Mary Nicol

Self-taught Creston painter continues to learn

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  • May. 22, 2012 3:00 p.m.

Mary Nicol hasn’t had much in the way of art classes or lessons, but her paintings have been well-known in the Creston Valley for nearly a quarter-century.

“I think I have loved art since the day I was born,” she says. “I just didn’t know what direction it would take me.”

Born in Mexico, where she lived until she was eight, Nicol said she used to mould clay she found in the yard, and her fascination with colour was stimulated by spending her formative years in a country that teems with bright colours.

Nicol came to Creston 25 years after her father was killed in a hit-and-run crash here in the Creston Valley.

“My dad’s death left my mom all alone, so I came to stay with her.”

She started taking classes at what was then East Kootenay Community College (now College of the Rockies), but she couldn’t balance school and work, so she took a full-time job serving customers at the popular Rendezvous Restaurant, a longtime downtown Creston favourite.

“I really enjoyed the job and I loved Creston, so I just stayed,” she says. “It’s been a good place for me.”

Her interest in art extended to related subjects, like architecture.

“Even as a child I was always studying whatever was around me, like buildings, even though I didn’t know that’s what I was doing at the time.”

She recalls a teacher in Canada who really liked the artwork she produced in school, but her interest was put on hold once she had her two children.

“Then, when I was 27 or 28, I decided to try an art class.”

She was living in Barrhead, Alta., and had “a really good teacher — for about two or three months.

“I’ve been painting ever since. It’s the one thing — besides my kids — that I’ve stuck to for all these years.”

It’s not always easy, though, she admits.

“Sometimes I feel like quitting. Creating art is hard work and sometimes I’m just not getting what I want out of it. But I persist and the feeling passes, or someone provides some encouraging words and I carry on.”

Creston residents got their first glimpses of Nicol’s work at the Rendezvous, where she was encouraged by the owners to display her work for sale.

“I always had a lot of work there,” she recalls. “I sold a lot. One summer I sold 30 or more of my paintings — they went all over the world. Sometimes I wish I knew where they all ended up.”

Although she has been selling paintings ever since, Nicol doesn’t see herself as a professional.

“If I made it into a business I would probably quit. I don’t want it to become a job. I rarely do commissions because then it feels like work.”

With her lack of formal training, how has Nicol progressed to become the painter of works on display at Kingfisher Used Books?

“I study other artists that I really like and admire,” she says. “And I do a lot of painting. A lot.

“I like to learn everything the hard way — those are the lessons that stick.”

Nicol works in both acrylics and watercolours, finding enjoyment in both media.

“I do more acrylics now,” she says. “Mostly because watercolours have to be framed with glass to protect them and that gets expensive. I still love them, though. They have a quality that’s all their own.”

Watercolour painting poses special challenges, too.

“You have to solve all your problems ahead of time, mostly in your head,” she explains. “There’s no going back once you start putting the colours down.”

The show at Kingfisher, which runs throughout May, is an indication of Nicol’s versatility and range of interests. On display are landscapes, still lifes and abstracts.

“I get bored very easily,” she laughs. “Doing the same thing over and over gets old.”

A couple of years ago, she took a stab at abstracts at the urging of her son, who lives in Victoria.

“I love to experiment with my colours and I’ve come to love painting abstracts,” she says. “You learn so much by doing them. You still have to keep some of the rules of painting in mind, but it’s a nice, relaxed process. It’s just fun.”

With the range of styles she has worked in, it’s hardly surprising that Nicol admires an eclectic selection of artists.

“Impressionists are my favourites — Monet and van Gogh. But I love the Group of Seven. And Emily Carr — she’s the only one whose work I have actually seen in person. Oh, and Andrew Wyeth — he evokes such emotion with his paintings.”

That Nicol admires van Gogh’s brilliant colours and Wyeth’s muted earth tones are a testament to a painter who is open to different ideas, a quality that has only been fueled by her retirement.

“I love the time I have. I’m never bored,” she says. “I paint pretty much every day and it seems like I am always studying whatever is around me. Art is everywhere — in nature, in people, in towns and cities — you just have to look.”

Among the endless challenges painters face is the process itself. She points to a still life on the Kingfisher wall. It features two flowers in a vase. It has a distinctly impressionist look to it.

“That one took 15 minutes,” she laughs. “Then, sometimes, I’ll have to stare at a painting for days and weeks before I see what I need to do next. It’s different with every painting. I just keep going to get what I want, and if I don’t get it, I move onto something else. I usually return to it eventually, though.”

It’s a question that all artists are asked. How do you know when a painting is finished?

“I would say I’m never totally satisfied,” she admits. “But I get happy with it. I try not to make a painting look like I worked really hard on it.”

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