Artist of the Week: Nicola Miles

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This week Brighton Journal spoke to Nicola Miles, a local illustrator, surface pattern and textile designer.

Nicola’s interests include folk traditions, fairy tales and issues that affect women, and her work frequently “combines the whimsical with the everyday.” We discussed Nicola’s recent freelance work, her MA Textiles Finals project, and her favourite things to do locally.


What are you doing today?

I’m taking part in an Instagram challenge called Folktale Week which is a great way to join a creative community and to have a project that enables drawing practice and very importantly self-motivation which is a big issue as a freelancer. This week, I have been illustrating a Welsh story involving the Tylwyth Teg, fairy folk who steal children away from their parents and I have taken inspiration from the ceramics collection at Brighton Museum.


Describe where you do most of your creative work.

I have an upstairs workroom/studio in my house which has my iMac and all my books, pens, paints and fabrics, with a beautiful view of the South Downs. I tend to draw in a separate space as this seems to work for me to keep hand-drawing and computer work apart. I work for about 8 hours every day but often longer when there is a deadline pending.


What’s the most exciting thing you’ve worked on?

I’ve just finished exhibiting at Hove Museum and Art Gallery as part of the MA Textiles Finals group at Brighton University. My personal project concerned issues that affect women that need to be spoken about but are traditionally considered taboo. The areas I covered were menopause, miscarriage, stepmothers and women without children. I used imagery from fairytales in order to present the work in a recognisable and less threatening visual style as well as using other visual references including suffragette posters. The work was turned into domestic textiles and objects, partly to integrate the messages they held into everyday life and partly because women traditionally have been associated with the domestic. The objects ranged from a tapestry to plates, tea towels, and an apron.

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What made you decide to become an artist?

I don’t think of myself so much as an artist more as a designer because I see myself as someone who collects visual references and puts them together in a different way. I think an artist is someone who works more from their imagination. I was influenced by both my grandmother and mother who were always sewing and knitting. My mother loved the work of Kaffe Fassett and knitted many of his designs and made clothes from Liberty and Laura Ashley fabrics. She would also buy Betty Jackson, Biba and Nicole Farhi clothes as well as Monty Don jewellery. Drawn to fashion and textiles I worked briefly for Vogue and Elle when I was much younger and once even spent an eye-opening week with Isabella Blow. An important event that set me off on a creative path was listening to Freddie Robins at Hove Museum talking about her ‘Knitted Homes of Crime.’ She combined a medium that was traditionally seen as female, and both passive and domestic with the unexpected topic of female murderers (some of whom lived in Brighton). This use of knitting and the contrast between feminine stereotypes and women who had committed acts that were considered atrocious and unfeminine intrigued me.


What are you currently working on?

Working freelance means I often have several jobs going on at once. I have just finished a logo for a local textile business, I have also been working on a year long project for a publishing company putting together a fashion archive of international catwalk shows – I have watched a lot of inspiring as well as extraordinary fashion videos this year. I have also been designing fabrics for childrenswear. I am currently planning a book which integrates textile design and narrative.


What are the key themes in your work?

I am particularly interested in folk traditions and fairy tales and issues that affect women. I like the way fairy tales lure you in before revealing a darkness within. My work often has a narrative and combines the whimsical with the everyday. I made a collection of scarves based on a 1970’s photo of a strawberry-picking trip combined with imagery related to the individuals in the picture.


What would you like people to notice about your work?

I want people to enjoy my work and find it attractive but also to take something with them in terms of a message or simply seeing a new way of looking. People seem particularly to enjoy my use of colour. My exhibition postcards run out all too quickly, which is probably a good sign.

What attracts you to the medium you work in?

I generally draw and then either work with the drawings using screen printing or Photoshop. Drawing really appeals to me because it involves studying the world around you and you can do it anywhere. I find both screen printing and computer design exciting because of the way in which having a drawing as a starting point you can then transform or enhance it by these methods.


What equipment could you not do without?

I tend to do an initial drawing and redraw several times so I find a light box a great way of simplifying this process. I also love my iMac.


Who or what inspires you?

That grows and changes all the time but often illustrators and fashion and textile designers. Currently Alice Pattullo, who explores English folk traditions. Emily Sutton for her beautifully detailed evocations of place. Staffordshire pottery for its simplicity and character. Shelia Bownas, who deserves to be much better known. Mary Quant, Sonia Delaunay, Alain Gree, Barbara Jones, Shelia Robinson, Lucienne Day, Grayson Perry.


How is your work affected by living in this area?

I think Brighton has an amazing creative community that is inspiring to be around. But also the landscape of Sussex and the rich artistic heritage that includes people like Peggy Angus, Janet and Anne Kennedy, Tirzah Garwood, Denise Hoyle, Lee Miller and of course the Bloomsbury Group.


What’s your favourite thing to do locally?

Probably visiting artists’ homes and galleries as we are spoilt for choice with Charleston, Farley Farmhouse (wonderful guides), Monk’s House and Ditchling Museum amongst others. The tour of the recent ‘Women’s Work’ exhibition at Ditchling was excellent. Visitors there were also invited to fill in a postcard with the names and details of ‘forgotten’ women artists and crafts women. I do hope that this is followed up and that their work is brought to a wider audience.


What’s your favourite gallery (or place to see/experience art)?

The V&A is beautiful. You feel like you can be absorbed into history and art. Even the tearoom is outstandingly beautiful (see Emily Sutton’s illustration of this in Clara Button and the Magical Hat Day). The Fashion and Textile Museum in London is a close second.


If you could collaborate with one artist, from any time, who would it be and why?

I would choose Peggy Angus. Those who knew her always talk of how generous she was with her time and teaching. She trained at the RCA with Eric Ravilious, John Piper and Enid Marx amongst others. I’ve heard firsthand the stories from people who were invited to her numerous bonfire gatherings and parties and seen the handmade invitations at The Keep archive. Her life was certainly dedicated to art and to inspiring others. I’ve made several attempts to find Peggy Angus’s house ‘Furlongs’ near Firle – the exterior looks different now and is a private home so I missed it the first few times I visited. There is something magical about being in a place where so many influential artists were drawn. You can see the slope up to the Downs beyond the end of her garden which was painted by Ravilious when he visited.


What’s your favourite colour?

Greens and blues because they have so many beautiful hues.

To find more of Nicola’s work, take a look at her Instagram.

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