Bangor Artist Dedicates Exhibition to Wife After Cancer All-Clear

'Where are they now?' is Leslie's Nicholl's loving tribute to his partner and those who helped her win five-year fight

If you visit the east wing of Belfast City Hall any time between now and the end of August, you’ll be treated to a very poignant and deeply personal collection of paintings. The exhibition, entitled Where are we now?, comprises 20 canvases and four drawings, and is the work of renowned Bangor artist, Leslie Nicholl.

It subsequently charts the journey of Nicholl and his wife Elaine, who was diagnosed with breast cancer seven years ago, depicting their experience during this troubling time.

A gift for his wife, who received the all-clear after five years, the exhibition is also very much a heartfelt thank you to everyone who helped the couple through that difficult period. Indeed, the paintings are on display just a stone’s throw away from where their lives unexpectedly changed just a few years ago.

'Elaine was diagnosed at Linenhall Street, just behind the City Hall, so when I realised I could produce this gift for her in such a beautiful building, it gave me the perfect opportunity to ‘close the circle’ and move on,' says Nicholl.

'It’s to thank the wonderful people at the breast screening unit on Linenhall Street who looked after Elaine and got us to the point of her getting the all-clear.'

At the time of the diagnosis, Nicholl and his wife had been preparing to travel to Berlin for two months and the news came completely out of the blue.

Where are they now

'It was terrifying,' he says. 'It came about through a routine mammogram. That day was the beginning of a journey neither of us expected, nor were prepared for. You suddenly realise however - when bad things happen – that there are lovely people out there who try to make the heaviness of it all a wee bit lighter.

'There was one particular nurse in Dundonald called Rosie who was always there when it was at its worst, and the surgeon, Mr Marshall, and many other people as well. The breast screening unit just does wonderful things – for the families and for their male partners.

'When Elaine got the all-clear after five years I asked her what she was thinking and the first thing she said was 'just how kind people have been.'

As someone who paints avidly every day, Nicholl knew he wanted to create an exhibition for his wife, and that it would depict their journey and begin and end with two stunning seascapes. However, he didn’t know where he might exhibit it, until a chance encounter with the then Lord Mayor of Belfast, Nichola Mallon who, after enquiring about Nicholl’s next exhibition, suggested the City Hall.

'She took us for a tour and to the east wing, where there was a beautiful exhibition space and staircase,' says Nicholl. 'I had to go through the professional channels to secure it of course, but it just seemed so right.' 

The resulting exhibition, which is personal and not for sale, subsequently includes a series of display panels, each starting with a tiny canvas which outlines the core of each part of the story. Not wanting to paint someone cutting into the flesh of a loved one, nor expecting anyone to want to view it, Nicholl instead used a childhood memory to represent one of the opening images. The resulting painting shows a burnt field – a symbolic image for Nicholl in many ways. Indeed, as a boy, the painter once happened upon two farmers burning the stubble off the fields at the end of autumn, as they prepared the ground for ploughing.

Where are they now 3

'They said, "we’re burning the land son, we’re burning the land. This is going to make it better." I always remembered that phrase,' he says. 'So the exhibition includes a very small scene of a field being burnt – and a triptych showing the field starting to become better.' 

The artwork also shows 'a squall of bad weather coming in – an unsettled sea', with the artistic journey culminating in a final seascape of twilight and new crescent moon. Through it meanwhile, runs a single symbolic red silk thread. The four drawings also included in the exhibition subsequently depict female figures, and of hair being brushed, each similarly rich with symbolism.

'My work is raw and edgy and some of the figures are nude, but very painterly,' says Nicholl. 'Like any exhibition though, it has to stand on its own. The responses to it so far have been that people love it because they understand the story we’ve left behind. They understand the story because they’ve done it for their own loved ones.'

He adds: 'Elaine’s nightmare began on Linenhall Street and now, under much happier circumstances, culminates in the exhibition in this stunning building. I never thought I would have the chance to exhibit in such a beautiful space.'

The Where are we now? exhibition is on display at Belfast City Hall’s east wing until August 28.