By Michelle Love
Photos by Kathryn Bell
Nicole Kirklin is not afraid to try new things. She encourages her two children (Sophi, 10, and Ben, 11) and friends to always do so, even if it seems intimidating or scary. It’s a principle she believes is the difference between living a mundane life and “feeling alive.”
“I’m still learning,” she says. “I think to be an adult and still be learning new things, that’s refreshing. That’s an exciting part of this type of art—the fact that you’re ever evolving, and just when you think you know exactly how to do something, you need to learn how to adapt.”
It’s this same belief that encouraged her to begin her journey as an artist. After working for 15 years in the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery Research at UAB, she decided to stay at home where they live in Vestavia Hills and raise her family. While she loves being a wife and mother, Nicole says she had the need for creative fulfillment.
“Do you ever have that feeling in the pit of your stomach where you’re like, ‘I want to do that, or I want to try that’? I never felt like I was really brave enough to do it because it is really scary trying something new,” she says.
Nicole confided in her husband, Adam, that she had always wanted to create art but felt a twinge of hesitancy at doing something so personal. As a surprise, he gifted her with art supplies for their anniversary. “I was so touched because it’s such a thoughtful gift,” Nicole says. “It was awesome, but it was also scary because I thought, ‘Well, here we go!’”
From there, Nicole began experimenting with acrylics and found she was especially drawn to alcohol ink and how its colors are so bright. “There is something about when you add the resin on top of it, it just brings the colors and detail out even more. It’s really fun,” she says.
Each of her abstract pieces has alcohol ink splayed out in an almost kaleidoscopic style across the canvas. While many of them have an aquatic blue motif, she isn’t afraid to experiment with other colors. On the backs of her paintings, she draws a specific Chinese character that symbolizes happiness.
All of Nicole’s pieces represent something special to her life, from where she grew up in Singapore to the vibrant colored saris worn around the streets of Northern India or the sunsets of China where she has travelled. She is frequently inspired by the beauty of nature around her. “A lot of the times I find one of the things that calls to me when I’m in my artistic space is water,” she says. “Growing up I was a swimmer, and I just love the colors and the way it moves.
She doesn’t always start the artistic process with a plan though. “Sometimes I have a vision, and sometimes I just kind of think, ‘Let’s see what happens,’” she says. “And there’s something refreshing about that. For me, I don’t like things to look perfect, and I think maybe that’s what I like about it. Sometimes it can be a little bit messy, and then it turns into something beautiful, which can be also said about life! Life is not perfect, but it can be so beautiful.”
After she finishes her paintings, she applies a thick UV coat over the canvas to prevent fading and then applies a chemical resin to that brings a unique shine and shimmer to the painting. Lastly, she “torches” it with fire to set the resin in place and remove all air bubbles from the appearance. “You see these artists looking all poised and polished, and I’m in my space with a gas mask and lab goggles on,” she says with a laugh.
The entire process, from first idea jitters to completion, gives Nicole a sense of rejuvenation to her spirit. “It makes you feel alive. It’s like you get in this zone, and I think it must feel like that when you’re doing things your passionate about, when work doesn’t really feel like work. It’s a beautiful feeling.”
Nicole shares her pieces on Instagram and on Facebook and admits there is a certain vulnerability to putting pieces of yourself out into the world but also freedom in sharing who she is. “When someone reaches out and says, ‘Hey, I really like this. Can I buy it?’ I’m very touched because it is a piece of me, and it feels so good to know that it speaks to someone else or it’s special to someone else,” she says.
While she knows she can’t keep all of her work, letting go can be difficult, but she loves the idea of her paintings being loved in a home of their own. “Something I think is so special about original art is that maybe it will be something people will pass down to their kids or have like a gallery type of room in their house where they can move different pieces around to enjoy,” she says. “I don’t know, it’s real exciting to think about my art sitting in someone’s living room in like Virginia or San Francisco. It’s nothing I take lightly, honestly. I think about it all the time and all the people who have supported me.
“Art tells a story. It’s a connection, and you can remember it and it tells a story.”
Going through each of her pieces that hang on the walls of her art room, she smiles at the small fractions of her paintings that she says are her favorite. She points out one, a small corner of a bright blue piece where the ink bleeds into a crisp white background. Each piece has given her another sense of vitality, she says. “When you get to a point where your creativity is working for you, it reminds you that you’re alive,” she says. “I think in life there’s all these ebbs and flows, and when you find something that you like and you have fun doing, it just feels good to feel alive.”
Follow Nicole’s work at @nkirklin_art on Instagram.