It’s unsurprising, then, to learn that music was Nell’s first love. “Growing up in Maitland, I was desperate to go to art museums and concerts and I couldn’t; all I could do was turn on the radio. Triple J and Rage opened my imagination to possibilities outside my experience of my life in Maitland.”
Despite this, a path to rock stardom didn’t present itself: “I didn’t have access to any kind of musical equipment or anyone who knew much about music, but I could always draw in my bedroom.” An early experience of visual art came during Nell’s first trip overseas, on exchange in Japan as a high school student. “I’d seen posters for a Monet exhibition, and in our free time, I went and [saw it] and got in trouble for leaving the group.”
Japan made a profound impact on the teenaged Nell: “Going from a rural centre in NSW to walking through Tokyo train station and seeing all these people who had such different lives, it just explodes your own little world.”
Nell’s world continued to expand through attending gigs at the Civic Theatre, Newcastle, in her late teens – she reels off band names including Crowded House, Billy Bragg, Boom Crash Opera and the Violent Femmes. “They were very formative. And now I’m friends with Brian Ritchie – how cool’s that?”
It might seem “rock star” to go by only one name, but in Nell’s case it was a natural progression which began at art school when she was known only by her first name (her surname was left off the invitations for her first group exhibition), which eventually led to her changing it legally.
“I like having no last name,” she says, “because it reminds me that I’m in the human family … There’s something about calling yourself the journey you want to be on in your life, too – like some self-initiation … I think there was a bit of that in it when I changed it [as] a young ’un.”
Countering the rock star side is the spiritual, which has a place in Nell’s life in the form of Zen Buddhism. Nell was introduced to Zen through artist Lindy Lee (herself depicted meditating in this year’s winning Archibald Prize portrait by Tony Costa), for whom Nell worked as a studio assistant while studying at the Sydney College of the Arts in the mid-1990s.
“[Lee] introduced me to Buddhism, and not only that … she was a mentor for spiritual life [and] in the art world too … I will be forever grateful to her.”
I like having no last name, because it reminds me that I’m in the human family.
Nell’s daily spiritual life has evolved since the artist and her wife, chef Kylie Kwong, lost their son through stillbirth in 2011.
“I used to have a very disciplined daily mediation practice, but once we lost Lucky, every time I sat down to meditate, the grief was overwhelming. I still have a haphazard meditation practice and I love yoga. But since that time I have found other ways to remind myself to be in the present, such as every morning when I wake up, I say to myself ‘bless this morning for it has woken in me.’
“Then when getting out of bed, I try [to] be aware of the sensations in my body when my feet first touch the ground. And on a good day, everything flows on well from there! Every day when I leave the studio I give thanks to [it]. Generally speaking, I try to keep things very simple and have gratitude for all the overlooked things.”
A work in Nell’s upcoming solo exhibition, to be held in STATION gallery’s booth at Sydney Contemporary, explores this theme of gratitude. Titled Some of the things I, the work meditates on the big and small things Nell felt gratitude for while making the work, from dark chocolate to ancient wisdom.
The exhibition will include paintings, sculptures and limited-edition brooches made in collaboration with New Zealand jeweller Neil Adcock. The new paintings are themed around the idea of callings. Music is unmistakably present in works proclaiming Let’s call this painting exactly what it is (a riff on an Aretha Franklin lyric), Travel the world and the seven seas (courtesy the Eurythmics), and those mentioning songs – of ghosts, water, the moon. Nell’s favoured palette of black and white, with rich accents of red, gold and midnight blue, evokes religious imagery and explores the emotional resonances of the human condition.
Nell’s works are instantly recognisable for their recurring life-cycle symbolism: eggs, drips, lightning bolts and flames abound, many featuring two eyes and a mouth, opened or curved in smile. “You don’t have to have any education, or you can be from any culture, any age [and] know what a tear coming out of an eye means, or a smile face.”
The exhibition will include a group of glass ghost sculptures resting on a variety of found-object “plinths” including amplifiers similar to those in Rock Gate. “The ghost faces individually can look like they’re screaming in pain, but collectively they could [be] a choir.”
This study in joy versus sadness, together versus alone, epitomises the dichotomies Nell explores throughout her practice – water and fire, black and white, night and day, East and West, ancient and contemporary, masculine and feminine. Many artists influence Nell, but “religion and nature do the best installations,” she notes.
We are sitting in her Carriageworks studio (Nell is one of 10 artists currently in year-long residence at The Clothing Store Artist Studios), not far from the site of two major public artworks the artist is creating for the South Eveleigh precinct: Eveleigh Tree House, her first architectural work, and Happy Rain, a welcoming LED work on a community building.
Eveleigh Tree House was commissioned by Carriageworks and Mirvac, with Nell collaborating with design firm Cave Urban to realise the project. The two treehouse structures are linked by elevated walkway and take the form of anthropomorphised gumnuts, with a face (complete with long-lashed eyes) inspired by the facade of the Eveleigh workshop bays. “I wanted it to be like one of the bays got up and walked away, nestled into … and made love with the gum trees, and [this] was its love child.”
As part of the project, 24 community workshops were held in Eveleigh Works, the oldest continuing Victorian blacksmith in the world. Around 450 members of the public used original tools and blacksmithing techniques to forge their own steel gum leaves on which they stamped their initials.
“The workshops were amazing, because they [included] people from the Commonwealth Bank [whose offices are in the precinct], next to my artist friends, next to someone who works at Redfern train station, next to elderly people who live nearby, and university students.
“It was a beautiful mixture of people that you couldn’t put together in any other place, all together for one purpose.”
This excitement for working with communities is something Nell and Kwong have in common, and the artist says the pair share very similar values: “We have a really good simpatico, and I love how our worlds overlap at points.”
The leaves have been welded to the pod structures and the work will soon be open to visitors.
“You can feel everyone’s energy in [them], the sense that something is made from so many hands and hearts,” she says. “It feels like they already belong to the community.”
The project also has a deep personal connection for the artist, whose great-grandfather worked at Eveleigh as a boilermaker, and great uncle at Carriageworks as a draughtsman through the depression and World War II eras. The project is a profound confluence of history, place and community.
Happy Rain is set on a building adjacent to the treehouses and features a smiling cloud with falling raindrops. Maitland Regional Art Gallery is about to unveil a neon version of this work, and Nell is excited about the prospect of a permanent outdoor work on the main street of her home town.
She hopes these new public artworks provide a welcoming environment regardless of who encounters them or the type of day they’ve had.
Nell gestures around her studio, noting that its “template was set” by her teenage room, with posters and postcards filling the walls, and a stereo nearby. “Music [is] a constant companion. That excitement of finding new music, and the energy of it going into your work, that circuit is continuous and endless.” She mentions a mini monograph she is working on with Thames and Hudson which will be published later this year: “Robert Forster from the Go-Betweens is writing for the book, so that’s super-exciting.” Ever the fan.
Denied the opportunity as a teen, does Nell play music now? “Yeah, but not very well,” she claims, pointing to a pink glow in the dark Ibanez shredder and Gibson bass resting in a corner. “I think I’ll start a band of peri-menopausal women at 50; I think that’s the way to go.”
Another unlikely pairing of ideas, bringing about new resonances – classic Nell.
Nell is exhibiting at Sydney Contemporary at Carriageworks, September 12 -15.