Thanks to Sophie Graham from CultureHunter for the great review of our professional development night with Nell!
A review of a Professional Development Night Artist Q&A, facilitated by the Hunter Arts Network, with Nell, a Sydney based artist originally from Maitland, discussing and exploring her life as an artist over the past 20 years, how she survived on creative talent and pursued her passion as a necessity.
After some nibbles, drinks and a little bit of roaming, Nell, with her signature relaxed bun tied atop her head, sits down to introduce those unfamiliar to her art and by extension, her life. After acknowledging the Awabakal people, she removes her boots and socks before continuing with her Maitland origins in a bio, delivered with both pride and a slight sense of loathing.
There is an image occupying my attention on-screen throughout the introduction, a Theodore Roosevelt quote painted on a paper record sleeve, “do whatcha can, where you are with whatcha got”. Nell goes on to explain this as her personal mantra. I realise after the Artist Q&A that this theme, understandably, resonates throughout the entire presentation of her works.
Her recollection of growing up in Maitland is undoubtedly unaffectionate, as she describes the suburb as a “cultural vacuum” on more than one occasion and speaks of the first cinema opening when she was 17 almost with a sense of disbelief at her misfortune, but also with gratitude when she thanks the experience for breeding an “internal imaginative life” and “[producing] resourcefulness” in her. Speaking of her upbringing in a less-than-open-minded environment with a touch of comical shame, Nell describes how she left home the day she turned 18 and the sense of “coming home” she experienced when arriving at the Sydney College of Art, to become the host of her next significant venture in her life.
Here she completed an apprenticeship under Lindy Mato’s wing, cementing the notion that this was the path she wanted to pursue. After this it was onwards and upwards to complete ventures such as achieving an Honours Degree at the University of California, returning to Sydney to finish a Masters Degree in Visual Arts and a five month exchange to study at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
Nell explains that upon returning home to Sydney she fulfilled one of the most rewarding acts of her career, becoming a founding director of a non-profit artist run gallery. From here on a lack of money “became a recurring theme” she states, and that despite this fact she “crucially kept making art”.
In 1999 Nell was shown in Primavera, the “best opportunity a young artist can be offered” for aspiring artists under the age of 25, and from this she was picked up by a commercial gallery.
Throughout her presentation, it becomes clear that the drive to create regardless of resources is a significant motif throughout her work. She reiterates that her “starving artist” cliché along with her rural-upbringing has forced her to be “resourceful, simultaneously frugal and generous”.
A recurring symbol in Nell’s work is flies, such as those she introduced to us early in the presentation in Untitled (flies) 1999, an installation featuring dozens of plastic blow flies seemingly dripping from corners and window panes of a stark white room, the drips a reference to those famous in traditional abstract paintings. The fly reappears in Fly as High as Me (2001), a huge fly the length of Nell’s own height to suggest it is a self-portrait, sitting vertical on a wall, inSummer (2012), a video of her using her father’s cricket bat to destroy Fly as High as Me to represent the changing of the seasons and the violence of swatting flies in the summer time, and again in 2013 when Nell uses a cast of her body adorned in the same hundreds of flies from the 1999 piece, to name a few. A similar notion is explored in Nell’s 2004 work Self Portrait, where “Nell” is spelt out in another perceived pest, rubber mice.
Nell clarifies the recurrence of black and white, diametrically imposed is an allusion to the world’s polar contrasts and pairs, life and death, night and day, often complemented by gold, symbolising the “unnameable element”. This is clear in Not Without My Tail (2004), an amputated crocodile tail bleeding gold, representative of letting something go and that “pain can be a fertile place for opportunity”. This is again a core theme in Made In The Light (2012) , a Japanese scroll inspired piece using neon lights and simple mark making in tones of black and white, cool and warm.
Something else she highlights throughout her presentation is the conflict or cooperation of masculinity and femininity, apparent in works like The Perfect Drip (2009), an imposing sculptural installation of an immaculate droplet seemingly falling from the ceiling, demanding a visceral reaction from the audience. This is reinforced in the femininity and maternal vibes emulating from pieces such as Many Little Decisions, a large sculpture of an egg ornamented with hundreds of pins. A similar contrast is present in Quiet/Loud (2012), with the conflict of unrestrained sound and silence.
Nell makes a point of illuminating the traditional nature of her favourite mediums to use, stating the “formula of mosaics that artists have been using for millennia”, and that such traditional mediums are “kinda lame but I like them”, such as when she refreshes hand glass-blowing in The Ghost Who Walks Will Never Die (2008), a series of clear glass ghosts which on mass look as if they’re “singing a universal om, or the pains of the world”.
Another highlight and something Nell expresses is ironically her “best work” is Everyday Happiness, a series of five silver smiling poos. She claims she became inspired by her own idle thoughts in the studio, reinforcing that “if you shit everyday you’re pretty lucky”.
One of my favourite pieces in the presentation was simple but striking lists of things such as family members, sub-genres of porn, the Old Testament, the New Testament and music genres. These went on to be used in the collaboration with fashion brand Romance was Born, with Nell claiming that she “loved seeing the work being animated and worn”. Another highlight with a common apparel element is Let There Be Robe (2012), an installation featuring a kimono made of collaged ACDC shirts surrounded by dozens of hand-made crucifixes suspended high on the surrounding walls, a creative collision of the “Sunday school aesthetic” Nell was accustomed to as a child against seeing boys walking through Maitland wearing ACDC t-shirts and torn jeans.
To close the night the audience is open to questions, such as enlightening us to her motivation to keep creating; “Not addiction, but it’s a practice, the artists’ path is non-linear and thus more of a commitment…[it’s] Not a journey that ends”, as well as in Nell’s opinion, the most compelling thing about being an artist; when “a work isn’t going as planned, do you safeguard the original idea or relinquish what might be different and better…This tension is the most challenging and interesting”.
Nell currently lives and works in Sydney and is working on two books, a mystery Art Show and is looking forward to showing for the first time at the Spring Melbourne Art Fair. Find out more about at http://www.roslynoxley9.com.au/artists/28/Nell/ and https://www.facebook.com/Nellbunny/ .
Visit https://hunterartsnetwork.org/ to discover more about the Hunter Arts Network, including other professional development opportunities for visual artists.
Review by Sophie Graham for CultureHunter.