Interview with Nina Lipscombe, Katoomba (NSW)
Arriving in the Blue Mountains for a few days at short notice, I consulted the font of all knowledge on what was going on in most regions (Facebook Events), and it turned up an exhibition in Katoomba called ‘Witch’ by local artist Nina Lipscombe.
The paranormal, mythological, and mystical aren’t things that normally pique my interest, but increasingly, I’ll have a look at subject matter outside my normal interests. I’m glad I did.
‘Witch’ is an intriguing exploration of themes that may not exactly leap off the promo flyer or internet page. Speaking of our friend social media, a comment on the event page led to an exchange with the artist Nina Lipscombe, and a few days later, we were sitting in the leather-padded comfort of the guest lounge at the Carrington Hotel.
Bill Quinn: Just for my background, can you tell me a bit about how you came to be involved in art.
Nina Lipscombe: It’s an interesting story, because I didn’t do it very much in high school. I was doing theatre and television, but right after high school, I decided to dabble in it.
So I bought a kit from Hobby Lobby! It was Bill Alexander; he was the original happy painter. He’s the one that actually taught Bob Ross, with the happy clouds and the trees and everything else.
I bought this oil painting video, went to my garage, started painting, and I fell in love with it.
From then on, I started to make acrylics, water colours – mostly oils still – and it just kind of evolved from there.
I didn’t really get too involved with the arts scene in Tennessee at the time. But later in 2011, I moved to Argentina, and it kind of thrived from there.
I had exhibitions, I did workshops, I had private classes with really amazing teachers there, and I took off.
BQ: When I think about art around the world, Argentina definitely is on that list. I’m gonna say that the Tennessee art scene is not one that immediately springs to mind. What was that like?
NL: Yeah, you’re right about that! I’m not 100% sure; I never got highly involved with it. They do have some good art galleries, and really good art has come from Memphis. But the art scene there compared to Argentina and compared to here in the Blue Mountains is not quite as big.
BQ: So what brought you to the [Blue] Mountains?
NL: Originally, I moved to Argentina in 2011, and I was there for about a year doing art, having a good time, meeting people, learning the language. I had some family there because my father was born there.
Then I met my husband there – he was helping me transfer art from one exhibition that I had to another that was in the city. And then I wanted to take my art back to Memphis with me because I was going to move back for about three months, and I had plans to go to China to teach English afterward.
So I had a job lined up ready to go. He helped me out. He said, well, we can get your art back to Tennessee, but you have to take it to Uruguay, because Argentina won’t let you take out your art unless you do all this paperwork, you pay money toward it.
They’re trying to keep the culture in Argentina. Even if your child draws on a napkin, technically you have to get paperwork to take that out of the country. They probably wouldn’t care, but…
BQ: But that’s available to them. Wow!
NL: Yes! So we stuffed all of my suitcases full of my artwork and drove across the border to Uruguay. We did get stopped and asked a few questions about it. “What is this in the suitcases? What are you doing with it?”
And my husband explained that it’s my artwork, and they said, “I don’t think you’re allowed to take that out of Argentina”.
And he said, No, it’ll be fine.
So they let us go through. They didn’t really care. “As long as you don’t bring it back,” they said, “it’ll be fine! Don’t bring it back into Argentina.”
We went around Uruguay, looking for boxes. We packed it up, shipped it out, and then headed back to Argentina. It was quite an interesting arrangement.
BQ: So how did you get from Argentina to Australia?
NL: My husband is actually Australian. We lived in Argentina for another four or five years and then decided we wanted to be closer to family, so we moved to the Blue Mountains. His family lives in Guildford (Western Sydney), but now they have a house in Mt Victoria just down the street from us as well, so they split time between Sydney and the Blue Mountains.
BQ: You were saying before that when you first came here, you were feeling a bit isolated. Have you been able to tap into the creative side of the Blue Mountains now?
NL: Definitely. When I first came here it was August, it was freezing, I’d come from one of the biggest cities in the world (Buenos Aires) to the Blue Mountains. And I had no idea what to expect here.
Living in Argentina, you had to speak Spanish. There’s always these barriers to cross with language and communication. Then here I thought, everyone speaks English, but I felt awkward talking to people. I felt socially awkward; I thought, I don’t know how to communicate with you. I’ve been in this other world for a while.
And so I didn’t do anything for the first few months. I remember seeing a flyer for the Blackheath Arts Society in Katoomba at one of the art shops. So I thought, why not? I’ll go in for an art prize, see how it is, and from then on it spiralled.
I met some people from there who knew people from Mtns Made who were also connected with other societies and so it was just like a big web after that.
