Meet the Artist: Nicola Rigby

Our Q&A with sculptor and Friend of the RWA, Nicola Rigby

“….  My work is undeniably cathartic. I’m exploring the emotional monsoon which transformed me from a single-minded workaholic into a wheelchair user who could no longer care for herself. But it’s also an acknowledgement that my experience is not unique. I want and expect people to recognise the emotions which drive my sculpture…”

Based in Devon, Nicola Rigby makes striking, highly skilled and detailed figurative sculptures with a surrealistic twist. She discovered sculpting after becoming disabled with a chronic illness in 2011, and has since exhibited at venues including Devon Sculpture Park, Exeter Cathedral and Palace House, Beaulieu. At the 2022 Friends’ Exhibition her selected works were some of the most popular and talked-about in the show, so we were delighted to invite Nicola to talk more about her art and life.

Listen to an audio version of the interview here – and read the full Q&A below…

When did you realise you were an artist?

I’ve always been on the hunt for a creative outlet, but, if you’d spoken to the Nicola of a decade ago and suggested that she would be an artist, you would have been laughed at. I was pretty certain that I was inept when it came to art, that I had all of the creativity and desire but none of the skill.

Instead, I wrote and directed theatre until, in 2011, I was disabled by chronic illness. Suddenly, I couldn’t work, and my cognitive function was impacted to the extent that I struggled to construct a sentence or hold onto a thought. At that dark point in my life, I discovered clay and began to construct a visual language. In mastering and expanding my new vocabulary, I gained the confidence I had previously lacked when it came to art.

The word ‘artist’ still doesn’t sit entirely comfortably. I would say that I am a storyteller, whether in clay or words.

In one sentence, why do you make art?

If I’m not creating, I’m not myself.

Nicola Rigby – The Púca

What is your usual process for making a sculpture. Do you start with an idea, perhaps a sketch and then make it in clay, or do your works emerge or evolve in the making?

My work begins with the idea and it must be a strong idea, it has to elbow its way above the others vying for my attention. If it does that, and it’s persistent enough, I know it needs to be realised. I do sketch, yes, and I’m an avid researcher. If I envision a flower or bird as part of a sculpture inspired by a Greek myth, for example, then I’m off discovering Greek flora and fauna.

I sketch out the idea, turn it around in my mind and, when I’m confident of the central shape, create an armature. The armature is the skeleton of the work. Take it from someone with a progressive bone condition, you do not want a weak skeleton. Everything that comes afterward depends on that metal or wirework being robust and mapped out correctly.

Sculpture is such a step-by-step process, each stage providing the groundwork for the next. My next stage is getting my hands dirty. I begin a ‘rapid sketch’ in clay, applying the correct measurements and anatomy. That done, I can indulge my love of detail and play with surface texture. This is when I’m able to apply a tiny string of mussels (yes, I do mean shellfish) to the ribs of a recently surfaced Kelpie and, crucially, capture that spark of life, that hint of emotion which gives a sculpture real presence.

Is everything planned? No. Does everything from the sketch make it into the final piece? No. But I go in with a very solid idea of what I’m aiming to create.

Your figurative sculptures have a strong realism and a classical feel. Can you tell us a little about how you work with clay to produce that animal or human realism and the Sinclair Method of sculpture?

Andrew Sinclair’s generosity as a teacher has made it possible for me to continue as a sculptor. Living with chronic fatigue is living within the tightest constraints. I cannot afford to spend three hours altering the position of an eyeball only to find it was the nose which was the issue in the first place. The Sinclair Method banishes that floundering, panicked artist on the verge of tearing their hair out and empowers a sculptor with knowledge, so that there is no guesswork. A few quick measurements and you know if the nose is the culprit. The time and energy that saves me is invaluable.

Some artists are resistant to whipping out a set of callipers, as though measurements constrain creativity. I would argue that using Andrew’s method allows me greater freedom. I’m free to be as creative and experimental as I like because, if the armature is my skeleton, the measurements are my muscles. They only strengthen the work I create.

Whoever said you had to suffer for your art did not have a chronic illness. Sculpting should be a pleasure, not a torment, and Andrew Sinclair MRSS has spent his career perfecting a method of working which ensures that I, the sculptor, am in control of my work rather than at its mercy.

Sculpture is often viewed as cutting inwards, like surgery. As Michelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a sculpture inside it” but, using the Sinclair Method, I work outward building up clay stroke by stroke. I build outward to the particular measurements of the animal or human I’m sculpting and I’m acutely aware of anatomy as I go. That accurate sketch and those measurements are the basis of realism. No horse I sculpt, no matter how beautiful, will ever look quite right if I forget to give it a scapular or put one in the wrong place.

