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Katy Jones
Nicola Hicks' Minotaurs of Straw
and Other Remarkable Creatures


I first encountered Nicola Hicks' work at the Whitworth Art Gallery in 1996. I was fascinated and disturbed by the unfinished quality of her painted straw and plaster sculptures, and by her faintly menacing humanoid animals with their sometimes mysterious titles. In 'The Unbearable Brightness of Seeing,' a minotaur shielded his eyes with his hooves. 'Mr Crow,' a huge-beaked, feather-fingered bird on human legs, confronted 'Mr Fox,' who stood upright, hands on hips, penis erect, eyes narrowed and pointed ears alert. Another naked, wolf-headed man appeared opposite a small, crowned girl in 'Game.' He seemed to be regarding her quite benevolently. A number of large and dynamic charcoal drawings on brown paper hung, unframed, on the walls and a herd of lumbering straw and plaster cows had paused in the middle of the gallery floor. Their title, 'Fee Fie Fo Fum,' reminded visitors that an encounter with a herd of cows can be a terrifying experience for a child, or even for an city-dwelling adult alarmed by their unexpected size.

Nicola Hicks was born in 1960, in London, to artist and sculptor parents. She studied at the Chelsea School of Art and then as a postgraduate at the Royal College of Art. Figurative sculpture and drawing were both deeply unpopular in the early 1980s and Nicola was considered odd by her contemporaries, who were more interested in new theoretical approaches, alternative media and punk culture. Nevertheless, in 1984 one of her animal sculptures was selected for exhibition at the Angela Flowers Gallery in London. This was the first of many prestigious shows and commissions, including the sculpture for the Brown Dog monument in Battersea Park, modelled on Nicola's own dog, Brock. Much of her early work focused on animals, from chickens and cows to her chalk and charcoal drawing, 'Terrier,' and the humorous straw sculpture, 'Avant Garde Dog.' Trips to India and Australia further extended her repertoire, and camels, elephants and kangaroos began to feature in her work.

It was in 1992, while travelling in Australia with her partner Dan, that Nicola became pregnant. This was a development she had not planned or anticipated and she had no intention of letting it impede her work. Instead, the experience of pregnancy proved to be inspirational, leading to more drawings and sculptures of the human form. Following the birth, which took place in her studio in London, Nicola soon began to sculpt and draw her newborn son in works such as, 'William Gabriel Sholto Flowers – five days old.' She also became interested in images of mother and baby. Her sculpture, 'Pandora,' dates from this period. It is a standing female figure looking down at the baby she is holding in her hands. She does not cradle the child, but gazes at it with a mixture of curiosity, sadness, uncertainty and pity. It is a piece which expresses the awesome responsibility of bringing a child into a flawed world; it acknowledges the potential for both good and evil, sadness and hope which is bound up in this tiny new life.

Around the same time, Nicola began to experiment with figures that combined human and animal features. 'Bull Woman,'
made in 1993, is a sculpture of a wholly human woman holding her hands up to her head like a bull's horns, as if in some kind of primitive dance or ritual. Her hands and body are ragged with escaping stalks of straw and her expression is fierce. This contrasts with the non-threatening 'Mother of Minotaurs,' which is a reclining, cow-headed woman in a somewhat seductive pose, derived from a series of drawings of a female model wearing the head and skin of a bull. In an interview in 'Nicola Hicks,' (Momentum, 1999) the artist explains that it was intended to be a 'fairly horrifying' piece about 'the ridiculous state that women get themselves in to appear attractive to men.' She points out that this has gone on for centuries, with women wearing shoes they can barely walk in, disguising their faces with make-up, feigning stupidity, pretending they don't want careers and warping their bodies into strange shapes by binding their feet or wearing corsets. These 'mothers of minotaurs' produce offspring who consider this kind of female behaviour to be normal and desirable, and so the pattern is perpetuated. Nicola went on to produce more work which drew on classical mythology in pieces such as 'Crouching Minotaur,' 'The Men I,' and the drawing, 'Medusa.' Other hybrid figures, such as 'Mr Fox' and 'Mr Crow,' were probably suggested by the fairy stories Nicola would have been reading to her children. 'Recovered Memory' is a clear reference to 'Little Red Riding Hood.' In this sculpture, a tiny reddish girl and a grey wolf in a dress exchange a polite curtsey. The sense of threat in this piece comes not from any overt expression or gesture, but from the viewer's knowledge that the wolf is disguising both his form and his intentions. In the guise of a harmless story, 'Recovered Memory' expresses real and troubling parental anxieties about the threat which other adults may pose to their children. 'Dressed for the Woods' has a related theme. A boy and a girl stand side by side, the boy wearing a fox mask and the girl a fox's tail. In an interview for Radio 4's 'Woman's Hour,' Nicola Hicks explained that this was a piece about her own desire to protect her children and provide them with 'some kind of armour.' The children's foxy attributes will camouflage them as they venture into the wild world and give them the sharp wits they will need to make their way through it unscathed.

