REFLECTIONS ON A LIFE DEVOTED TO ART by Elestr Lee
WHILST for many of us lock-down suddenly meant spending unfamiliar amounts of time at home, for others ‘working from home’ has long been the norm. For artist Nina O’Connell, her home-based studio is her workplace. Resident in Caversham for more than 40 years, she has devoted much of that time to art as well as to its healing powers.
Having spent some time working in schools, Nina undertook a fine arts degree at Reading University from 1985 – 1989. She quickly became a sought-after book illustrator, including for the ‘New Way’ reading series popular in many primary schools – featuring characters such as Ben the Dog, Jip the Cat, Sam the Fox and Meg the Hen – remember them?
Having volunteered as a Samaritan for 14 years, this work inspired NIna to take a post-graduate diploma in art therapy, and she used her combined skills as a listener and an artist to become an art therapist. “I worked with people with HIV, those with mental health issues, autism, and troubled children in schools, as well as prisoners at Reading Gaol,” she remembers. Her techniques both helped resolve issues, but also encouraged her clients to use art to move forward with their lives. After 25 years, she retired at the age of 72, and for the past three years she has devoted herself full-time to her own paintings.
Nina’s works, which she usually exhibits at the Caversham, Henley and Wokingham Arts Trails, are predominantly landscapes. She is especially inspired by local scenes such as the River Thames, Dinton Pastures, and Burnham Beeches. Water, and its reflective quality, as well as sunlight dappled through foliage feature strongly in her art. Her landscapes are usually painted in oils, but she is also returning to watercolours, which she used mainly in her early work as an illustrator.
Around five years ago she began experimenting with batik, for which she uses special tjanting tools or brushes to create her images in wax. “This traditional craft originated in Indonesia, however I work in a contemporary way which is very experimental,” Nina says. “I am inspired by light and colour and was looking for a way to create the effect of stained glass. Batik produces such a translucent quality. The effect I am looking for is like liquid stained glass.”
Nina uses batik for abstract works – “I am trying to convey my inner thoughts about the state of the world – my own inner landscape, portrayed in an abstract way,” says Nina. “It is very much an experimental process, and I make mistakes. But I like to work with my mistakes.”
So how has lock-down affected her work? “My creativity has been falling over itself! However, there are days when it has been hard to focus.”
Technology has provided some solutions: Nina has taken up Tai Chi online, as well as keeping up with an art group via Zoom. And, on the day we spoke, she had just finished her latest watercolour – ‘Roses from the artist’s garden’ which she had photographed and posted on Facebook, and was quickly gaining ‘likes’.
“This is the way we are now communicating!” she accepts. She is looking forward to the possibility of the arts trails resuming once again. “I have appreciated this time in which I feel I have been even more reflective and creative. But I have missed simple things, such as spending time with friends, tea and a cake.”