Nick Herd Creates Tactile Art in an Empty Mansion

Photos by Jasmine Ganely, film by Jason Domancie

Nick Herd’s work would cause trouble on the walls of an art museum.

With their thick, vibrant brushstrokes rising up from the surface, they’re exactly the kind of paintings that urge sticky fingers to defy the ‘Please do not touch the artworks’ signs. Until then, though, Nick will be testing the willpower of Auckland locals at the opening for his incredible new series of paintings, A Seasonal State. A year in the making, the new collection of works focuses on Nick’s two subjects of choice: flowers and the human form. With energetic brushstrokes and a penchant for rich, bright oil paints, Nick’s textural creations are establishing him as one of New Zealand’s most promising young artists, and we were lucky to grab some time with him ahead of the opening of his new show at an 18th-century ballroom tonight.

How long have you been working on A Seasonal State, and what was your thought process while creating the work?

The series has taken me almost a year to piece together. I think there’s 40 or more paintings I’ve produced in that time. Only a selection of 12 works are going into the show. I’m a firm believer that, as a painter, you must go to your work all the time and paint and paint, and the rest will come as long as you do so. That’s what I did—I turned up most days through the seasons of the year, with no goal other than to paint. I painted only in natural light: on dark, gloomy days, and when the sun was shining. It really got me thinking that we as humans are nature and are really connected to our environments and the season. I hope my paintings and the exhibition can connect to people in that way.

Your studio and the ballroom space where you’ll be exhibiting look incredible. How did you find such an amazing space?

I was lucky enough to meet a kind gentleman, named Bruce, through a friend who owns the place. It’s currently in the planning stages of being turned into a luxury hotel. Bruce has a passion for art and understands that it’s not an easy path to take. He asked me why I wanted to be an artist, and assured me that it’s not an easy life. I’m not sure what I replied, but it must have been something along the lines off, ‘I just can’t not be painting’. So he let me in and I started painting in this empty old mansion built in the late 18th century. It still baffles me that I get to paint in there; there’s so much character and now I get to have my exhibition in the ballroom below, where I’ve been working all this time.

Are your portraits always of people you know?

Generally, yes. It’s a very personal experience paintinig someone you know. People definitely carry around a certain energy with them, and it’s quite natural to feel another’s presence. When you know someone well enough, you’re well aware of what they bring to the table. On the other hand, some people I have been lucky to know and paint through chance. I meet Preston, a handyman who worked onsite at the mansion. My studio shares a lunch room with the cleaners and workers that look after the hostels surrounding the building. I would bump into him daily, and he always had a smile on his face and had a very positive outlook to his day which I admired and appreciated. One day I locked my keys in my car and I asked him for a coat hanger and some advice on how to break into an old car like mine. He gave me some tips and helped me make the coat hanger tool and I eventually got in. We didn’t cross paths for a long time but when we did, I was so ecstatic to see him and asked if I could paint him. In turn, I got to learn about his life… the good and also the bad. To me, his will power to be positive still to this day sits with me. I think its the best painting I’ve painted.

What’s one of your favourite portraits in A Seasonal State, and why?

Return of Colitus (self-portrait). Not because it’s a painting of me—I’m really the last person I want to be looking at in a painting—it’s more the story behind it. At the time I had been living with my partner Charlotte, brother Elliott and his girlfriend Sophie. I’m very fond of those times, it was so much fun. One by one, they left and I fell sick with my colitis coming back and on top of that, I had a severe food poisoning episode. I became quite sad living in an empty house full of the memories of loved ones. Painting for me is like a relationship—it’s a place I go to when I’m happy, sad, randy, energetic or whatever it may be. I was lucky to have painting to express how I felt at the time, to use my arms and my heart and to attempt to talk through painting. It has become a way for me to process life and everything that comes with it. I guess this painting is a reminder of how lucky I am to be an artist, to feel human and experience the richness of life.

When do you first remember experimenting with impasto?

My first experimentation with using large amounts of paint was with acrylics. Throwing blobs of extremely runny paint onto a surface. I only had a few minutes to finish the whole painting before the paint ran off the canvas. I then tested out oil paints and it was a million times easier. The thick blobs didn’t warp off the page and it captured the gesture as if it were clay and you smushed it.

What’s one of your earliest memories of connecting with a piece of art?

I have a recent experience with a painting. I’d had a few drinks, and me and a few friends were admiring this collection of Cezanne prints and chatting about how relatable they still are, as they were painted so long ago. I started looking at his famous painting The Card Players 1894–1895, and then noticed there were hidden figures in the background; onlookers who were hidden, but emerged the more you looked at it. I was seeing more and more, then under the table they’re playing on I noticed this haunting face. It really freaked me out. It really reminded me the power a painting can have to inflict emotion and the power a painter also has in what she or he paints.

When you’re not painting in the studio, what else do you enjoy doing?

I’m a sucker for being out in the water surfing. We’re pretty lucky here in New Zealand, it’s so beautiful and raw. You can surf without crowds if you really want too. It can take up your whole day, really, as it normally requires a little bit of driving, but it’s what adds to the magic of it all. It’s quite an enjoyable experience to share with others… just to sit there and exist in nature.

A Seasonal State opens tonight at 6 pm at Rocklands Mansion, 187 Gillies Avenue in Auckland. Follow Nick on Instagram @nick_herd for more. 

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