I was so ill but then I was told that soon I’d paint flowers again...
Acclaimed Northern Ireland artist Nicola Russell tells why she was inspired to pick up her brushes once again after beating breast cancer. By Audrey Watson
Artist Nicola Russell's Belfast studio is filled with beautiful depictions of horses, flowers, landscapes and endangered birds, but one large floral canvas entitled Hot Tulip has particular significance for the highly-acclaimed painter, whose work is owned by the Queen and former US President Bill Clinton and admired all over the world.
It was the sight of these delicate yet vibrant flowers creating a riot of colour in her garden that encouraged the 45-year-old to pick up her brushes again after a debilitating battle with breast cancer.
“I was diagnosed in 2007 and underwent a mastectomy and reconstruction,” explains Nicola.
“Initially, I thought I would be able to continue painting as I recovered, but the subsequent treatment was so gruelling I had to stop.
“Just before I started chemotherapy, my mother and I planted lots of bulbs. It was late autumn and mum said to me, ‘These flowers will be up in the spring and in the spring you will be well and able to paint them'.
“Over the following months when I was very ill, I watched from the window and, sure enough, stunning bright red and orange tulips appeared just as I began to feel better. They were so amazing, I had to paint them.”
Like anyone told they have a life-threatening illness, Nicola was shocked to the core by the diagnosis.
With a healthy lifestyle and no history of the disease in her family, the news that she had breast cancer sent her world into what she describes as a “helter skelter”.
“It was very shocking and quite difficult to come to terms with at first because things had been going really well for me and I had just held a successful exhibition in Dublin,” she says.
“My GP referred me to hospital because I had noticed some changes in my breast. Two hours later I was diagnosed and, within a week, I was having surgery.
“My world turned upside down. It was terrifying. I couldn't read and hear enough stories about people who had survived and beaten the disease. I needed to hear those stories and they really helped me cope.
“I hope talking about what I went through helps others who are going through the same thing. The counselling I received from the Macmillan Centre was also brilliant in helping me find a way to cope with the understandable fears anyone in such a position would have — such as will the disease return?
“Thoughts like that are normal, but it's what we do with them that counts.
“You could dwell on them and become very down, but what counselling taught me to understand is that they are not real — they are just thoughts. So many other things could happen in the future and the only reality is that you are alive now. One day when I was particularly upset, my partner Kenny reminded me of something I said to him a long time ago, ‘You can't allow worrying about the future to stop you living today'.
“Even though you are very close to something very bad happening, you are still alive that day, so make the most of it. Thinking like that helped me through and so during chemo, I made sure I did something nice each day, like going for a walk or watching a whole box set of The West Wing,” she laughs.
Nicola praises the help and support she and other cancer sufferers receive from local charities and, as well as Macmillan Cancer Support, Action Cancer and Breast Cancer Care also played a part in her recovery, but it was those closest to her, in particular Kenny, who were with her every step of the way in her battle with the disease.
“My parents and my whole family just wrapped me in love and Kenny was incredible,” she says.
“When I was in the operating theatre, he hung a print of my favourite flowers on the wall so that I would see them as soon as I opened my eyes. And when I was undergoing chemotherapy, every time I opened my mouth to cry out or gag, he would pop a chocolate in. He was brilliant and made sure that I was surrounded by humour and funny things.
“Looking back, I have positive feelings about the whole experience because even though it has been terrifying, I now know how precious life is and look at the world in a completely different way.
“You become very aware of what's important in life and the intensity of the love that you feel for the people close to you.” It's been just over a year since Nicola finished her treatment and she's back in the studio embarking on literally her biggest project ever — an 11 x 16ft painting of Ireland's favourite race horse.
“The project was called the Big Horse Painting and we asked the public to vote for their favourite Irish race horse from the last 25 years,” she explains.
“The winner was Istabraq. It's going to be a huge challenge and will take me about 10 months to complete.
“When it's finished, it will be hung in a public space for everyone to enjoy.”
Of course, painting horses is nothing new for Nicola. She is one of the world's foremost equine artists and has captured many of horse racing's most famous heroes including the great steeplechaser and triple Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Arkle, and Grand National winners Papillon and Monty's Pass. She presented her painting entitled Wild Irish Colt to the Queen in person and it now hangs in Windsor Castle.
Her portraits of famous people are equally admired and, as well as Bill Clinton, subjects have also included Baroness May Blood and the late former Secretary of State, Dr Mo Mowlam.
Now that she's so successful, it's hard to believe that after graduating from art college, Nicola actually struggled to sell her work.
“I sold a lot of paintings from my degree show which I was thrilled at, but which didn't impress my tutors,” she reveals.
“There was a feeling that if you sold a lot of work it diminished your credibility.
“So after I left college, my work became very political and feminist and although it was praised by critics, I wasn't selling anything.”
Disillusioned she stopped painting for a year, but winning an Arts Council scholarship to study for a year at the British School at Rome in 1995 refreshed the desire to paint for a living.
“I spent a wonderful time studying the Old Masters and learned to appreciate how artists such as Michelangelo worked and survived.
“They were quite business-savvy — taking commissions and producing work that people wanted to look at and wanted to buy.
“I came back realising that to make a living, I had to become more like that.
“If you want to produce work purely for yourself and aren't worried about it appealing to others or selling any of it, then you are absolutely entitled to do so, but you need to accept the conditions that go with that.
“You can't expect people to buy your work if it's unliveable with.”
On her return to Belfast, just as she would be more than 12 years later albeit under very different circumstances, Nicola was inspired to paint again by beautiful flowers and the pictures were immediately snapped up and sold by a local gallery.
Since then, the wonder of nature, landscapes, flowers, birds and, of course, horses have been the main subjects of her beautiful paintings.
“It's quite funny,” remembers Nicola. “When I first started working as an artist and was doing the feminist stuff and not making any money, dad did say to me, ‘Would you not consider doing some landscapes?' And he got a very short sharp response,” she laughs.
“Recently, I've had a desire to paint species of birds which are in danger of becoming extinct.
“Maybe I'm drawn to them because I'm becoming increasingly concerned about environmental change and the effect it's having on nature or maybe it's because not so long ago, I felt a bit like an endangered bird myself.”
She adds: “You think your work's important and your emotions, but really they're not.
“Life is all about the world, the people around you, those closest to you and your connection with them... and how precious love is.”
Nicola Russell Studio, 37 Queen Street, Belfast. Tel: 9031 4444 or visit www.nicolarussell.com