My Cultural Life: Nicola Russell

The artist on painting Bill Clinton, the simple pleasures of friendly horses and finding inspiration in the memory of Mo Mowlam

Eight years after being diagnosed with breast cancer, Belfast-based artist Nicola Russell has passed away at the city's Marie Curie hospice, aged 51. Although perhaps best known for her portraits of Mo Mowlam and President Bill Clinton, the Portadown-born painter was internationally recognised as one of the world’s best equine artists.

Following an initial full recovery in 2010, Culture NI spoke with Russell, who studied art in Belfast, Winchester and Rome before returning to Northern Ireland, as she started work on her dream project: a painting of the Irish racehorse Istabraq on a canvas eleven feet by thirteen. Read a tribute from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

Did you always want to be an artist?

I always loved painting and arts and crafts in school. My parents are both creative people. Dad is always making furniture and my mother’s interested in pottery, so even though they weren’t professional artisans they were creative and it was very natural for me to do this. From the very beginning they had complete belief that I would ‘make it’.

What did you learn from the transition from art student to professional artist?

I had a major rethink about my work because I hadn’t sold anything at all. My art was feminist and quite political but I couldn’t earn an income from it. I actually gave art up completely for a year. I stacked shelves, I volunteered and I studied IT but my heart wasn’t in it and after a year I was looking at these flowers and had a powerful impulse to put them onto canvas. I just had to paint the flowers and when I painted them people snapped them up. Every painting I made was selling.

I didn't feel that I had sold out my feminist principles. Art can be political but there is also an important part of art which is purely aesthetic and that was what I loved. When I paint flowers or horses it is without political agenda, I paint them because of how stunning they are. It’s almost a spiritual thing that comes from a place deep inside.

Montys Pass

Back in 1997 you were commissioned to paint President Bill Clinton. What was that experience like?

It was great fun. I was asked by Senator George Mitchell to do a portrait of President Clinton to celebrate the anniversary of his first visit to Belfast. I worked from photographs of the President but met him when the portrait was unveiled. He smiled and said, ‘You made me look young.' I got a squeeze from him, around the waist, which was nice and made all my female friends very jealous in spite of everything.

Do you enjoy the arts in Northern Ireland?

I have to say I tend to look outside Northern Ireland but I like the lifestyle of the arts here; going to the festivals, seeing performances. I loved the Festival of Fools. It was lovely to go to the City Hall and see kids sitting outside watching street performers from eastern Europe. During the Troubles people didn’t stray past their own areas and that had an awful affect on culture and the arts. Now, we almost have wall to wall festivals but it’s working because people are out engaging with the arts and that enriches their lives. It’s that kind of public involvement in the arts that we do very well here and I enjoy all that.

If you could have any three cultural figures from throughout history round for dinner, who would they be?

I’d invite Ian McEwan for his dark and wicked sense of humour. He’d probably use it for a scene in a book and put some horrendous twist on the evening. I like Paula Rego’s paintings so I’d like to meet her. I always saw her as an inspiration. It wasn’t that I was influenced by her art but by the fact that here was a female artist who was very successful. I always like to see women attaining success but I’m always disappointed by how very few paintings I actually like by female artists. I’d invite Michelangelo because he’s my favourite artist. I think that’s why I’m doing that massive painting at the moment.

How did this project come about?

The original idea for the project came four years ago, but then I got sick so that put me out of action for the guts of two years. When I recovered I decided from then on that I wouldn’t waste any time and would only do what I really wanted to do. The thought of making this really large painting was part of what was keeping me going.

Michelangelo did some marvellous paintings of horses and he always worked on a large scale, so I suppose that was in the back of my mind. We asked the equine industry to come up with a selection of six horses and we held an all Ireland vote, run through The Irish Times and Horseracing Ireland and other publications, and Istabraq was the chosen horse.

Intimacy

We asked for a pound or euro from contributors and this covered the costs of the material and their name will go up beside the finished painting. All these thousands of people have paid and voted so, in a way, it’s a public commission and that gives a certain spirit to the project.

Was it a daunting task approaching such a large canvas?

There were some initial practicalities of creating a painting that size. For example, there are no canvases that size in Europe; I had to order one from America - they do everything bigger there! I was originally using a ladder to work from but my landlord saw me and suggested scaffolding which he very kindly supplied. The process itself is physically challenging and very frustrating. When you’re working very small sections of the overall image, you have to work slowly and be methodical. The work has taken over and the initial excitement has gone but I’m excited to see what it will look like when it is finished.

Mo MowlamWhat would you say are your career highlights?

I like to keep moving and looking forward. I rarely stop to look back. Meeting Bill Clinton was a hoot and meeting the Queen was surreal. I think I almost blacked out from excitement because I can barely remember the experience.

I’d say meeting Mo Mowlam has really left a lasting effect on me. I was really nervous but she put me at ease by hanging onto my little finger while I was being interviewed by the press. We now know that she knew then that she hadn’t long to live, but there she was holding and supporting me.

That means so much to me given my own experience of illness. She was an amazing person. I wouldn’t necessarily look at meeting her as a professional highlight but more that the experience of knowing her is part of who I am now.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as an artist?

To try to have independent thinking and always question what you’re doing and be sure that the work is what you’re really passionate about.

Nicola Russell's funeral takes place at 11am on Saturday, June 20 at Roselawn Cemetery, Belfast. Read a tribute from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.