fresh cut flowers play within society it's fascinating. Flowers are like temporary tokens of emotion. When we buy flowers for others, it's usually to say the things we find most difficult to say - thank you, I'm sorry, I miss you, I love you, I'm thinking of you, congratulations. We buy them for the dead, for the grieving, for lovers, partners, friends, and on mother's day. These are serious, mysterious, challenging and comically diverse parts of being human. The flowers are planted, grown, and cut from their roots. Then we buy them to deliver messages . Then after a week or two, both the flower and the sentiment die. It's so odd! But it's poignant and kind of heart-wrenching too.... what a tradition! And every time I walk past a flower stall I feel moved by all the messages those flowers will be bought to send.

I'll explain another - `The Chicken Shop at the Gates of Heaven". This painting was inspired by a polleria inside the artisenal market in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas. The name of this chicken shop is 'Polleria Jerusalem No. 5'. Like the flowers, the painting depicts a familiar market scene - live chickens for sale, dead chickens for sale and eggs for sale. But chickens are bred to serve so many roles within Mexican culture - they're food, they're pets, they're sacrificed in rituals, used to maintain soil quality, raised for fighting, gambling, bug control, and their eggs are sold by the mountain. People without refrigerators buy their chickens alive to keep them fresh for longer.
Every morning in May I went to the market to collect my groceries, and when I saw the chickens and the eggs and the scales hanging over them to decide their worth, I felt like I was being confronted with some deep existential questions!

JO-HS: Could you explain your unique approach to painting and the techniques you use to work on your pieces?

Nell: All the wierd techniques I use have evolved pretty naturally over time. I suppose I like to use lots of different ways of using paint to keep myself occupied and challenged throughout the process. I'd get bored if i had to paint an entire painting using just one technique, over and over again. I've travelled lots, to all sorts of amazing places, so I think my influences are a bit of a melting pot.

Also... to supplement my art career thoughout my twenties and teens I've worked an unusual number of unusual jobs. I'm certain that most of these jobs have influenced my painting style one way or another .... I've handpainted globes, worked in a biscuit decorating factory, as an illustrator, a graphic designer, a prop maker and a scenic painter. I've worked on farmers markets, film & TV sets, in a print studio, a plastercine studio, an ice sculptors, as an animator, a christmas tree decorator, a content creator, a bookmaker, storyboarder, facepainter, wallpaperer, character designer, gardener, gallery invigilator, a signwriter, a tshirt designer, a ceramicist, and as a painter and decorator. I even worked in a travelling circus for five months.
That's not all of them by a long shot, but with each job comes a new technique, a new perspective on how we manipulate materials to create an image, and how we use images to send messages.

JO-HS: Has there been something that has surprised you within your practice during your residency? If so, what?

Nell: It's been an absolute gift to concentrate solely on painting during my stay at JO-HS, without having to worry about or engage with any of the usual obligations of everyday life... not even commuting! This is such a rare opportunity. The level of focus has been really intense and extremely rewarding. I also meditated in silence for twelve days before arriving. This contributed to the hyper-focus, and rather inconveniently it might have to become part of the ruitine from now on.

JO-HS: Would you like to try other media such as sculpture or performance?

Nell: Straight after my residency at JO-HS I'm going to Guadalajara to make ceramics at the amazing CeramicaSuro. This will be a continuation of the 'mercado' project and I'm very excited.

JO-HS: How would you describe your methodology?

Nell: It's difficult to separate work from life. Being an artist isn't a job, it's a lifestyle and a spiritual practise. I don't really have a methodology, but I do strive for constant self-improvement.
Be radically honest, be radically open, be brave, have high standards and high expectations. Think hard, work tirelessly, and improve every day. May that be the measure of success.