A weird, wonderful world. Through his pop-surrealist art, Nick Sheehy transports us into a realm that feels fantastical in its beauty, as well as in its danger. Frogs take part in dancing rituals. Octopuses birth wildlife bouquets. And skulls house infinite snakes. It’s inception upon inception. A cycle of conception. Sheehy creates an artistic world that celebrates the chimera. He showcases his subjects against dark backgrounds; they rise from the canvas as if they are on stage. There’s something about his anthropomorphic storytelling that deeply resonates to inspire a little bit of magic into the everyday. The moments Sheehy create are enigmatic, and darkly inviting; it’s as if we too are connected in the bizarre ecosystem of his imagination. And what a whacky, wonderful world that would be.
Read on to hear from Nick himself, and take a little step into his wild dimension. Show your support for Nick on Instagram!
“At the end of the day, it’s all just a bunch of frogs feasting on bird entrails.”
– Nick Sheehy
In your experience, what are some of the highlights and challenges of being an artist?
The highlights are freedom, and drawing and painting whatever you like. The challenges are financial stability and keeping morale high. A string of sales can keep you buoyant for a few weeks, but then no sales can quickly crush your optimism. Balancing highlights and challenges are tricky. But it’s important to realise that everything is variable, and the best thing to do is to make stuff whenever you can, for whatever reason. Or conversely, to make money when you can… because making money from art can be unpredictable. And it’s good to have the cash to buy things like paint, or shoes… unless you have rich parents. The more I do it, the more I realise that it’s all about balance. And it’s healthy to have the challenges to tether you to ‘real’ life.
What does art mean for you?
I’m not sure. I’ve been drawing all my life, so making pictures is something I’ve done ever since I can remember and never really questioned. I guess it’s my primary form of meditation. And it gives me the opportunity to continue thinking in abstract ways, to learn, and to use my hands. One of the most important things for me is that I attempt to create an image or idea that I haven’t seen before. As for self-expression: it can’t not be. But while the work has personal themes, I don’t feel the overwhelming urge for the world to understand who I am. Although, I might feel differently if I had to stop.
Can you compare the British art scene to the Australian one? Do you think you have more opportunity as an artist in London?
I’ve become quite disconnected from the British art scene, and I’ve not been an artist while living in Australia. So I feel like a bit of an outsider to both worlds and am probably the wrong person to ask. I sell the majority of my work in the US. As for opportunities in London, I had my first solo show here, received a bit of attention, and now exhibit fairly regularly in the US, but haven’t exhibited in London since. I’m not sure if it’s because of property prices, or slashed funding, or just because running a gallery must be bloody hard work… but I don’t see a huge diversity in the types of art galleries in London. It’s either conceptual or higher end art or street art. There doesn’t seem to be many shades of grey. In recent years I’ve exhibited more in Australia than I have in London. But then I’m not really knocking on any gallery’s doors in the UK.
Congratulations on your latest ‘Visages’ exhibition at the Antler Gallery, and your upcoming Supersonic Invitational show at the Hashimoto Contemporary. How long does it take you to pull a collection together? And how do you feel once a collection is complete?
Oh man, a collection is a big deal for me to put together. It’s a hell of a lot of work over many months. And with all that work comes the stress, the long hours, the self-doubt, not looking after yourself as well as you should, and the financial strains. So after it’s all done it’s an odd feeling. Most of the exhibitions I’m in are in the states, so I don’t get to attend the opening and celebrate the finishing of a project. So usually, I’m left not really knowing what to feel except to cross fingers and hope for the best. But there’s always the usual analyzing of, “Oh, I like that piece,” and “I could have done that one better,” etc. I spend most of my painting time thinking I’m improving and that the next painting will be better. So looking back on previous work isn’t always a comfortable feeling. I can be a bit too critical.
For your upcoming exhibition, can you spill any details on things you may have tried differently or incorporated into your work this time around?
For the recent exhibition at Antler Gallery, I tried to take a more collage-like approach. Piecing elements together like a sandwich or Lego to figure out what shapes I could make work. I was also more inspired by traditional oil painting traditions and still life. But I’m not sure it infiltrated my work on a very obvious level.
Do you believe there is anything uniquely Australian in the way you approach your art, perhaps in the subjects or the feelings you produce?
I grew up in the country surrounded by nature, and nature is a big part of my work. But whether it is particularly Australian is a question I don’t know how to answer. I had a fairly unique childhood; living an off-grid lifestyle with sets of divorced parents who wanted to leave the city behind. So that probably shaped my perspective more than the country I grew up in. But I have a lot of love for Australia. There’s a certain casual and friendly Australian attitude that I see in my family and friends that I really like. I like to think that I approach situations with a hint of that attitude… while I like painting mildly dark and creepy scenes, I try to not take it all too seriously. At the end of the day, it’s all just a bunch of frogs feasting on bird entrails.