Nicola's children continued to provide ideas for her sculptures as they grew up. When her daughter Edie started school Nicola created 'Murder of Crows,' which is a circle of seven pretty, cat-headed little girls in crinolines. The piece expresses the power and the manipulative, feline cruelty of little girls and particularly the threat they pose as a group to whichever of their number has fallen out of favour. The suggestion of violence in the title is made more shocking by the little cat girls' demure dress and posture.

Not long after the creation of this piece, in the year 2000, Nicola Hicks and her family bought a flock of Herdwick sheep and moved to Cumbria. In the countryside Nicola has many different kinds of animal close at hand, and she sometimes invites horses and sheep into her studio to act as models. It is also an advantage to a certain kind of artist to keep remote from the pressures and anxieties of the London art scene. In Cumbria Nicola is free to follow her own artistic instincts.

It is possible to trace changes and developments in the themes of Nicola Hicks' work over the course of her career so far, but her choice of media and her method of working have remained more or less constant. Sometimes she has been persuaded to have bronze casts made of her work to make it more enduring, but some of the detail is inevitably lost and in general she prefers to stick with plaster and straw. She knows these materials best, and they are cheap and allow her to work quickly. More expensive materials like wood, marble and even museum quality paper seem to inhibit Nicola, making her feel self-conscious and pressurized, and worried about the waste if a piece should go wrong. She estimates that at least one in five pieces is thrown away because it hasn't worked.

Nicola's use of colour is very restrained because, although she loves colour, she feels that there has to be a good reason to use it or else it will just be a superficial distraction. In the main she paints her sculptures in uniform earthy browns or grey, often using colours to express feelings. 'Adoration,' is a sculpture of a female nude with two cherubs which is painted a delicious chocolaty brown, because Nicola wanted to evoke a sense of contentment and deep happiness. It is a piece about her feelings about her life and her children. Some of her sculptures of sleeping figures are painted the grey of wet clay, because she associates the soft malleability of wet clay with the feeling of sleep. In other pieces the colour reflects the literal colour of the subject of the piece, such as the black 'Mr Crow' or various grey wolf figures.

In Nicola's work the relationship between drawing and sculpture is a reciprocal one. She often draws from life, but does not usually sculpt from life, because in sculpture she likes to have the freedom to invent without the distraction of what is real. In her sculptures she is concerned with getting the feeling or sense of her subject, rather than accurately reproducing its anatomy. Sometimes she will encounter a problem during a sculpture and will draw in order to resolve it, but it is never a matter of drawing a sculpture in two dimensions and then making it in three. The two art forms feed into one another and if Nicola is doing a themed series she will be drawing and sculpting related pieces at the same time. It is important for her always to have several works in progress because she can only work on a piece which suits her state of mind. Sculpting is, she explains, a physical and emotional activity that just seems to happen. It is not intellectual, after the initial thinking period, and it is not something which can forced. Remaining creative is for Nicola a matter of remaining open to and aware of all other living things, whether they are human, animal or plant. She believes that there is a seed of spirituality in all living things and that the most important human characteristics are those that we share with animals ('Nicola Hicks,' Momentum, 1999).

Nicola Hicks' work is at once imaginative and realistic, strange and familiar, appealing and sinister. Her materials are common human experiences, straw and plaster, pets, farm animals, children's stories, bits of myth and brown paper. From this unpromising conglomeration emerge creatures which haunt and intrigue and linger in the mind.




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