Camden Close-Up: Nicola Lane

Love Camden loves its local talent. We aim to celebrate everything cultural in the borough, from Hampstead to Kilburn, from the British Library to that little café around the corner - we are always out to show what Camden has to offer. As part of this we launched our Camden Close-Up series: interviews with artists, thinkers, entrepreneurs and downright interesting figures that live, work or are inspired by the borough.

This month, we spoke to artist Nicola Lane, a long-time Camden resident and artist, about her youth, education, and what it is like to grow up as an artist in Camden.

"My mother was born in Cyprus and my father in South Africa. They met in a night club in Nairobi during WW2. I was born in San Francisco in 1949 and lived in seven countries before the age of sixteen. The longest time I lived anywhere was in Venice, from 1959 to 1962 until I moved to Camden, where I have lived for 30 years.

I made sense of my fragmented childhood by creating narratives of an imaginary world. Britain was a faraway land experienced only through comics and books until I reached fifteen, which is when I went to England and began to familiarise myself with a country about which I had read so much but experienced so little.

In 1967 I began my Foundation year at St. Martin’s School of Art, arriving as life-drawing was being replaced by ‘Happenings’. My gloomy tutor told me that I would be a difficult student, as I had too many ideas. After I showed him my sketchbooks at the end of the first term, he sighed and said: “You are very talented, but you are too interested in life…” This baffled me, because surely art was life?

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Monument to Incompleteness (c) Nicola Lane, 2000

In my second term, life delivered a challenge. On my way to visit the National Gallery I lost my lower left leg in a traffic accident. I had to leave St Martin’s because of it, but a year later started again at the Byam Shaw School of Art. Although the prevailing artistic orthodoxy was abstraction (using masking tape and colour fields), I painted portraits of my friends surrounded by the details of their everyday life. My tutor encouraged me and I graduated with distinction in 1972. I travelled to the USA to work as an artist in San Francisco and New York but returned to London once more in 1975, where I created comics and political cartoons for the ‘underground’ press.

In 1980 I fell in love with filmmaking, collaborating with filmmaker Robina Rose (who was trained by Steve Dwoskin at the RCA) on a 16mm feature-length film called Nightshift, starring Jordan, Derek Jarman’s punk muse. Here I learnt 1970’s Avant Garde ‘guerrilla’ filmmaking: with a small budget, minimal setups, fast turnaround and the personal POV (point of view).

In 1988 I found a studio in Kingsgate Workshops. I was now part of an arts community, and after joining the Education Committee I became involved in art projects for Camden Primary Schools, discovering local opportunities that could fit around family life.

In 1999 Disability Arts activism and ‘inclusion and diversity’ in the arts led to my first funding application to the Douglas Bader Foundation, which allowed me to fund a body of work exploring my experience of prosthetics. I remember walking to the post office as if wading through treacle and dropping my proposal into the frightening void of the post box. That frightening journey began my career as a contemporary fine artist. My application was successful, enabling me to work with my Kingsgate colleague, ceramicist Chris Bramble, in a productive exchange of skills and ideas. My practice evolved into sculpture and installation, followed by a 2001 residency and commission for a touring exhibition called Adorn,Equip, where, guided by curator Mark Prest, I discovered archive collections, learned to develop my ideas through research, and work in partnerships with museums.

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At Home: A Living Centenary 1914-2014 (c) Nicola Lane, 2014

Each project brought new ideas and partnerships- including working with Kingsgate Community Centre to represent Irish pensioners’ memories of migration through their personal archives and IWM film archives. After discovering digital video editing software in 2004, I applied to ACE for R&D funding to develop moving image as part of my practice. I created Splitscreen, a juxtaposition of two films from two cultures reflecting my experience of disability and the cultural juxtapositions of my childhood.

Like most artists I needed part-time work to supply my artistic practice, and I landed a job teaching in Kentish Town at Clean Break Theatre Company’s access course. Their use of theatre as a tool for change inspired me to work with live performance, leading to the creation of Give Me My Robe, Put On My Crown, a film collaboration with my students. Camden’s Visibility festival premiered the film at Hampstead Theatre, and subsequently invited me to curate an event at the Tricycle Cinema showcasing disabled artists and performers.

In 2008 artist Matthew Stone and I initiated the Art Salon, where artists and others meet every Saturday in the Hospital Club to share ideas and explore conversation and participation as a creative process. I introduced the Salon concept to Kingsgate Workshop’s Emerging Artists programme, and subsequently in Test-Bed, their partnership with Camden Arts Centre.

Meaningful public engagement through the process of participation is now an important part of my practice. In 2014 my mother Diana’s dementia and the de-coding of fragmented family memories inspired my Swiss Cottage Gallery exhibition, At Home: A Living Centenary 1914-2014. I worked closely with Camden’s arts team and NHS health professionals to deliver this immersive exhibition celebrating Diana’s Centenary and those who deliver her care – the Royal Free Hospital staff, London Ambulance, District Nurses and Social Services, who all participated in At Home’s re-enactment of a 1934 photograph of Diana celebrating her 20th birthday.

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At Home: A Living Centenary 1914-2014 (c) Nicola Lane, 2014

This year I was allocated an empty shop in Kentish Town, as part of Camden Council's pop-up shop project, to create Spirit House, a work inspired by my childhood memories of Bangkok, where every property has a ‘spirit house’ shelter for ‘Guardian Spirits of the Land’. I invited the local community to bring their memories and take part in the process of transforming the space into a shelter for community memories; the shop window dressed with estate-agent display systems, displaying collected memories and local archives from Holborn Library. Clean Break students responded to Spirit House with their devised performance Displaced Memories.

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Spirit House (c) Nicola Lane, 2017

I am now working on the many ideas and collaborations emerging from Spirit House. I am not represented by a gallery and I negotiate between my ideas (as always, too many) and the agents or funders that can make them happen. It’s a challenging process but many exciting projects have resulted from 30 years engaging with Camden’s vibrant arts communities. Long may it continue!"

Have a look at a selection of Nicola's work here or have a look at her show At Home: A Living Centenary 1914 - 2014 in our Swiss Cottage Gallery archive!

Click below for more Camden Close-Up interviews!

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