Realism and classicism sometimes feel like dirty words. As though the realist artist is standing quietly in the shadow of old masters rather than charging forth to break boundaries. The human body is beautiful. Animal anatomy is beautiful. The array of emotions the human face can conjure captivates me – of course I want to capture that. The skill of classical sculptors like Bernini is breath-taking and the ability of Camille Claudel to render moments of human urgency is enviable. I’m inspired by them and I love the challenge of realism. I love the moment where a sculpture comes to life because you’ve done it, with a bit of mud you’ve managed to capture a spark of humour or alarm that stops someone in their tracks.

Nicola Rigby – Sthenos (front and back)

Despite the realism of their forms, your sculptures frequently make use of dark humour and surprising, even surreal touches.To what extent are your works expressive of your personality or your personal situation – in particular, living with chronic illness?

Dark humour is very much a personality trait. I’ve found humour to be a solid ally in life, especially as my health has declined. I’ve always said that I like my body but it doesn’t particularly seem to like me. It took me a while to feel brave enough to openly explore that in my work.

Sthénos is the bust of a Grecian nymph (an Epimeliad if you want to get technical: the nymph of sheep and apple trees). She’s the work in which I explored invisible illness and the detrimental habit we have of responding ‘I’m fine’ whenever anyone ask how we are. And that is exactly how she looks: fine. She has a slightly unreadable smile, shaped by neither joy nor amusement, but all you have to do to reveal the truth of the situation is walk behind her where she transfigures into a tangle of roots and bark and the back of her head gapes, revealing the core of an apple. This is the difference between looking fine and being fine.

Sthénos is the work that people most connect with, showing me how rewarding being open and vulnerabile can be. My work is undeniably cathartic. I’m exploring the emotional monsoon which transformed me from a single-minded workaholic into a wheelchair user who could no longer care for herself. But it’s also an acknowledgement that my experience is not unique. I want and expect people to recognise the emotions which drive my sculpture. The uncertainty, the fear, the frustration which can drive you to scream but also the moments where all you can do is laugh because life is too ridiculous to respond in any other way. 

How has your work changed or evolved through your career? Was there a particular turning point?

I’m a fledgling in the world of sculpture, just establishing myself, but the level of detail I include and my ambition has definitely evolved and will, I suspect, continue to do so. The intricate detail I enjoy creates a very polished piece of work so I’m often bitten by the urge to experiment with a freer, faster, more fluid form of sculpture. However, my style is partly shaped by my health, by my necessarily measured pace and the breaks I must take between sessions in the studio. In many ways it’s appropriate that this aspect of my life leaves its signature on my work.

You’re a friend of the RWA and have exhibited in the Friends’ Exhibition.  What does the RWA and its community mean to you?

Just that, community. Sculpting – and any other form of art – can be a very isolating pursuit. It’s far too easy to spend most of your time with your ideas. The welcoming community of art-lovers I found at the Friends of the RWA is very special and the opportunities both the Friends and the RWA itself offer to explore, discuss and get your hands dirty making art is too good to ignore.  

Nicola Rigby – The Kelpie

What are you working on now?

The clay is yet to hit the armature on this one, but I’ve been thinking about it for a while. I’m going to sculpt Actaeon, the young Greek hunter who stumbled on Artemis bathing in the forest. Artemis, being a virgin goddess, was none too pleased by the intrusion and promptly turned him into a stag. He was then torn apart by his own hounds.

It’s the moment of physical transformation which interests me. From my experience, feeling and watching your body and its abilities change is a bewildering, painful and frankly scary process. What I want to do with this work is explore both the physical and emotional anguish of that transformation.

A fairy godmother waves her magic wand and says you can own any artwork in the world. What do you choose?

I think this is an answer which might change each time you ask.

At this moment, I would choose Frida Kahlo’s The Broken Column. It’s so heartbreakingly raw and honest. Kahlo doesn’t pull any punches, she’s not about to soften the blow of her physical agony to make things easier for the viewer. Whenever my struggles become overwhelming, I search out the story of others in similar situations and, far from being depressing, that sort of search never fails to inspire me. The Broken Column is a woman in her thirties, like myself, revealing her body in all of its beauty and brokenness.

I was introduced to Frida Kahlo at the age of seventeen when I portrayed part of her life on stage and her resilience, tenacity and compulsion to create art has stayed with me ever since. 

Frida Kahlo – The Broken Column (1944)

You can see more examples of Nicola’s work on her website  and follow her on Instagram.

The Friends of the RWA is an independent charity that supports the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol’s first art gallery. 
For just £35 a year Friends can make unlimited visits to RWA exhibitions and enjoy a host of other benefits, as well as making an important contribution to the arts in Bristol and the South West. Find out more and join up here.

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