in conversation with Madeline Davis
In February of 2021, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Nicci Haynes, an English born artist who has lived, trained and created art in Canberra, Australia for twenty-five years. Although we were separated by oceans at the time, I quickly felt the warmth of Haynes’ personality, and we slipped into conversations about creative space, collaboration and travel undercut with commentary surrounding inequality and power.
Haynes sat comfortably sipping a hot drink, backlit by large windows and a view of her garden, a source of peace during the lockdowns brought on by the Novel Coronavirus outbreak. “The things that are present in your mind manifest somehow in your artwork”, Haynes mused, citing the South African artist, William Kentridge. She was responding to my first inquiry about the contemporary questions that drive her work, explaining how, though she is politically concerned, she has never felt her art to be “overtly political”. Rather than “illustrate” her views in her artwork, Haynes seeks “freedom of thought through experimentation,” expecting that her views will present subconsciously.
“The Things that are present in your mind manifest somehow in your artwork”
Haynes describes herself as, “an adventurer in life”, a trait that she weaves into her artworks. Her path to Canberra is a long one that includes different jobs in countries such as Greece and East Africa. This experience of adventure and spontaneity influences her work. As someone who has always “created things”, Haynes did not seek formal art training until after she moved to Australia about twenty-five years ago. Though not a born Australian, she has found her community and built her identity as an artist in Canberra. “[I’m] quite established in Canberra. In general it’s very supportive and it’s a small town, a public service town, and that rubs off on the way things are run”.
As we spoke of travel, we discussed an upcoming project with artists from both Canberra and Brasilia. In response to how she imagined Brasilia to be, Haynes brought up how her past travels have caused her to take everything in stride rather than imagine how something or someplace may be.
“I tend not to think about it, you just start on a blank slate. Sometimes when I’ve been going places and hear people say, ‘I’m really looking forward to going somewhere’, I just suspend invention, I tend not to make things up about somewhere I know nothing about and haven’t been to. Before you’ve been to a place or visited a friend in a town that they live in, in a country that you’ve never been to, it’s hard to imagine where they live or what it’s like for them. I think you start to develop a connection after you’ve engaged with a place, so I don’t imagine anything about Brasilia.”
Haynes described how when she was eighteen, she used to hitchhike in the summer and would end up in unexpected places. This adventurous and spontaneous personality influences her ever–changing art forms that often focus on communication and the use of language as power. Her works of art have been created from an array of materials ranging from glass to paper to videos of the movement of a human body. She trained as a printmaker and now works in any medium that strikes her imagination. When I asked about her move from one medium to another, she responded, “once you learn a technique really well… it becomes a bit like a product and I’ve never found that very interesting”.
She continued to speak on her process and landed on the fact that the thing about new mediums that is interesting to her is “the conversation with the process”, emphasising that the way “an individual approaches something that they can’t do, which there are no set of instructions for, says everything about them. It is only that individual who would do that, and I think that’s why I’ve become very keen on doing improvisation work…. somebody throws a problem at you, it’s like conversation, you need to respond quickly, in the moment. I really like that way of working without having time to think, it wipes away all of those habits that you’ve developed for responding”.
Haynes doesn’t always work alone, though she found COVID pushed her into more solo work for the time.
“It’s not been at all bad because I was most of the time free to move around. Although, for quite a bit of the time, I didn’t have access to any of my external resources. [There was no] going to the photocopier or whatever. I was just in my very little studio space, so I made use of the things that were in there, things I already [had]. I quite like doing that and I am quite good at doing that as well, sort of making do. I made quite a bit of lock down work, and there were people asking for it”. She is a keen collaborator, and her energy level went up as she spoke of this work, describing it as, “solving problems with other artists.”
“I think each instance where you do something collaboratively becomes its own entity … every time you do something, it changes. If you make a product… I don’t think you grow that much [compared to] when everything you do is its own little problem… [and] you’re faced with all these challenges that you didn’t expect.”
This ability to face a challenge with enthusiasm is prominent throughout Haynes’ practice. She speaks on making her exhibit, Peephole Cinema, as a challenge and in the end a successful show that embodies her beliefs without having to illustrate her messages.
“I am habitually a gleaner and gatherer of things, so I do like to make–do and re–use and I don’t use shiny new materials. For instance, I had an exhibition recently, I think it was the first public exhibition back in a gallery, and I called it Peephole Cinema. I used cardboard boxes with a little screen inside and each one had a little animation. Using grocery boxes was a choice. I could have used beautiful new things but after I had done the maquette with the grocery boxes, I decided that nothing was going to be added by making them look nice, they are perfectly adequate as they are. It becomes part of my aesthetic, the everyday materials. Even the screens… were from secondhand shops, little tablets and photo frames that took absolutely forever to work out on the antiquated technology. I’m determined to [use recycled and secondhand materials] rather than buy something new. It could have been easier for me to just go out and buy a whole load of new cheap frames which were all the same, but I am not giving in to that. The reused materials do manifest in my practice, but it’s part of the way that I walk through the world. I wouldn’t say, ‘oh this is a show about the climate’, it’s just the way it is”.
Spontaneity and exploration are at the forefront of Haynes’ practice. These traits lead her to new mediums and new collaborators, both of which challenge and inspire her. The hour I spent with Haynes, sipping tea from oceans apart, gave me a wonderful glimpse into some of what makes her such an amazing artist and collaborator; the drive to challenge herself and to share in that challenge with other creatives.
All photographs and videos courtesy of the artist. For more content please visit Haynes’ website and instagram linked with the buttons above.