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Also kind of ugly

Updated: Oct 25, 2021

For many years Kirk Nicholls worked around the world as a sculptor and model maker for film and TV. Having always created his own art on the side, he made the leap to full-time sculpting after moving to Whanganui a decade ago.

Kirk works from a large studio beside the mighty Whanganui River and on Saturday mornings he can be found at the River Traders Markets, cranking out “the best pizzas in the region” from his home-made wood fired pizza oven called the Flaming Dragon.

He talks to us about jungle inspiration, swooping tui, and outsider art.

Image credit: Katie Shand

How does your childhood influence your work now?

Recently it was my birthday, and I asked my girlfriend if she could track down my favourite book as a child. (It was Tarzan illustrated by Burne Hogarth and I pored over those illustrations obsessively.) When it recently arrived via trade me (I couldn’t believe we found it) I was amazed how much it had influenced my aesthetic, from the colours to the dynamic figurative style, I see a tonne of it in my work. There are instances where he draws a single figure moving in a staccato like manner with multiples of the same image moving like animation across the page. That is so evident in my work.

Where do you find beauty?

I use beauty as a tool to get viewers attention, and then flip it with the darker undertones. I’m most satisfied when something beautiful is also kind of ugly.

Image credit: Katie Shand

Describe your creative process.

I usually work on multiple pieces at once, so usually nothing is finished until days before a show. I have a stock of things made by hand and a pile of objects that I collect usually everyday detritus from junk shops, beaches, and unloved objects such as happy meal toys etc – things that give fleeting pleasure but are then discarded. I blend these together with handmade objects usually in relief, creating loose narratives.

When I was in my late teens I taught myself how to sculpt in a classical manner, I then went on to be a model maker and sculptor in TV and movies. I take carefully sculpted objects and figures, and then slam these reliefs with modern throw away detritus. A collision of high versus low cultural motifs.

Who are your biggest influences?

I’m a news hound so always start the day reading overseas newspapers and a few art publications. I’m drawn mostly to social injustice and environmental issues so these play a big part in my work. I’m drawn to artists who follow their own paths, I love outsider art, probably because like most of them I’m self taught and can relate to their quirky irreverent naïve honesty.

What were you like at 15?

Being 15 was one of the lowest periods of my life. Coming from a very artsy, alternative family, my parents decided that I needed some discipline (too late for that) so promptly sent my twin and me to a strict boy’s school steeped in old boy tradition and hard core discipline. I’ll never forget bending over to receive two strokes of the cane at lunchtime for not doing my home work. Peering through my legs I could see the upside down teachers watch as they ate their lunch. What was I like? A nervous wreck.

Where do you work and what do you like about it?

I had just finished a movie job in Wellington and decided that I needed to start taking art seriously. By chance a friend drove me up to Whanganui for a road trip; I loved it and moved there a week later. I got lucky and scored an amazing studio right by the river, an old large wool store. It has a massive tree that spreads out against my upstairs window. In springtime it bursts into glorious pink blossoms and is quickly filled with dozens of tuis, swooping and diving drunk on nectar through the branches making a real racket, it’s incredible.

Describe your aesthetic in five words.

Order, chaos, colour, repurposing, topical.

Image credit: Katie Shand

What book is beside your bed?

I currently love my birthday present, Boy on Fire: The Young Nick Cave by Mark Mordue. It’s great, covering his early life, especially his life with his father who was a pillar in the community as a teacher and drama enthusiast. They had a tense relationship unified by a love for language, sparring incessantly; unfortunately he didn’t live to see his son evolve into the artist he became.

Kirk’s solo exhibition Curious Diorama is at Orphic Gallery in Whanganui, 21 October–14 November.


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