Words and photos by Jamie Preisz | Art by Nigel Milsom
The most persistent stereotype of an ‘artist’ is rooted in misery.
And why not? After all, don’t our best and brightest all have histories soaked in sadness, and lives cut tragically short? Think Van Gogh’s ear in a blood-soaked envelope, or Basquiat sprawled out on the floor of a New York art loft surrounded by syringes and spray paint.
This suffering is supposed to form a vital part of the artist’s tool kit, somehow raising them to a level where they speak to the human condition. Then, once they’re gone, it’s a good back-story that underscores their brilliance.
“It’s strange, having people tell you you’ve got a good back story. It’s not a back story. It’s my life. I’m still living it,” says Nigel Milsom.
You’re familiar with Nigel’s work. He’s a prolific painter and an Archibald Prize winner. He also rose to public notoriety after winning the prestigious $150,000 Moran Prize from the confines of a concrete gaol cell in Cessnock Prison; he had completed the painting just before his sentencing while he was out on bail.
Born in Albury but growing up in Newcastle, Nigel had a fairly normal upbringing in a lower middle-class family, and painting became a cheap way to occupy the kids for his hard working Mum.
“I grew up with three brothers and two sisters,” Nigel tells me. “My Mum could come home with paint and paper and we knew as kids how to divide it up according to who would use it. It was like one toy that fits all.”
His first ‘run in’ with the law was at the tender age of seven when he stole a bike with his brother. His Mum immediately marched the pair down to North Sydney police station.
“Mum thought she was doing us a favour by trying to scare us. The sergeant thought he was doing my Mum a favour by locking us in separate cells and telling us, ‘You’re not getting out.’ I was crying and yelling ‘Let me out!’ I thought the whole time it was for real.”
Years later, as an adult, Nigel spoke to his Mum about that moment. “She said, ‘Well it didn’t fucking help you, did it?!’”
In 2012, Nigel won the Sulman Prize. He was already doing a lot of heroin, but it was around this time he was introduced to ice. Following his win, he went out with his dealer and a sculpting hatchet while on a bender and robbed a convenience store in Glebe. When police caught up with him, he ran at them and was tasered into submission. Nigel would later admit that he was trying to get shot.
Nigel was sentenced to seven years but served two on appeal. His lawyer, Charles Waterstreet (on whom the hit TV show Rake is based) was the subject for his winning Archibald entry in 2015. This widely reported string of events, and its seeming fit into the pantheon of tragic artistry, saw a lot of people focus on Nigel’s story.
“It’s not a good back story,” says Nigel. “It was hard. To hear it simplified down to a reason as to why I won, is bullshit. People seem to think it somehow gave me a leg up, but it was a leg into hell. I would trade in all those art prizes at the drop of a hat if it meant erasing/healing all the pain I caused. Not just my family and close friends, but to total strangers as well. One of my biggest regrets is that due a lack of contact information, I haven’t been able to make contact with those strangers to express any kind of personal apology. Not knowing whether these people have had closure, or experienced any form of healing has been the most difficult thing to bear out of the whole ordeal. It has been like experiencing a re-occurring nightmare every day for the last four years.”
Drug abuse and poor mental health seem to run rampant in creative industries. However, rather than being seen as a cause for concern, these things are often celebrated and romanticised by investors as a selling point for the work. When laid bare, the idea that someone’s personal demons might make a good source of dinner party conversation does seem faintly grotesque.
While his story may be the talk of the local art scene, Nigel sees his criminal past as a hurdle he had to jump to continue the career path he was always on. He’s not proud of this period of his life, and certainly doesn’t consider it fuel for his art.
“People think I revel in the notoriety and infamy, that somehow it’s in my work,” he says. “They think my work is dark and that I’m feeding on the pond scum and that’s what I use to somehow make my pictures. They appear dark for some people, but I don’t see them that way. I can only make work when I’m happy.”
This seems wholly at odds with the idea of the tortured artist, but it fits well with Nigel’s personality.
“I was asked by another Archibald winner what my experience was like winning the prize, and I said it was nice but I got more pleasure out of giving my girlfriend an orgasm,” Nigel tells me. “He suspected it had changed my world. I was happy my family were proud, but I enjoy doing the paintings. I try to work at things that excite me.”
This attitude is refreshing step away from the popular narrative of doomed genius that permeates the creative industries.
“Drugs and poor mental health do everything to take you away from your art,” Nigel continues. “They take your energy away and the work suffers. Imagine if a sports star gets depression. You wouldn’t see Ian Thorpe say, ‘Man I’m really depressed, I’m going to use that to go win two gold medals.’ It doesn’t happen that way. But people think that artists have used that depression or criminality to go out and win gold. You would be an idiot to think anyone could do that. Because ultimately your work isn’t about you—you’d like to think that your work is a little more universal.”
Although we see this glamorisation of some of the grimier parts of our creative world, these afflictions are not an integral part of the creative process. So next time you’re romantically talking garbage about how much you love Edie Sedgwick or how Kurt Cobain wrote his best songs on heroin, ask yourself, “Am I perpetuating an out-dated, unrelated stereotype? And in turn justifying the self-destructive acts of others because it seems somewhat exotic and makes me sound cultured and smart?” If the answer is yes, then it’s probably best to quiet down and talk about lock-out laws or something.
Film by Mark Collins and Bodie Smith | Music by Jack Hambling