Journeying to hope

2009-01-08 00:00

If it wasn’t for her agent she’d have given up on painting. If it wasn’t for her husband, she’d have given up on life.

It’s not easy to believe artist Nicky Leigh as she remembers this. Her bright red hair frames a colourful face, the way her bright orange paintings frame her house. From the kitchen, to the studio, to the hall, to the lounge, warmth and pleasure hang on the walls.

A testimony to the fact that she hasn’t given up on anything.

Fourth in the generation of female painters known as the Everard phenomenon, Leigh explains that it is not just artistic talent that ran in their family. “Bertha Everard, her daughter Rosamund, my mum and I all battled with depression. My self-journey has been filled with struggles. It’s been a bit like fighting the angel. But I want to entitle my next exhibition: ‘Through the fire — a journey through depression’. Because I want to show that you can move from suffering to glory. That you can journey through to hope.”

This journey has been made possible in Leigh’s life through a few special relationships. “My husband is amazing. Patient, kind and loving. He’s an IT specialist. Don’t ask me any more, that’s all I know. But he’s just resigned and wants to take a gap year. So he’ll be doing the shopping and cooking now.”

As Leigh speaks she pours us a drink from a bottle that is covered by a homemade sign. It reads: “Nicky’s. Hands off!”

“That’s for my husband,” she explains. “I have to measure it out or he’ll drink all my soda water. It’s like living in a digs.

“We’re so different in ourselves,” Leigh laughs like a teenager, reassuring her mum that her new boyfriend, the one with the nose ring, really will be fine. “But we love watching movies together, we love going out for meals. And I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for him.”

One of the other special people in her life is Julia Meintjies, her Johannesburg-based agent.

“Julia has been like drops of rain on a parched land for me. It’s hard to make a living as an artist. You have to build your name up. You have to market yourself and artists don’t want to do that. They don’t know how to do that. So sometimes you’d be painting your heart out and you’d go a whole year without selling. But Julia is good with people. She connects with her clients. She’s optimistic and energetic and she has done so much for artists.”

Leigh has just returned from a successful exhibition, organised by Meintjies, at the University of Cape Town’s Irma Stern Museum.

“The exhibition went well. It’s always encouraging to sell paintings. So much art today is cynical and conceptual. It’s good art, but I think people also want paintings that are light and spiritual.”

Large paintings hang on Leigh’s walls like windows into other worlds. Worlds where the flowers grow full and fat, and the horses come in any shape or colour.

“I like my art to be looser, freer. I’m not so concerned about carefully modulating my paintings. They take on a life of their own. I try to recreate what I see and not just to copy.”

Although most of Leigh’s life ends up in her studio, not all of it takes place there. “I love the outdoors, I have a passion for horses. If I wasn’t a painter, I’d be a game ranger. And so I paint lots of landscapes and animals. I also love music. Music is what keeps my soul inspired. Nibs van der Spuy is a favourite at the moment and definitely Sinead O’Connor. I love Maskandi music also. It reminds me of the days on my grandmother’s farm, Riverlands. It was always playing on the radio in the kitchen.”

It’s on this farm that Leigh has her earliest childhood memories of enjoying art. Wherever they went her artist parents, Derek Leigh and Leonora Everard Haden, would take drawing materials along. And they would encourage their children to draw. “We often went on holiday to Riverlands in Mpumalanga. My parents would draw and I would squash flowers and sketch them in a notebook. I remember filling up a note book and then giving it to my gran. She just treasured all the little things I did.”

These days Leigh’s work is treasured by a wider audience but her encouragement is still from close to home. “My mum has been a great encouragement to me in my art. So have my friends and the rest of my family. Both my sisters too. And my sister’s boyfriend in London. He phones to say, ‘I love your work’.”

Leigh’s words are taking on a life of their own. They’re loose, free and light. And they’re painting a self-portrait of enthusiasm: Leigh has come through the fire and she’s journeyed into hope.

“I finally know what it’s like to function as a normal person.” She smiles at me with a face that is bright with realisation and relief. “These days I find myself thinking: ‘Gee, life really is worth living’.”

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