Leaving it all behind, Nelly’s ambition changed her art
by Maria Raposo
“I’m old enough to be your mum!” Nelly gasps as she offers me tea and cake. But the Bulgarian artist’s personality is so vibrant that the age gap is not noticeable – “Live your life Morgan! It’s beautiful. Every day is beautiful.” She fidgets throughout the interview. Wearing plum colored tights; she sits like a child – expressive and free from rigid self-consciousness.
Nelly used to fall asleep looking at a reproduction of Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’, and she recalls how the image captivated her, even at an early age. Our conversation rushes through her life, tracing her passion for art. She believes she reached where she is today because she craved success – born into an impoverished Bulgarian economy, there was nothing else working in her favor. “Of course I have feelings for Bulgaria, but I knew if I wanted to be an artist with a voice, I had to leave.” Today she is a graduate of one of London’s most prestigious art schools, her work is internationally exhibited and she’s tipped for success.
When Nelly first came to England it was for an MA interview at The Royal College of Art in 1991. Her mother’s life savings paid for only half the plane ticket and she earned the rest working in graphic design. “My English was minimal, Morgan!” she said raising her eyebrows and leaning in to stare at me for a moment as if to emphasize just how minimal it was.
She struggled through her interview with a pre-prepared speech and when it ended she was offered a box of books – “No one gives presents in Bulgaria; there is no junk mail and no presents!” So she felt she had to give something back. From her pocket she pulled a small bottle of Bulgarian brandy, a lucky charm from her father to inspire “strong spirit”. Her interviewers drunk it there and then and back in Bulgaria, Nelly received a letter to say she'd been accepted.
It was never easy: to afford the £8,000 per year tuition fee her father had to mortgage his land, she served breakfast at a hotel throughout her MA and she also received a grant from the Soros Foundation, funded by Hungarian businessman George Soros. But her story is inspiring – she stresses how important it is not to let your material circumstances stifle your ambition. “I had no assets to support my vision but who cares if you need £8,000 or £30,000 when you have nothing? It's all the same.” I ask if she feels lucky but she thinks there’s more to it than that: she believes she was driven by an intangible energy and a natural craving to succeed.
Like any mother, she delights in telling me about her boys: Zac, 5 and Alex, 8. “Lots of female artists make a conscious choice to opt out of motherhood and to stay faithful to art.” She says, almost defensively, “Before you have children it’s natural to think that having a child will make your studio time diminish – which is true, but the love you experience is beyond words. So, spiritually you experience a whole new emotional space that’s full of creative seamen.”
“I had no assets to support my vision but who cares if you need £8,000 or £30,000 when you have nothing? It’s all the same.”
Soon after having Alex, she began working with color charts, used for interior decorating. They became her canvases and for the work ‘Diary of Motherhood’ she drew scenes from the park onto each colored box. It was as if her new role as mother needed a medium that reflected domesticity and it was a way of working the public could associate with, “because the fashion for decorating your house is overwhelming isn’t it?”
Nelly’s work is distinctly feminine. Seven portraits of women hang on her studio wall and the conversation drifts to women’s place in society – “women are achieving a lot” she says, serious now “but the price they pay is high”. She believes that women must work harder than men to reach the same level in the professional world: “There’s still progress to be made in men’s attitude towards female achievement”.
The artist’s feminist ideals take shape in her paintings. She mostly paints women and her subjects are direct – gazing through the canvas; Nelly describes them as “psychologically naked” and unashamedly so. “I wouldn't call them portraits” she says, telling me how she’s fascinated by presences as opposed to appearances. It’s women’s psychological complexity that reels Nelly in; she’s drawn to their multi-layered personas and this is reflected in the way she works. Nelly reuses the canvases of unsuccessful paintings which means that beneath each female figure is another image – adding intricacy to the series.
“Painting women in art is a big subject - a lot of images of women are to please and they become almost spirited still lives”. But Nelly‘s women, although pleasing, are also modern and striving – loaded with personality and psychological honesty. Drawing from her own experiences, Nelly calls for women not to be deterred by gender or “men making jokes about feminism”. She’s proof that women can achieve anything, as long as they want it enough. She admits that the subject of women has been explored for centuries but what’s revolutionary about Nelly’s work is the message she wants to communicate: for women today, ambition is the modern emotion.
For the past few months, Nelly has been an artist in residence at Red Magazine, Working out of the Red office once a week, she has delighted in drawing office life and painting November cover star, Yasmin le Bon for Red's Art Issue out on the 17th of October. Nelly will be speaking about her Red residence on 17th October 2013 at Anthropologie, Regent Street, London.