The story of faces: profile of Croydon artist Nicky Nicholls

By - Tuesday 5th August, 2014

Liz Sheppard-Jones considers the remarkable work and life of Nicky Nicholls

Memories Frozen In Time.
Image by Nicky Nicholls, used with permission

I’ve had the privilege of knowing the artist Nicky Nicholls for almost four years. I was introduced to her by my friend John Reeve, founder and proprietor of the ClickClock art and photography gallery in Katharine Street Croydon, and right at the start he told me a bit about her. Her story sounded both sad and inspiring, but it wasn’t until I first saw her paintings that I realised just how remarkable she, and that story, really are.

In the four years since then, Nicky has found fame – and it’s still spreading. She has been commissioned to do paintings of the Bank of England, Hever Castle in Kent and Southwark Cathedral, where the cathedral shop also sells postcards and greetings cards with images of her art. Her work has been displayed at the Novas Gallery in Central London and at the Bethlem Art Gallery and her cards and postcards are sold by Dorset Cancer Care as well as being stocked by charity shops across Croydon.

Her Christmas cards sold out twice at Croydon Visitor Centre in the run-up to Christmas 2013 and will be on sale again this year. Her new range of postcards and greetings cards is flying out of the door.  For any artist, such success would be exciting and gratifying.

Nicky Nicholls’ oddly menacing painting of Trafalgar Square.
Image by Nicky Nicholls, used with permission.

Earlier this year Nicky gave me a painting of my two sons, as a thank you for organising some of these local sales, so I’m particularly proud to say that I own an original piece of her work.

“But mum”, said my younger son when he saw it, “I don’t have a face in this picture. Why don’t I?” I had to think carefully about how to answer him. The story of faces is the real story of Nicky Nicholls.

Nicky was horribly abused as a child and teenager – the details are of a kind that newsreaders warn you may find distressing. She doesn’t want me to go into those details; suffering has defined enough of her life already and nowadays that life is defined by entirely different things.

But these experiences had blotted out her identity, creating in her a state of being not simply of not knowing what she wanted, but rather of inability to experience herself so that she could want anything.

To feel, to love, to wish for, to connect… all these emotional experiences require an ‘I’ to exist. If there’s no ‘I’ – if ‘I’ was simply obliterated by trauma – then there’s nothing. She therefore entered adulthood barely functional. As a young woman she became an alcoholic, then street-homeless.

My paintings were on display in the gallery – but I was too terrified to go in

That’s why Nicky doesn’t paint faces – mostly. She still struggles – and nowadays searches as an artist – for a way to fully be herself, emotionally and creatively. Her art expresses her struggle – and it’s a battle she is winning, day by day.

In 1999, her admission to Foxley Lane Women’s Service in Purley, where one-to-one therapeutic support was offered to her for the first time, began to bring about change.

The Session With Dr A – Nicky’s depiction of a therapy session she attended as an adult but experienced as a little girl receiving help for the first time.
Image by Nicky Nicholls, used with permission.

“I was encouraged to paint, to express myself”, Nicky told me. “This definitely turned my life around. It started by being asked to take part in an exhibition at the Novas Gallery in London, but I was terrified and wouldn’t go in!”

Look closely at Nicky’s people pictures and you will be bound to see a little girl with pigtails, always turned away. This child represents Nicky herself – a little girl denied the chance to explore the world, who is now rediscovering that world and exploring it through her freedom to paint. The little girl features on one of the Christmas cards which will be on sale in the Visitor Centre this year.

Nicky Nicholls is an awesome survivor. Gracious and modest about her achievements and frank about the support she continues to need, she’s a remarkable of example of how a human being can do more than survive catastrophe. She can rise above it to fulfil herself and make her mark on the world.

You can see Nicky’s work on display at Croydon Visitor Centre, just alongside East Croydon railway station, from Monday 4th August until Saturday 16th August. Her Croydon postcards are now on sale there, priced at 40p, and her greetings cards at 50p. Christmas cards will be on sale from mid October. Call 020 8686 9706 for details of opening times.

See the gallery below for more of Nicky’s paintings:

All images in this gallery by Nicky Nicholls, used with permission.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Jeannette Jackson

    I have met Nicky through helping the homeless of Stoke on Trent. She is now my inspiration to keep going and stay focus no matter how many knock backs we get. Well done Nicky you are an awsum lady and I am humbled to have met you xxx