BQ: That’s interesting because I’ve been coming up to the Blue Mountains for about 45 years, and knowing how artistic the place is, I just concluded it had something of an interconnectedness. But maybe not so much?
NL: It’s gotten much better now with Mtns Made because they’ve really connected all the creatives. On their website, you can look for an artist, you can look for a photographer, you can look for a videographer, or you can look for a printer.
So we have all these options now and people know about each other. Because they actually go out and show people off. They say, “Hey! You need a printer because you’re a photographer; we know this person. You’re an artist, and this person is looking for someone to do a commission.”
So now we’re connecting a lot more. The past several years, think it’s grown a lot more.
BQ: So you’ve got your style of art. You have your photography and how you blend that and create something from that. Was it a case of you coming here and asking, “How am I going to apply this to my new environment?” or were there things that just jumped out at you and you felt the need to capture them?
NL: I had no idea what I was doing when I got here!
I’d dabbled in so many different things, even in Argentina I was doing all these different styles. I had no niche. And I thought I’m never going to make it as an artist, I’m never going to go anywhere, because everyone says you have to have a niche. You have to be marketable.
And I’ve never been into that. I said I’m doing art, I wanna learn how to do this. I want to create something that makes me happy, and right now I don’t know what that is. Tomorrow it’s sculpture, the next day it’s water colours, the next day it’s photography – so it changes a lot!
But with photography, this has been something that I’ve kind of latched on to. I’ve done it for a little over a year now, so not very long; I’m still a baby.
But it’s been really great because I feel confident with it, and I feel comfortable with it. And I still get to do a lot of my painting and Photoshop, so I get to take that background that I have from oil painting and acrylics and everything else and apply it into my photography.
For me, that’s the best of both worlds.
BQ: Explain a little bit about what your exhibition ‘Witch’ is about.
NL: I was really inspired by the witch hunts in Salem. I’d been reading a lot about them, then we visited there two years ago. We saw a few plays where they re-enacted some of the scenes from the courthouse, which was really interesting and scary at the same time. It was quite intense.
And then you wonder, and you can’t quite understand it. We can’t quite connect to that. Because we know there are no witches; we know that’s not real. So I was trying to have a connection with it, and I bought a few book from a bookshop in Salem, and one of them really stuck out to me because the book starts with the accusers and takes you through all the different accusers of the time – their backgrounds, where they came from.
And they painted a picture of what it was like to be in Salem during that time. And you can start understanding now. They had a really horrible life. Most of them didn’t live past their 30s, 40s; you’re lucky if you get to 50s and 60s.
There were Indian wars because they’d invaded their lands so there’s lots of fighting and killing, people were taken from their homes and tortured. Lots of disease, and doctors back then were talking to the stars, trying to figure out why you had an infection, because they didn’t quite understand that stuff.
So this was what we were dealing with. And from then, it went to victims. And it explained the victims’ background. And a lot of the victims I saw and read about were… they were different. So you had women who were very successful; maybe their husband or their father left them money or land which is very unusual and unheard of back then.
They had a supportive family, they were really outspoken or seen to be (at the time) crazy for speaking up.
It kind of inspired me more and more, reading about this. I do understand why the accusers did what they did.
And I thought it was for the same reason that these people were getting accused. They were trying to escape this establishment.
These girls, a lot of them, were either bored or they were taken by Indians and rescued later and became servants for a family which means they worked their entire lives, they have no good prospects for husbands, which basically means your life is over, no money.
So basically they were trying to escape that. They thought, ‘We can get attention now’. We can get someone to look at us and care about us. And we can do whatever we want. We can dance, and we can spit at people, and be vile! And they thought that was really invigorating and fun.
And the people that were being accused, a lot of it was about jealousy. You saw that with people who were really successful like Rebecca Nurse. And they were looking at her like she’s got this great life, she’s got this beautiful husband, this beautiful house.
And they thought, we’re unhappy and we want that, we’re jealous, and so that was a good target for them.
That was the premise of why I got started on this.
But I wanted to put a positive spin, and I want to look at modern witches now. What does that mean to me? And to me, it means being confident, being independent, being fun, free, and able to do these things that, back then, would have been impossible.
BQ: Which, if I could pick one that springs to mind, and I can’t remember the title, but the woman leaping with the legs spread in – is it a railway carriage?
NL: Yes! She’s very powerful. It’s a powerful stance.
It’s funny, because people interpret that one quite differently.
When I shot the image, I did a little bit of painting and editing, but for the most part the carriage was exactly how it looks in the picture. And behind her, she was actually holding her hand up, kind of turned to the side, and I saw the words, ‘Free Me’ – but it didn’t actually say, ‘Free Me’, but she’s actually blocking the letters so it reads ‘Free Me’!
