FUTURE: CHILDREN'S RIGHTS
90x120cm, oil on canvas
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ABOUT THE WORK
In Nicola's own words
My idea was to depict children on a climbing frame, representing the the Rights of the Child, in a somewhat symbolic, imaginary landscape. I drew and photographed children (with permission) on a climbing frame in my local park, before the pandemic. When lockdown was announced and all the playgrounds shut, these became rather poignant images. I had to rely on secondary sources for some of the figures.
I wanted the background to be somewhat symbolic and imaginary, and I gained inspiration from the landscapes in the early Renaissance paintings by the Limbourg brothers in Le Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1412-16. On the distant hills I have placed buildings and structures that represent aspirations (the castle on the right), justice (the figure of justice from the Old Bailey), and education, in the form of a school (to the left, based on a local primary school) and the Radcliffe Camera at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University (in the middle). Also in the background are images of wind turbines and a whale, representing the future of the planet and nature. The climbing frame represents the structure of the law regarding The Rights of the Child.
I have added words to indicate the key principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC): Development, Survival, Participation and Protection. Clinging to the climbing frame in various positions are thirteen children. Some hold on tight, some confidently play. There are also five children that are either falling off the climbing frame, into an unknown abyss, or yet to climb up onto it.
To the right sits a slightly ghostly figure, partly incorporated into the landscape. This is Eglantye Jebb, the founder of Save the Children who first created the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1924. She holds a ladder and points at a small child sitting on a rung, not yet quite reaching the structure above. The idea expressed is that for children to thrive they need the structure of the law on The Rights of the Child that she first set out, in order to prevent them falling into poverty and adversity. The rocky terrain beneath the climbing frame suggests the danger of being unable to access these rights.
The recent year of 2016 was particularly risky for some children because of welfare reform, while 2020 remains a difficult year for children due to the closure of schools and cancellation of exams as well as financial hardship for many. These years are therefore written onto the rocks that jut out, potentially injuring the falling children further. The child holding on to the cliff at the lower right represents refugees, as indicated by his life-jacket and the overcrowded boat in the water below. The child clinging to the cliff at the lower left is in danger of falling into an area of industrial buildings suggesting child labour or lack of space to play, grow and learn.
Despite these ominous and sad images in the lower part of the picture, the children higher up in the picture holding onto the climbing frame generally seem to be happy, safe and confident. Overall, therefore, I hope that the painting expresses optimism and a bright potential future for children as long as they have the safety and structure of children’s rights to hold onto.
Nicola is a figurative painter who also teaches Art in a secondary school, which informs her practice. She is interested in individuals within systems, and the rhythms and repetitions, visual and otherwise, that can link people in society. Nicola studied both Art and History of Art at Edinburgh College of Art and University. Her work utilises narrative and structural devices developed from studying many artistic traditions. She lives and works in East London.
We had a short chat with Nicola to get to know her better
What has been your creative journey?
My first conscious encounter with art was at a very young age in nursery school. I made a cutout figure that I had to put clothes on and I really enjoyed it. The teacher tried to help me with cutting out the clothes, but I didn’t like it. She cut the skirt out sticking out loads, and I remember thinking “That’s not what a skirt looks like”. It’s something I had an opinion about quite early on.
My mom used to take us to the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery. We would do the quiz sheets and the trails. I really loved it and it made a huge impression on me. I started drawing at home and at school, and eventually went through all the steps of art education completing an MFA at Edinburgh.
My work has mostly been figurative - even when I was a child drawing on piles of paper on the floor I was interested in characters and scenes. I enjoyed story telling, but not through moving image or storyboarding. Illustration was a pathway I considered, but I preferred the freedom that fine art offered.
What were some of your early influences?
Perspective has always intrigued me, because it’s so indicative of the current thinking. During the western Renaissance the use of perspective began to showed experiences from the point of view of humans. Although religious figures were still important they were not necessarily the biggest ones in the picture. During Cubism all of that got broken down and the flattened perspective gained momentum. During my degree I was encouraged to explore art from around the world, and I studied things like Persian Miniatures.
In terms of painters I was inspired by Paula Rego and her powerful, self-referential women; Edward Munch and his use of colour; Manet’s portraits of real people in real settings that have so much insight. I often do gain inspiration and visual ideas from the art of past eras. I was recently looking at “Les Très Rich Heures de Duc de Berry”, a book of wonderful miniature paintings from the early 1400s, (International Gothic style). I am thinking of creating a background for my Rights of the Child painting inspired by the landscapes in these paintings.
As a school teacher, I spend a lot of time observing kids and I translated that experience into my painting through playing with perspective - each student takes up the same amount of space, they are all given equal importance.
What stimulates you creatively and what is your creative process?
I’m inspired by people and colour. Recently I have been interested in going beyond the portrait to contextualise people within society and its structures.
I sketch a lot, so usually it starts with a person - someone with an interesting face or sitting in an interesting way. As I gradually build context around them, I begin to tell a story. Once I move onto painting, I let it take me on a journey - the paint leads me around the canvas.
I often remove or add figures as I go along, and that layering is a big part of my process. It’s like a dance between drawing and thinking - one leads the other. At the start I keep it very fluid: a light foundation painting, sometimes a little charcoal. I like to “find” the painting - through drawing, colour blocking, excavating, wiping.
Is that why paint is your medium of choice?
Yes, paint is literally fluid. The viscosity and texture of oil paint is great, and you can add or remove it easily. I haven’t always found it successful though - I went through periods where I really struggled and did not feel confident at all.
In the 3rd year of art college I tried Lino printing and Etching. It changed my approach to painting, because it taught me to slow down, consider all the elements, plan the stages and decide on the colours before starting.
Painting is a balance between precision and looseness, fluidity and structure. You need precision and planning but there must also be room for happy accidents. Sometimes painting can be too self conscious and overworked, so I often use mark-making like rubbing or scratching to create some emotional distance. I don’t want the surface to look too smooth and overly finished.
What does art mean for you?
My life is a balance between my practice as an artist and working as an art teacher. A few years ago I did a postgrad with Bob and Roberta Smith, and I began exploring the ideas of being a teacher in my artwork.
It was a real breakthrough because it drew my attention to themes like knowledge, hiercharchy, the educational system and children’s rights. Now it is so symbiotic - I draw and sketch in class, I discuss my work with the students.
For me everything revolves around art, I constantly ask myself “How would I paint this? How would I draw this?”. People have always made images and objects - art is a fundamental human act.