Artist Interview - Sue Nicholas

Artist interview between Shannon Skye Robinson and Lois Emma Harkin (Curating Futures Project Coordinator), and Sue Nicholas (Curating Futures Artist).


* Warning, mature content- nudity *


Date of Interview: 20th of December 2021

Participants: Shannon Skye Robinson (SSR) and Lois Emma Harkin (LEH) and Sue Nicholas (SN)



SSR/LEH: What is your background?


SN: I graduated with an honours degree in Fine Art in 1980 from Goldsmiths. I worked as an artist mainly in sculpture/collage for 7 years under my maiden name of Susan Dale and did get into some collections, the most notable being Lady Gibberd who started the Harlow Gallery and the art critic and writer Guy Brett (recently deceased). My subject matter was concerned with electronics, memory and consciousness as I used a mix of electronic components and other materials to make wall based installations.


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There were few opportunities for artists in the 80s, as even the Tate Gallery didn’t invest in much modern art and there was a disconnect between how galleries operated and artists worked as no one openly discussed practical business models or even career development. So I worked part time in offices to support my practice and rented a space in Wapping with my partner Colin, followed by Hackney Wick both from Space Studios.


The art world was incredibly sexist as women artists were seldom taken seriously. Brian Sewell the Evening Standard Art Critic famous quote was “There has never been a first rank women artist. Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness” gives a flavour of an aspect of the periods disdain for woman's’ ability to succeed at the highest level. For the majority of women in the art world there wasn’t so much a glass ceiling but a brick wall.


So frustrated with both lack of money and opportunity I reset my life and had a career in Senior Management in the Telecommunications industry which spanned 25 years and involved a lot of strategic modelling, maths, economics and software development. I also gained an MBA.DIC from Imperial College management school in 1995.


Telecommunications was a male dominated engineering industry and also initially a sexist environment but there were opportunities for progression. I had to start as a secretary and work my way up, a fine art degree had no cred in that industry. Even senior women

managers in London, often were asked in meetings to make tea, as most men tended to assume you were clerical support.

I remained involved in art though as my peer group outside of work was mainly with artists and gallery social life. I always knew I would return to art but felt a career in a male dominated industry where you had to work very hard to be taken seriously would aid my ability eventually to thrive in the art world and I decided a glass ceiling was a better outcome and choice for my ambition than a concrete one. Of course time changes everything and a decade makes a great difference. The 90s saw Tracy Emin break through all such restrictions and place the yin and yang of femininity at the centre of art experience. Now women artists have momentum and are are gaining more attention although the amount of women in permanent museum collections at a national level averaged only 11% between 2008 and 2018.


 

SSR/LEH: How did you get into art/ creativity?

SN: I started my practice again in 2015, keeping some of the links in content on consciousness but switching from sculpture/college to painting. I also changed to my married surname of Nicholas to match a fresh identity and new beginning as I felt it was a rebirth.


Artwork produced by Sue Nicholas


 

SSR/LEH: What do you get out of producing work?

SN: Liberation, learning, growth and immense satisfaction.


Artwork produced by Sue Nicholas


 

SSR/LEH: How do you want your work to be perceived by an audience?

SN: As accessible and inspirational. When I was eighteen months old, my mother had put a harness on me with a rein attached to allow me to walk unaided but within her control. One day the rein dropped to the ground unexpectedly and taking advantage I ran along the pavement as fast as I could whilst laughing as I ran. I could hear a cry of anguish from my mother but the exhilaration I felt and the pure joy of the freedom I was experiencing stayed with me and is a metaphor of how I want to negotiate space throughout my journey in life. I try to recreate that experience through my work. I would like anyone viewing my work to get a sense of joy, liberation and freedom too.


Artwork produced by Sue Nicholas


 

SSR/LEH: Who are your biggest inspirations?

SN: Goldsmiths School of Art was a forward looking ‘hothouse’ for talent management. At a formative level, I was lucky to have both Mary Kelly and Margaret Harrison as tutors who took an interest in me and my work at Goldsmiths College. There were few female art tutors at Colleges in the 70s and they both were part time. I was also inspired by their different approaches within a rigorous feminist art critique in the 70s and 80s. They paved the way for woman’s art although they did stick within a particular framework of conceptual and political contexts which I was not bound by as there was a decade between us. However they did encourage me in self belief and that it was possible to be an artist. Michael Craig Martin was also a positive influence on perspectives and ambition of what you could

personally achieve through his leadership of the multidisciplinary and forward looking ‘Backfields Fine Art Group.’ I was also supported by Ferris Newton and John Wood give me a practical grounding in electronics and automation. In art history, Sarat Maharaj was a ‘guru’ on Philosophy, Politics, Social History, (including colonialism and African Nationalism) and Culture. The Goldsmiths education experience was intense, person centred and priceless.



Artwork produced by Sue Nicholas


 

SSR/LEH: What are the main concepts or themes you explore within your work?


SN: I am inspired by scientific investigations of consciousness which I initially developed as visual “Thought Patterns” in both paintings (material work) and digital practice (immaterial or weightless work). My fascination with consciousness is linked to the overlaps between data science, neurological and biological sciences’ attempts to recreate or develop Consciousness through pattern theory. However a recent project on geology with ‘Creative Reactions Brazil’ extended my interest in how rocks and geological material also generate hidden patterns at a molecular level of consciousness, through time and the impact of natural forces.

 

SSR/LEH: What is the main thing you have learnt through your creative practice?


SN: Never give up even when the result doesn’t match initial expectations.


Artwork produced by Sue Nicholas


 

SSR/LEH: Who is your work for? Yourself? A small community? A specific sector of society? Or is it for everyone?

SN: My art reflects my ideas and developing interests alongside the knowledge I continue to accumulate and is open to anyone who has an interest in visual arts


 

SSR/LEH: What is the best piece of advice you could give to another artist, or someone just starting out in the creative sector?

SN: Work to establish a support network of creative people in your region and online. Publish and exhibit your work at every opportunity.


 

SSR/LEH: Why did you decide to join the Curating Futures community?


SN: I was attracted and excited by the opportunity to collaborate with Curators and Artists and interact to help shape exhibitions through the dialogue within a community of interconnected artists that have some values in common but are diverse in thinking and approach. The potential to be a force in virtual space and be liberated from some of the costs, practicalities and ‘gatekeeper’ limitations of the public gallery and museum network was also a key factor. Overall Curating Futures offers an immediacy of connection and expansiveness through growth and learning not available elsewhere. Working with Curators is an important part of making art through openly addressing meaningful contemporary themes which open dialogues on the social, political, cultural and natural arena we inhabit.


 

You can find Sue Nicholas via her Instagram