Initially I was looking at it thinking it was kind of her cage, she’s trapped in this environment she doesn’t want to be in. And this is her message: the graffiti is her way of speaking through photographs.
And a friend of mine asked, “Oh, her hand up. Is that like the rope? Like, hanging her?” Because that’s how she saw it, and I thought, wow, I did not think of that. That’s not what I was looking at when I saw that.
And then I had other people who found it very empowering. I was very low when I took the photo of her so you’re looking up at her and she’s very powerful – she’s like, “This is my space”.
I’ve had both sides of the coin on this one!
BQ: I was going to move on to interpretation by others. I notice you talk a little bit about what your ideas behind the works are, but the exhibition has been open now for a few days, how much have you had interpretations given back to you? And have they surprised you?
NL: Most people who have talked to me about it have given me their interpretations! Mostly because I ask!
They ask me first, and then I say, no, I want to hear what you have to say.
Because I feel that what I have to say doesn’t really matter for this. I like to hear what other people see.
And a lot of what people had to say were quite different from what I expected, but some of them were exactly the same as my own interpretations, so it was interesting to hear quite different ideas.
BQ: So, what’s next for Nina Lipscombe Art?
NL: I’m sticking with photography for sure. Like I said, I’m very comfortable with this medium.
I’ve struggled with photography for a couple of reasons in the very beginning because initially… I do a lot of graphic design, and this is how I got into the printing business, starting with graphic design, and moved onto printing.
And now we do fine art printing.
And I did a lot of painting and Photoshop just for fun. And I remember one of the art societies in the mountains had asked me to explain why photography is an art because they believed that it’s not an art.
And at the time I wasn’t doing photography and I thought, I can’t really tell you about that, but I can talk about graphics. And painting and Photoshop.
So I did a demonstration, painting a cockatoo or a mushroom in Photoshop, and some of them received it very well and thought it was very interesting.
And I said, basically this is just another medium. This is my paint brush (my mouse) and my computer is my canvas. It’s no different to you guys.
So a lot of them thought it was really cool, they wanted to learn more about it, and I actually overheard some people in the back say it was cheating!
And I thought, this is what I’m up against! Because you have a lot of boundaries in the art world, you’ve got a lot of lines that people don’t want to cross.
And I’m very liberal; I think everything is art. I mean, honestly. I truly believe it. I often give speeches about it. I start ranting about my ideas on art!
With this exhibition, I’ve had photographers who say, the only correct photography is black and white with no filters. The only correct photography is no Photoshop-ing.
I think this is just another way for me to create. It’s not like I’m going for the technical properties you’re going for. I’m going for a different look, I’m trying to evoke some kind of response for my viewer.
And I’m not gonna get a good response from a lot of people, you know? They’re gonna go in there and say, This is not good.
Actually, the morning the exhibition opened, I got an email from a gallery in Sydney – it’s one I’ve been following for about a year and a half, and I love the work that they post – so I thought this is work that I relate to and this is work that I do or would be doing.
And they messaged me, saying, yeah, your work is not marketable. You will never sell this. It’s not good. But really a vile message.
And I thought, if I were a gallery, I would just say, yeah, your work is just not our style.
BQ: Wow! They’re the sorts of words you hold onto because when you do make it big, you repeat those words!
NL: Well, that’s what my ‘girl in the carriage’ said, (Karen my model). She said, “You can do a ‘Pretty Woman’ thing: a ‘Big mistake!’ thing!”
It does hurt. I get more positive than negative feedback, but the negative seems to stick with you, I think. Unfortunately.
BQ: Last question! When we’re sitting here in five years’ time, what can you tell me about Nina Lipscombe and her art?
Oh my gosh! Five years’ time! I’m thinking we’re going to be in the photography phase still.
I love this. I don’t think I’m going to move out of this for a while. Plus it’s easy; I don’t have to waste any material. That’s good, because I waste a lot of materials; I’m very messy when I paint.
I’m going to push out more exhibitions but I’m going to focus less on what people are telling me to focus on – which is marketability, commercial websites – and just focus on creating. So I’m hoping to have a lot more work out there, tons of different stuff.
I love portraits, I love nature, so I’ll probably continue to stick to this theme. Not necessarily witches, but something similar to it.
And just grow from there.
Nina Lipscombe’s exhibition ‘Witch’ continues at the Platform Gallery, 194 Katoomba Street, Katoomba, but you’ll have to be quick because it closes on Monday 1 April.