Meet the messy, brash embroideress disrupting the contemporary art industry
Nicole is a London-based embroidery artist whose work is messy, brash and disruptive. On a mission to disrupt perfection, she encourages people to break boundaries and inspires them to embrace their raw emotions.
We spoke with Nicole about developing her style, advice for artists breaking into the industry, working with brands and what movie she’d love to star in.
Let’s go back to baby Nicole, how did it all start?
When I was younger, I wanted to pursue sports science because growing up my life was very involved with athletics and football. I discovered art when I was put into an afterschool club and I found it very fulfilling. I was getting good feedback and, at the time, I wasn’t really getting that from any other subjects so I thought this was something I should look into.
It started with painting and then transitioned quickly into textiles and sewing because of another afterschool club. I really liked the feeling of threads and found it really relaxing using a needle to create works of art. That’s when I discovered art was something I was interested in. It’s different from sport, which is very full-on. Art is about using your hands and focusing a lot – I liked using that side of my brain.
When I went to secondary school and there was the pressure of feeling the need to choose a career path, I just wanted to do something that I liked. I saw so many of my friends excel in things that were very logical that I wasn’t very good at, so I gravitated towards stitching and embroidery.
“I spent the whole summer learning English smocking from my ahma and became really interested in the history of why she started sewing and having inter-generational conversations I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
When did you develop your own style of work?
When I was 15 I had to do a school personal project. I wasn’t really spending a lot of time with my family in Malaysia – as I grew up in Hong Kong – and I wanted to spend more time with my ahma who was a seamstress. I decided to learn a specific embroidery technique called ‘English smocking’ which is something she stitched a lot on our childhood garments. I spent the whole summer learning English smocking from my ahma and became really interested in the history of why she started sewing and having inter-generational conversations I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.
After starting stitching, I wanted to explore it in my own way that was signature to me: creating messy, freestyle hand-embroidery. That’s when I started using embroidery as a medium of expression. It then developed on to mixing photography with stitch because in school I was also interested in fashion media and communication and eventually studied that at uni.
I was always fascinated with image making and thought it would be interesting to bring texture into those photos. Because I had lots of magazines lying about, I decided to start stitching on to top of those as well as postcards I collected. I just wanted to experiment with where I could take my style and that developed my messy, brash and disruptive style.
How has embroidery helped you grow over the years?
It was very therapeutic for me, which is why I continued to experiment. This helped me discover my style and how I love really bold colours and sharp, aggressive shapes. That reflects a lot of how I’m feeling and I tie a lot of my emotions to my stitching.
I went on to work in fashion after uni; assisting photographers and stylists, interning for a few magazines and then eventually doing graphic design for a brand. On the side I was still stitching these sketchbook pages to release the stress I was feeling from work and the industry.
I decided to start posting my work on Instagram, which is how I developed my portfolio and I started gaining traction from there. I also brought my magazine sketchbook to every interview I went, even if it was a party or event, to get feedback from people. Eventually I got my first gallery commission whilst I was about to graduate and start a full-time job and that’s where the work began to grow into a professional space.
“It’s not about losing yourself when you work with brands, it’s about how can you make the best for yourself as an artist and insert yourself in these spaces.”
How do you find working with so many different brands?
The process is quite similar actually, it’s just applied in different contexts. Most of the projects that I’ve worked on are things I’ve always been interested in, whether that’s in the contemporary art space or fashion or sports.
I always have to slightly adapt to the project but think “how do I incorporate my style with the message of the project.” It’s about creating a concept that blends the two together. Usually I work with a Creative Director from the client that helps shape the work but I make sure in the beginning to say what my work is about and whether we align. This helps create a better understanding of what we both want and need so we don’t waste each other's time.
Do you have any advice for artists working with brands?
It’s not about losing yourself when you work with brands, it’s about how can you make the best for yourself as an artist and insert yourself in these spaces. You can still challenge yourself and not lose who you are. I have this mentality whenever I take on a new project. The reality is we need to survive and this is the majority of how I’m able to do this. I want to push the idea that people can insert themselves in these spaces and it’s an opportunity to share what you stand for as well.
What's your least favourite thing about the art industry?
The elitism and gatekeeping I’ve seen from traditional art business models! It sometimes feels like traditional galleries and publications are scamming emerging artists out of their money, like getting them to pay for their art to be in a page of print or taking 50% of an artist's commission. It’s super unhelpful, especially when they don’t even properly promote your art or prioritise emerging artists.
Artists need to survive so they mark up their prices by a lot more than they want to just to break even and pay for all the materials, rent, etc. The high price of art gatekeeps the majority of people from buying art. That’s not what I’m all about.
It’s hard to keep up when traditional art galleries have had this model for decades. No wonder people think artists who make it have to be from a certain kind of background. Growing up, everyone around me thought art was not an attainable job but that mindset totally gatekeeps the whole industry. On the contrary, I now feel like a lot of young galleries and people are actively trying to change the art industry for the better.
How has social media helped you break into the industry?
My route is quite untraditional as I don’t come from an art background; I never studied it at a degree level, so I just created my own path. Social media has allowed it to become a more democratic place to show all different creators and break a lot of these barriers to entering the industry. I don’t think I would have been able to do it without Instagram. More artists are becoming independent as well, rather than relying on galleries.
“[Being an artist is being] able to create something for yourself and express what you stand for in whatever medium you want.”