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Nicola Russell: My cancer battle was an inspiration

By Stephanie Bell

Acclaimed Northern Ireland artist Nicola Russell talks about her stunning art and reveals how her work helped her to win her breast cancer fight.

Pablo Picasso once said: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” It’s a struggle that seems to go with the territory and which acclaimed local artist Nicola Russell almost succumbed to.

As a young, struggling artist making no money, Nicola, now 47, was at one point forced to give up her painting to try and make a living in the “real world”.

Thankfully after just a year of doing odd jobs she was drawn back to the easel and has since built up an international reputation for her work, which has been praised by royalty and presidents.

Her journey has been unconventional, driven by her passion rather than any desire to make her fortune, an approach that has earned her recognition for a series of high-profile paintings.

A battle with breast cancer in 2007 reinforced for her the importance of enjoying life and persuaded her to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition of doing a large-scale painting.

One of her favourite subjects is horses and in spring 2009 she launched a campaign called The Big Horse Project with the Irish Field, Horse Racing Ireland and The Irish Times to find the nation's favourite race horse of the last 25 years.

Horse lovers voted in their thousands and with no commission and taking a year and a half to complete, she produced a massive 10ft by 13ft canvas of Ireland's favourite racehorse — Istabraq.

The magnificent portrait was finally unveiled on May 3 this year in the parade ring at the Punchestown Irish National Hunt Festival by Istabraq’s famous owner JP McManus, trainer Aidan O'Brien and jockey Charlie Swan.

Now, the huge canvas has just gone on public display at Dublin Airport.

It’s the latest high in an eventful career that saw Nicola earn early acclaim as an artist when commissioned to paint a portrait of Bill Clinton to commemorate his visit to Belfast. It was unveiled in a fanfare of publicity by Senator George Mitchell.

In 1998 she met the Queen when she was invited to present her with her painting Wild Irish Colt at a reception for the arts at Windsor Castle.

A year later there was more press attention when she presented Mo Mowlam with a portrait and in the same year she became the first artist to exhibit in the windows of Brown Thomas in Dublin.

But it could all have been so different as, at the age of 30, a disheartened Nicola reluctantly decided that she could not longer sustain her art as a way of supporting herself and gave it up in search of a more secure income.

She recalls those early years after she graduated from Winchester School of Art:

“You come out of college in your early 20s burning with enthusiasm and convinced you are going to be the next Picasso.

“You work your way through the system applying for Arts Council grants and trying to get exhibitions in public galleries because that’s what you are trained to do.

“Your enthusiasm carries you through even though you are making no money and pretty much starving in the garret.

“You are living this life as an artist, all quite bohemian and fun and then reality hits and you have to start to think about the future and how you are going to survive.

“It’s at that point that a lot of artists give up and go into teaching or other professions.

“I knew I needed to make money and so I tried training in IT, I did window dressing and various other jobs for a year.”

Nicola grew up in Portadown but now lives in Belfast, where she has her own studio and gallery in Queen Street.

Her dad George is a retired vet and her mum Jill ran The Irish Times office in Belfast. She has one brother, Richard, who lives in California, and a sister, Gail, who lives in Newquay.

Although not married, her partner of eight years, Kenny Body, works alongside her as director of her studio.

As well as portraits and horses, Nicola is well known for beautiful paintings of flowers, which are what drew her back to her passion after her year of trying to pursue a career outside of her art.

She explains: “I had this impulse to paint the flowers in my mother’s garden, it was like an impulse you get to go for a walk or have dinner, and I couldn’t ignore it.

“At first I resisted because there was no cerebral content in them but because of the love of what I was seeing I decided to do it.

“I did several and people either wanted to buy them or told me I should try and sell them so I did an exhibition and they sold out.”

This encouraged Nicola to set up her first studio, which she opened in the Farset Enterprise Centre on the Springfield Road in Belfast.

She was 33 and applied for a LEDU start-up course to learn about business and also decided to join the Belfast Chamber of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses.

“I immersed myself in and surrounded myself with business people as I really liked their work ethic and I learnt so much from them.”

It was through her business contacts that she was commissioned to do the portrait of President Bill Clinton, a painting that catapulted her as an artist into the public eye.

After two years in Belfast she moved to a new studio in Holywood where she decided to do a portrait of Mo Mowlam, again with no financial gain but purely out of admiration for the then Secretary of State.

She recalls: “I admired her enormously and she was getting quite a lot of criticism at the time from politicians for going into prison to talk to paramilitaries.

“I felt very strongly that she had put her career on the line and shown incredible courage and I was aggrieved that she was not being acknowledged for that.

“I did the portrait and she came to the gallery in Holywood and there was a massive turnout.

“At the time she was terminally ill but hadn’t told anyone. She seemed to love it and I was really glad that I had done it.

“Later, I was told by someone who had been at her house that she had it hanging over her mantelpiece, which made me realise that she really must have liked it.”

In November 2007, Nicola completed a portrait of Baroness May Blood MBE which was also unveiled by Senator George Mitchell, Chancellor of Queen's and which now hangs in the University's Great Hall.

In the same year her world was rocked when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

The news was all the more shocking because she had no lump and her symptoms were of the kind not normally associated with breast cancer.

She said: “I always thought breast cancer was detected by a lump. I had noticed that my nipple appeared to have flattened and wasn’t really concerned about it; I just thought it was maybe down to my age and my body shape changing.

“It then became sore and I developed a bit of a rash so I went to the doctor; it wasn’t my usual GP and she told me that I had an infection and gave me antibiotics.

“It didn’t clear up and I went back and pretty much insisted that I needed to see someone about it, although I still didn’t think for one minute it was cancer.”

A week later she was in the Ulster Hospital where a biopsy was carried out and results delivered that same day revealed a cancerous tumour.

Nicola had to have her breast removed and then received the strongest course of chemotherapy available, followed by radiotherapy.

During her illness she walked every day and it was during her walks that she became acutely aware of the sound of the birds around her.

This led to her doing a series of paintings on endangered birds and last month she donated a series of spectacular prints of the Yellow Hammer to raise funds for the Ulster Cancer Foundation and Friends of the Cancer Centre.

She says: “The Yellow Hammer is so sweet and he just made me laugh when I looked at him and he summed up how I was feeling — so grateful to be alive and able to appreciate what was around me.

“When I was ill, I received counselling from Dorothy Smallwood of the Ulster Cancer Foundation, who sadly passed away from cancer last August.

“She helped me so much. You can cope with the physical stuff but the emotional upset is harder to deal with.

“I wanted to do something to ensure that other people can benefit from the service and money raised from the prints will go towards helping to fund the counselling service.”

Nicola’s Yellow Hammer prints were launched at a special event in the Ulster Museum last month, hosted by the Duke and Duchess of Abercorn and sponsored by Cleaver, Fulton and Rankin.

Nicola adds: “When you face something like cancer, it changes you. I wake up happy every day because I have that sense of being alive. You become very grateful for what you have and you learn not to waste time worrying.”

To buy a print and support the Ulster Cancer Foundation contact Maeve Fox, tel: 028 9066 3281 or email

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