ARTIST Chris Nicholls died before his work could be exhibited in Melbourne for the first time. Now it will go on display in Ballarat, writes Dellaram Vreeland.
"Ithica has given you the beautiful voyage. Without her you would never have set out on the road. She has nothing more to give you."
It was this poem, written by Greek poet Constantine P Cavafy, that served as a source of inspiration for Wimmera-based artist Chris Nicholls. Pinned by his studio window, these three lines motivated him through his lifelong journey.
In 2010, Chris was diagnosed with Glioblastoma Multiforme, a rare and life-threatening brain tumour that would ultimately claim his life. Suddenly, Constantine's poem became as relevant as ever.
"The poem looks at the idea that it's not where you're going that matters, it is the journey itself," Chris's widow Rosslyn Nicholls reflected.
"For Chris, having a terminal illness happened so quickly that I think he realised what matters in the end is not success but the people who love you."
Chris Nicholls may not have been considered successful in the superficial sense, since his work was relatively unknown in the artistic community, but he was indeed one of Australia's best kept secrets.
Born in 1947 to a family of Seventh-day Adventists, the artist was raised on a farm where he was instilled with a love for the land.
"He grew up with people who painted all the time so he had the training and the innate talent," Rosslyn said.
"Chris wanted to become a plumber but his dad wanted him to have some academic training so his parents talked him out of it.
"They saw he had a natural artistic ability and people remembered him for this."
Reclusive artist Chris Nicholls. PICTURE: SUPPLIED
For the last 32 years, Chris lived in a small country town near Stawell, immersing himself in his art and natural surroundings.
His passion for the countryside and his intimate relationship with the environment continued to influence his work until the day he died.
Fascinated by the mess and chaos of the Australian bush, his art portrayed elements of death and decay rarely reflected in landscape art.
"He had a deep respect for nature in its untouched form," Rosslyn said.
"I think he saw the bush in a unique way. All the painters who came to Australia had a lot of trouble seeing the bush as it was but I think he saw it.
"He wanted to celebrate the chaos and the mystery, not to try to tame things."
Although he took delight in his natural surroundings, Chris's life was not without its struggles. Growing up in a staunch religious family and having to cope with the demands of farm life all took their toll on the artist.
"Because his family was Seventh-day Adventist, there were a lot of things he couldn't do as a child and he found it a lot harder to find his identity in mainstream society," Rosslyn said.
"There's always conflict. All artists experience that. That's what art is, it's an expression of that conflict"
"The conflict also came later with how he balanced his art with the demands of everyday life.
"There's always conflict. All artists experience that. That's what art is, it's an expression of that conflict."
According to Chris's daughter Claire Nicholls, his art would not have been as meaningful as it was if it wasn't for the difficulties he faced during his 62 years of life.
"My father had a terrible time reconciling his duties with his artistic journeying," Claire said.
"So many hours chain-sawing wood, fixing pumps, fathering and mending the countless things that are forever breaking down around an old property in the bush.
"But looking at the paintings, I know they would not contain the powerful, aching conflict at their core had he been able to dedicate his time to purely painting."
50 of Chris's artworks will be on display. PICTURE: SUPPLIED
A recluse at heart, Chris never sought public recognition and often avoided showcasing his work.
Although he exhibited numerous times at regional galleries, including the Horsham Art Gallery, he never had the chance to exhibit at a major venue.
Freelance curator and former director of the Horsham Art Gallery Merle Hathaway, said he was right in avoiding extensive exposure.
"Exhibitions are enormously traumatic," Hathaway said.
"You're putting your soul up for people to criticise and there's a real risk that if your work is picked up by a dealer or commercial gallery, that person will influence your art to make it more sellable.
"It really is like selling your soul."
It wasn't until 2009, after years of keeping his art relatively private, that Chris was approached by the director of one of Melbourne's leading galleries and was booked for an exhibition.
Having already completed much of the work for the show, he spent a good few months finishing another 10 large canvases until the unexpected diagnosis of his brain tumour in February 2010. Seven months later he died and the exhibition was cancelled.
"He was terribly sad to leave because he was at the cusp of a whole new threshold in his life and if he could have lived longer he would have done wonderful things," Rosslyn said.
From today, the work of Chris Nicholls will be showcased for the region to admire all as part of his first ever major solo exhibition Landscapes of the Mind.
Opening at the Art Gallery of Ballarat, the retrospective exhibition features more than 50 of Chris's works from the 1980s to 2009 and includes acrylic on canvas, drawings, and his own sketchbooks.
"I think Claire and I understood him enough to honour his work in a way he would have respected and we can do it now without fear of him getting us into trouble," Rosslyn laughed.
Chris and his wife Rosslyn. PICTURE: SUPPLIED
Hathaway, who curated the exhibition, said Rosslyn approached her after Chris's death with the ardent desire of having her late husband's work exhibited at a major gallery.
Hathaway said she had always been fond of Chris's art, particularly because of the intensity in his work, his huge passion for the land and his sheer technical mastery.
"He was certainly influenced by a lot of artists, like Arthur Boyd, but he isn't like them in any way," she said.
"A lot of artists paint what's going on in the surface. Chris's paintings are rarely pretty but show aspects of the environment that I empathise with and he often criticises the way human beings treat the environment.
"I love the freedom of his brush strokes and his drawing. He is certainly very competent and that comes from being able to spend many hours a day in his art."
Hathaway said she hoped people would visit Landscapes of the Mind and leave with a heightened awareness of Chris's work.
And even though the artist himself won't be there in body, his voyage towards Ithaca will be showcased for all to admire.
"I hope people see him as one of the great artists of the region," Hathaway said.
"He's a great interpreter of the landscape of western Victoria. I wouldn't want him to be forgotten before he is even known."
AT A GLANCE
WHAT: Chris Nicholls - Landscapes of the Mind
WHEN: September 28 until October 27
WHERE: Art Gallery of Ballarat
HOW MUCH: Free entry