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Artist Leslie Nicholl on paintings inspired by his wife's cancer battle

'Cancer does change you. Elaine and I grab everything life has to offer now and we live in the present and enjoy every single minute of it'

Devoted couple: Co Down artist Leslie Nicholl and his wife Elaine at his exhibition
Devoted couple: Co Down artist Leslie Nicholl and his wife Elaine at his exhibition
Dark matter: Leslie Nicholl with his art

By Stephanie Bell

Even down the telephone line you can sense the smile on artist Leslie Nicholl's face as he talks about the happy circumstances that led him to meet the love of his life, Elaine, more than 40 years ago.

When he later discusses what was undoubtedly the darkest time of their lives, after Elaine was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, his tone changes and you get a sense of the terrible fear he felt.

That fear and also anger that his wife of 43 years had to endure the trauma of a cancer diagnosis later became the catalyst for a collection of stunning and very personal paintings.

Leslie (63) used his love of art as his own therapy to cope and produced 40 pieces of work in tribute to Elaine (62).

Very much inspired by poignant events, a collection of his work which includes some of the pieces inspired by Elaine's cancer journey is currently on display in Belfast's Engine Room.

Buffeted by every element - the rain, wind and even the riptide of the sea she is standing on - this is a powerful portrayal of Elaine standing strong during her illness.

Leslie, who describes his work as non commercial, has pieces in exhibitions around the world.

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He has painted for as long as he can remember and was also an art teacher and head of department in Gransha High School in Bangor for 30 years.

He met Elaine, a civil servant, while at the College of Art in Belfast.

The couple share a love of travel and decided not to have a family so that they could indulge their desire to see as much of the world as possible.

Personal exhibition: Elaine with some of Leslie's works
Personal exhibition: Elaine with some of Leslie's works

They particularly enjoy Europe where they have travelled extensively over the years.

Leslie recalls how he first saw Elaine on a bus three years before they were properly introduced and started to date: "I was on the bus and this girl with long blonde hair, a cape and boots on, and she fell fast asleep with her face against the window.

"It was what she was wearing that drew my attention. She actually looked like she had been dragged through a bush backwards.

"Three years later I started my foundation year at the College of Art and got friendly with a group from Portadown and this young girl was part of the group - we got to know each other and started going out together.

"Some time later we were on a bus and Elaine was fast asleep with her face up against the window and I just thought 'I know this girl' and it turned out it was her I had seen three years before."

The couple married in 1976 and honeymooned in London when Leslie vividly remembers his first ever visit to the Tate Gallery and seeing the work of the great artists he had grown up admiring.

Dark matter: Leslie Nicholl with his art
Dark matter: Leslie Nicholl with his art

Their first big adventure together soon followed when they hitchhiked across France from north to south - and their globetrotting hasn't stopped since.

Leslie says: "We have no children. We were both a bit selfish because all we wanted to do was travel.

"I drifted into teaching and it gave me the holidays and money to travel and we travelled every summer to Germany, Poland, the Baltic States and Estonia, all over Europe."

When not travelling now of course he can be found standing at his easel working on his latest painting.

Just after his current exhibition opened a visitor was drawn to the paintings which were done in tribute to Elaine's cancer journey.

When Leslie explained the background to the lady, he was amazed when she said she too had been through breast cancer and felt very connected and drawn to the paintings.

Personal exhibition: Leslie with some of his works
Personal exhibition: Leslie with some of his works

There is no doubting how traumatic a time it was for Leslie and Elaine. Her cancer was picked up during a routine mammogram and she had a lumpectomy and radiotherapy treatment.

The couple are very grateful that it was caught early and that Elaine made a full recovery.

Leslie says: "It is the worst thing that can happen but we were thankful that it was caught early.

"You suddenly realise how totally powerless you are and you are relying on the goodness and expertise of total strangers.

"Elaine had a wonderful surgeon, Mr Marshall, and a nurse called Rosie, and we will be forever grateful to both of them who were there for us through the worst of times and the best of times.

"We didn't tell our families. We just decided to put our heads down and go through it together. I don't drive so I did tell a couple of close friends who were a great support and would have brought me to the hospital.

"We didn't tell our families until we knew that Elaine was on the mend as we knew they would be calling and concerned and neither of us wanted that. When you go into the cancer suite in Belfast City Hospital the people are wonderful, the staff are kindness personified.

"But when you see the children in the cancer unit you realise it is worse for other people and when we saw what they were going through it made us even more grateful that Elaine's was caught early.

"It is absolutely terrifying and you wouldn't wish it on your worst enemy.

"The doctors and nurses are giving life and death diagnoses and yet they do it in such a kind and caring way.

"When Elaine had come out of surgery we were so scared and confused and then Mr Marshall came to see her and he was so calm and measured and had such an easy manner it put us at our ease.

"Elaine is very strong and I had to be too as we had decided not to tell anyone and I realised it was up to us to get through it together, there was no easy way out.

"It was a learning curve and one I hope never ever to have to undergo again."

When Elaine was finally given the all-clear, Leslie was still very emotional having watched his wife come through surgery and treatment.

He turned to his art which he says he has always found therapeutic - and began what was to become a huge collection of work in tribute to Elaine and her strength during her cancer treatment.

He says: "We live near the sea in Bangor and I wanted to produce something that used the sea and the elements of wind, rain and cold and the idea being that this figure is standing strong against it all, even the riptide underneath her feet as she is standing on the sea.

"It was all the worst that could happen and yet the figure is still standing.

"I just took the paint and tried to see where it would lead me to create the image. The figure is in red and you have to look hard to see that it is a figure.

"I had a lot of anger and frustration which I wanted to get out of my system and put it somewhere else rather than inside my head, so I put it into the paintings, it was as simple as that.

"It had been so intense and so frightening I really wanted it out of my system and I have always found painting to be therapeutic."

He adds: "I think I did around 40 paintings in sequence and I didn't start until Elaine was fully recovered.

"She is a very resilient person and it didn't take long for her energy levels to return."

The experience has given both Leslie and Elaine a new appreciation of life, and travelling is now more important to them than ever.

Leslie says: "It does change you. We grab everything life has to offer now and we live in the present and enjoy every single minute of it.

"We have a new appreciation of life and I know that is such a cliche but cliches do have truisms.

"We don't take anything for granted anymore."

Leslie is a prolific painter who has produced 1,200 pieces of work over the years.

He says he has no idea where his talent or passion for art came from since neither his parents or his relatives are artistic.

He adds: "I'm obsessive and it has been a passion for as long as I can remember. We have a three-storey Victorian house which is full of artwork and my wife knows I will be painting until I am no longer here.

"Some of my work is in collections in Dublin, London, Poland, America, Japan and South Korea. My stuff is not commercial and a commercial gallery would struggle to sell it.

"People need to think left of centre like me to appreciate it and my work certainly challenges people to think for themselves."

As his well as his collection of paintings in tribute to Elaine, Leslie has two others on show in his current exhibition.

One is in memory of all the people who lost their lives in Dresden before the freeing of the city in 1945 and features 45 powerful pieces of work.

The other is another emotive collection on a number of paintings done by children from Prague before they were taken to the concentration camp at Auschwitz.

  • The exhibition at the Engine Room Gallery, North Street, Belfast, runs until April 25 and is open from Tuesday to Saturday, from 10.30am until 4.30pm (gallery is closed April 23 and 24 for Easter)

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