One of your signature motifs is the use of Red and blue strings. You depict them almost alive and they greatly remind me of the Chinese threads of fate. Is this a symbol you plan to carry through the entirety of your artistic canon?
I don’t have a clear definition of what the ‘strings’ are. But I really enjoy hearing other people’s interpretations. Especially if there are historical or cultural interpretations –it helps propel the idea further. And I love the idea that different people have different meanings living in their own heads. But to answer specifically, I don’t know. For a while I used them as a crutch to make an image more interesting… so I realised it was a crutch and tried to abandon them. But now I want to see what I can make of them. See how far they can go, take on different forms, etc,.
I hate to ask but I think I have to: why frogs? You can’t ignore the popularity of them within your works. But from Freddo, Kermit to Miyazaki’s Aogaeru, I get the appeal.
I like drawing frogs because they can be posed in humanoid-like ways, and they have nice big, engaging eyes. And there’s something lovely about them. They’re both familiar yet otherworldly at the same time. I like that odd feeling. I feel the same way about fish –a vaguely alien quality. Growing up, mucking around on the weekend in the country around streams and dams, a frog was always something I hoped to see. Snakes were too scary and dangerous, invertebrates freaked me out a bit, birds felt commonplace. But frogs were elusive and a prized sighting.
We want to know where the magic happens. Can you talk us through your studio set-up?
Nothing too fancy or magical. Currently, it’s a desk, easel, and a couple of walls in an old handbag factory in east London that’s been converted to studios. It’s a great casual space that is shared with other artists, model makers, and prop/set builders. I also like to make work at home. My work isn’t too messy, or particularly large… so as long as I have nice light, I’m happy to work anywhere.
You seem to use a mix of media within your work: namely acrylic, graphite, and watercolour. Is there a medium you’re itching to try out or a technique you fear to experiment with?
I’m giving graphite and watercolour a rest for the time being –they take too long, and dry too light –so you’re always working to make things darker and darker. Currently, everything I do is acrylic. But painting is still sort of new to me. I avoided it for years. But now I’m geeking out on pigments and brushes. I think I’ll stick with it for a while. I’d love to try out oils… but I’ve got a serious paint addiction and have invested quite a bit of money in acrylic paints, and I hate having loads of equipment lying around that never get used. Also, I have to work to tight deadlines, which is perfect for acrylic paint. I’d also like to revisit my sculptural beginnings, but you need a lot of space.
The colours within your artworks are consistently very subdued. How do achieve this effect?
The secret is not to have much experience working with colour! So I’m starting small, and trying to learn bit by bit. For years I focussed on greyscale images, with the odd colour accent. So full-colour pieces are still a newish thing for me. One of the best things I read when learning how to paint is that colour is way less important than value. So I’ve taken that on-board; I spend most of my time trying to get the composition values working, and leave colour to the end, keeping my palette as minimal as possible. I think you can get much more interesting effects when you use no more than 3 colours plus black and white. While I do like the subtler colours. There are times I’d like to go a bit bolder. We will see what happens in the next painting.
How do you think your art style has changed over the more recent years? (Is there something you are doing now that you weren’t a few years back?)
Previously with graphite or watercolour, I was working in a very linear, and mapped-out direction from light to black… with perhaps the option of adding some highlights at the end. Whereas painting with acrylics allows you to cover a lot of ground quickly, working with variable opacities in both darker and lighter directions, adding and subtracting. It’s great… it feels like it’s opened up a much more flexible and atmospheric approach, almost like sculpting with clay, where changing directions is always a possibility. And you can easily paint over areas you don’t like. I’m also using more reference material and worrying less about having a visual style. So I guess things are taking on a slightly more realistic look. I don’t know if that is a good thing or not. But it’s happening, and we’ll see where it goes.
“I don’t feel the overwhelming urge for the world to understand who I am. Although I might feel differently if I had to stop.”
– Nick Sheehy
Your artworks are entirely unique in the way you assemble animals into new creatures, whilst still maintaining their integrity. How do you approach starting a new work?
For each piece, I sketch a load of thumbnail ideas trying to work out the basic composition. Then I use Photoshop or Procreate to refine the forms, add in more technical details, and make sure things work physically, like wrapping elements, etc. Then I transfer to my final surface (usually paper), paint a grisaille, then glaze colours over the top. I’d love to be able to simply start drawing and turn that into a finished piece. But I can’t. I need a plan. But I do try and build a lot of flexibility into the planning stage.
Are there any personal projects in the works or potential ideas you’ve been dreaming up?
I’m working on a book with a publisher about weird extinct creatures. However that’s moving at a pace outside of my control, so I’m looking ahead to upcoming group shows where I can focus on one artwork at a time. Which makes a nice change from recent months working towards solo shows. Sometimes when your building a larger collection of works, you get locked into a certain approach. So having smaller projects allows more time to digest your paintings and reflect between projects.