The Joy of Finding Intimacy
Words by Matthew Burgos
In ‘Indoor Fever Dream’, a figure with long blue hair and an oversized dark orange sweatshirt sits at the table. On the surface, a vase filled with yellow, orange, and white flowers. Beside the vase, a clay pot acts as an ashtray for the person plucking out the petals. They close their eyes and wear a mourning expression, the dawn of boredom inside their kitchen. “This work is told from a voyeuristic perspective. It centers on a feeling of disconnection and emphasizes a surreal interior that was inspired by the feeling of being trapped inside and disconnected from others throughout quarantine.” In our interview with the artist, Sheila Nicolin journeys through exploring human struggles in finding intimate connection.
The Detroit-based artist describes her work as an actively lived retrospective, a fictionalized reality, and an attempt to understand those around her. The human form in her artworks represents a sense of wilderness in humanity: familiar, inviting, and alien, and wildly inaccessible. Using expressive mark-making, flashy color, and dissociative pattern, she creates an unreliable and sometimes skewed story of intimacy.
Nicolin studies her interaction and relationship with her friends, family, and acquaintances through photography, writing, and sketching, the absolute knowledge of her influences in art. As her body of work reimagines traditional pop art through the lens of overwhelmed and disjointed interactions, she appeals to humanism by building a coming-of-age narrative with a relatable goal: to find an honest connection.
“I grew up in a creative household. My mom is an art teacher, so we were always doing crafts at home: collages, crocheting, sewing, drawing, painting, and more. My mom had a studio space at the Russell Industrial Center in Detroit, a popular creative space for artists, events, and techno, where I played hide-and-seek with my sister and made my first paintings. We spent most Fridays as a family at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and, in case you are wondering, I always ordered the tuna salad from their cafeteria and liked to draw in the European wing. These experiences were foundational in forming my knowledge and interest in art as I got to see from a very young age what it was like to draw joy from art and the creative community. Today, I primarily paint with acrylic to create large-scale figurative artworks, but community and art history still remain central to my creative process.”
Nicolin’s artwork offers the impermanence of joy in life and love, the absence of primitive awareness towards consciousness of what is real and unreal. ‘Conscious Downswing’ depicts the figure bent over the mass of blankets, drowning in the sea of severe loneliness and depression, and sharing Nicolin’s experiences with Bipolar Disorder and the struggles of living with mental illness. Through Nicolin’s artworks, the role of mental illness fuses with the portrayal of one’s desire to maintain happiness and presence in life despite the blockades of severe depression and mania.
While the themes of her artworks seem to settle in hindrances within the human sphere of intimacy, Nicolin still believes in the necessity of evolution, an ascent to realms she is yet to explore. “As an artist, I explore new techniques, themes, and styles that challenge and elevate my capabilities with each new painting I create. As an individual and entrepreneur, I am always in a state of metamorphosis as I constantly try out new activities by building new businesses and revolutionizing what drives my daily life. While painting is a constant form of expression for me, I have also learned how to play the violin, though somewhat poorly, started a vintage furniture business and learned how to drive a 26-foot truck for it, moved several times – from Detroit to NYC, back to Pennsylvania and NYC, then to Detroit again – and worked as a product designer for a start-up company.” Nuances of her lifestyle fuel her engine to concoct artworks of life, the push and pull of the universe’s affairs, intentions, and fervor.
In ‘Have a Few’, the forbidden lockdown celebration occurs, a voyage to the discomfort of what friendship means in a crowded room. As a figure lies down on the cold floor, propping their arm up to hold their brightly lit smartphone, three other figures attempt to have a conversation but end up staying quiet within their comfort zones. Disconnection from reality and connection to virtuality: the philosophy of Nicolin in portraying melancholy, isolation, depression through patterns, objects, and emotions in a kaleidoscope of colors. Inside the chaos of her artistry, Sheila Nicolin builds a temporary shelter for every visitor who needs to find their way home.