We sat down for a chat with our featured artist, Nooka Shepherd. Nooka took over our Instagram for the week of the Spring Solstice, offering us beautiful insights around their deep connection to the natural world, their motivations, inspirations and influences…
Nooka’s work centres around weaving humanity, long divorced from the eco-system that we came from, back into the great web of life that makes this planet. Drawing on ancient symbols and imagery from the folklore of these islands, they create images and objects that become votive items, magical talismans to encourage our connection back to the land.
Where are you from, and how do you think it affects your work?
I grew up in an isolated woodland in the rural south of Dorset, surrounded by the forests of Thomas Hardy’s novels and ancient bogland. There’s no doubt in me that the woods that raised me are still inside me. I attribute a sense of being porous and borderless to spending so many of my formative years being tutored by that place. It is exactly that sense of deep relationship, connection and the hybridity of symbiosis that I want to communicate and further understand through creating work.
Who are your biggest artistic influences?
Two artists who feel foundational to my love of painting are Leonora Carrington and Heironymous Bosch. Looking back, a thread that runs through the work of both is a melding of animal, human and plant. Both painters seem to take us a shade deeper into this world and its existing religions and mythologies, whilst transporting us to other worlds and plains of their own creation. A blending of earth, myth and cosmic otherness – almost science fiction. The earthly and the alien together.
Another artist whose impression is greatly felt is Joseph Cornell. His shadow boxes are utterly transportative, windows and doorways into private, secret worlds. The obsessive and tender nature of these works unlocked a door in my thinking. Each box contained a world; beautiful, densely emotionally populated and almost unbearably claustrophobic. The creation of a vast psychological and emotional landscape contained in such intimate physical space made a great impression on my understanding of my own work. His boxes take me to the same place that rock pools, hedgerows, puppet theatres and attic spaces do – the world of intimate microcosms, of simultaneous expansion and contraction.
Tell me about your favourite medium
I love paint! In particular oils and watercolours. Watercolours embody the delicate relationship between control and chaos that to me is a foundational aspect of paint as a medium, it’s a relationship that encourages conversation between the paint and the painter and at times forces you to abandon control to the process. The quality I love in oil paint is its enjoyment of being worked into multiple times. An oil painting feels to be constructed of 60% what you put on and 40% what you take off, the act of painting in oil is given depth and dimension through its deconstruction and subsequent constant rebirthing process. It produces endless ghosts. The quality both paints possess that never fails to enchant me is their inner luminosity and ability to create the impression of light from pigment.
Where do you find inspiration?
This is a particularly hard question. I think if I had to pin it to something tangible I would say the presence of relationships in the world, relationships between people and place, between humans and the more than human world, between humans and the realm of the imagination. I find myself particularly drawn to the histories of these things, because they suggest the continuation of those histories and the possibility of contributing to them. These histories are often passed on to us in the form of stories, mythologies, devotional and religious artwork and folk art. These things all carry such great emotional weight and often an obsessive quality that speaks to an intimate connection between the maker/teller and the art/story. The relationship drifts beyond desire and into need, painfully heartfelt and sometimes embarrassingly earnest. This is a place I feel moved to create from when I encounter it.
When is your favourite time of day to create?
I really struggle to get started before 11am, so often it’s 12 to 5pm depending on the hour of sundown at the time of year. I find it very hard to work once the natural daylight has ended.
How do you enter the headspace where you create your art?
It’s usually one of two things. Sometimes you’re lucky and the flow is there waiting to carry you and all I need do is go through the ritual of making tea, arranging the space and listening to music and I can make for a good 5 hours. Music is very important then. At other times I have the stress of deadlines to thank for igniting me into creativity. Both work in different ways, both get the job done but experiencing both has led to me to savour the flow when it arises.
How has your artistic style developed over time?
I took a three year long break from oil painting due to lack of studio space and upon returning to it the thing that seems to have changed the most is really leaning into and relishing in the materiality of oil paint. Rediscovering it as a physical presence in my life has been a real joy. Alongside this is the emergence of formal, symmetrical structures within the painting, almost architectural in nature. In the past I was much more interested in creativity as escapism and a means to create and lose oneself in other, imagined worlds. Now it feels to be concerned with peering deeper into this world, and rediscovering the enchantment latent within it rather than seeking it without.
Where is your sanctuary? (either real or imagined)
The woods I grew up in, and all the magic they consist of.
Do you have any themes that you keep coming back to?
Themes that return to my work are distinctly feminine presences, with an emphasis on physicality and the viscerality of the female body. There’s a balance between repulsion and attraction, the erotic and the grotesque and between beauty and foulness that I find myself drawn to and often, at least to my mind, surfaces within the work that I make.
What are your artistic plans for the rest of this year?
I’ve been discussing and getting very excited about collaborations with friends. Working that way almost always means either taking work off the canvas/page or transforming the way that it appears there. It’s always such a joy to create with the people I love; performative, playful and surprising and invites all involved to look with new eyes at what is being co-created. I’m also very lucky to be participating in an artist in residence programme here in London which I intend to use to expand and challenge my understanding of oil painting, hopefully whilst also deepening other forms of making.
What are your hopes for the future? (both artistic and otherwise)
I hope that there is love in my future, in all of its beautiful and challenging forms. Love, enchantment, connectivity and creativity. I hope that as I grow older and collect more past than future that I never stop going deeper into awe at this life, in all of its glory and chaos. That I continue to be in awe of the world and interested in its people.
We love the solstice artwork you created for us! Could you briefly explain the thought process behind your creation
Thank you! That’s lovely to hear. I’ve been a bit obsessed with white rabbits lately. In old British and Irish myth, white animals (in Welsh mythology in particular, white animals with red ears) are associated with the underworld and act as its messengers. Rabbits have a place in magical tradition as travellers between the under and middle worlds. I think there’s something poignant that in Lewis Carrol’s masterpiece, Alice is called into Wonderland below the earth by a white rabbit. I felt that as life resurfaces from the deep, what better herald than a rabbit with white fur?
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