Nimmi Hutnik was a successful Psychologist when at the age of 63, she realised her lifelong passion for painting could run alongside her practice, or as she calls it “an addition of a second career”. In 2017 she started the part-time MA Painting at Wimbledon College of Arts, UAL. The course was “an emotional rollercoaster”, but ended on a definite high when four of her pieces were selected for the Bloomberg New Contemporaries Artists of 2020 exhibition.
Nimmi’s course ended in 2019, however, due to the pandemic she didn’t get to have a graduation ceremony until this week. We spoke to Nimmi about her practice, and how her experiences as a Psychologist influence her work.
You originally trained as a Psychologist and had a career in academia before deciding to do your MA Painting at Wimbledon, which you graduated from in 2019. What was the reason for this change in career?
It isn’t exactly a change in career, it is an addition of a second career. I am still practising as a Psychologist and this continues to give my life meaning. There is deep reward in seeing the people change from being fragile human beings to flourishing ones. I have always painted even as a child but growing up in India, where it is imperative that one makes a reasonable living, I was not encouraged either by my parents or my teachers to take up a career in art. Whenever I did it, it brought me tremendous joy. But painting was relegated to the tail ends of my time.
As I grew older, reaching the age of 63, I became aware that if I did not take steps to make my art more central, I would reach the end of my life with severe regrets. I have always tried to live close to the centre of my soul, to the wellspring of joy within. So, I went in for some therapy myself to explore what action I needed to take. Then I had to find the courage to shift gears. I took some financial advice and developed a strategy for survival.
In January 2017 I resigned from my job as Associate Professor at London South Bank University and launched a private practice as a Psychologist and in September 2017 I was admitted into the course at Wimbledon. From that time, I have never looked back.
Why did you choose to study at Wimbledon? Can you tell us about your experiences at the College? Any highlights?
I chose Wimbledon because it was the only course that offered a part-time MA in Painting. I did not want a course in Fine Art. I wanted to paint. Also, I have a doctorate from Oxford University in Psychology, so I was well versed with the processes involved in doing research, I had been a self-taught artist for over 25 years, having attended many weeklong and weekend workshops and done some regular life drawing etc., so applying to the MA seemed appropriate. The part-time option was very important as it enabled me to support myself whilst I acquired new knowledge and skills. The fact that the part-time option no longer exists makes me very sad as it disadvantages people like me, at the other end of the life spectrum, who have mortgages and a family to support.
For a student, one’s relationship with the Course Director and with other lecturers becomes central to one’s process. I always found Geraint Evans to be kind and gentle and encouraging, giving students space to explore and discover what they want to say and how. He is extremely knowledgeable and competent and well organised. I am not sure he liked the combination that I was making between drawing and painting though, nor was I certain that the Zen Buddhist principles of imperfection, impermanence and incompleteness underlying my work were really appreciated in this school, where every brush stroke is a pre-meditated act bringing each piece to perfection, completeness and permanence. (See for example the work of Mark Fairnington, Alex Veness and Nelson Diplexcito). But Anna Bunting Branch was extremely supportive and enthusiastic and excited about my work, and she encouraged me to do more and more. And so, I did. My friends and mentors Harriet Hedden (Chelsea UAL) and Theokritos Papadopoulos were equally supportive.
Does your previous work as a Psychologist influence your work? If so how?
The course at Wimbledon was a bit of an emotional roller coaster, as it should be. I was constantly searching (and am still searching) for my voice in paint. At first, I wanted to paint about hope and resilience and positive emotion because that is what I was researching in my practice as a Psychologist. In 2017 I had published a book called Becoming Resilient. Instead, what was flowing out of my brush were themes of the suffering that I had seen in my practice: loneliness, exhaustion, alienation, sickness, death. I can’t seem to help this. It just happens. Someday I hope to paint stuff that evokes joy and delight. But in these years of the pandemic, so many people have felt terribly alone in their one-room apartments and have had to face the terrors of death without support. And this is what has flowed (and is still flowing) out of my brush.
Can you tell us about your practice?
I focus on emotions such as exhaustion, angst, grief, love and resilience in contemporary figurative paintings related to the everyday. I create a balance of emptiness (or ‘Shunyata’) and coloured space to exemplify the Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi. Wabi-Sabi is a philosophy and an aesthetic that emphasizes the impermanence, imperfection and incompleteness of life. Embodied in the Japanese Tea Ceremony, Wabi-Sabi is a call for a return to the principles of simplicity, an appreciation of the value of the unadorned and every day and an ability to see beauty in that which is not conventionally considered beautiful.
I seem to have three strands to my practice.
The first strand is the paintings I do at 6 am in the morning, called my 6 am paintings. Here I use A 3 sketchbook paper and felt pens, usually black and red only. I love the scratch of my Sharpies as they move across the paper. The humble sketch pen is not usually seen as a painter’s instrument, they are used more in illustration and graphic design. But they seem to reach well into my soul to make manifest the thoughts and feelings the swirl about there. I mindfully bring myself into the present moment and face a blank ‘canvas’. I wait for an image to ‘emerge’. The themes that have surfaced in my 6 am paintings are ageing, sexuality, relationships, mothering, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and my immediate environment. They are tacked to a wall with panel pins. Created between 6 and 8 am in the morning, each painting may take several days to complete.
The second strand relates to my discovery of acrylic paint markers. Together with the vibrant colours of drawing inks brought from India, I use acrylic markers for the pieces I am currently creating and for those that were selected for The Trinity Buoy Wharf Exhibition of 2019 and Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2020.
The third strand relates to my use of paint. I use acrylics, gouache and oils and paint in a kind of naïve style. And I combine these with the drawing style that I have developed and use acrylic markers to neaten the edges.
Congratulations on being selected for the Bloomberg New Contemporaries Artists of 2020! Can you tell us more about the pieces that were chosen?
Four pieces were chosen but ultimately, due to the confines of space, only the largest piece was exhibited. This was called Friday Evening 1. It is done on canvas with drawing inks, acrylics, acrylic paint markers. It embodies the feelings of a single woman (i.e. me) at the end of a long and exhausting work week, perambulating around her flat and finally collapsing on her bed. I have composed three little vignettes into a single narrative, with details such as wine, chocolate, the ever-present Mac and magpie and Becoming Resilient resting on her bedside table. The painting was given pride of place at the Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2020 Exhibition in the main hall, immediately to the left of the entrance. The piece seems to resonate with women (and perhaps also with men) many of whom can identify with the sheer exhaustion of work and the loneliness of having nothing else but work to focus on.
What have you been up to since graduating?
In October 2019 I was one of the artist facilitators of a workshop titled Exploring Migrant Health through Art. The aim of the workshop was to use creative (art-based) approaches to explore health, with a focus on migration and health, bringing together healthcare providers, third sector organisations, policymakers, artists, and migrant communities. My role was to encourage migrants and refugees to explore their own history of immigration using paint. I used several paintings that I had done in the first year of my course at Wimbledon to stimulate thought and access feelings around the process of immigration. My early work during the course described uprootedness (tapping into my own history of migrating from India to Britain) and re-rooting and resilience (i.e. my own process of having to start again from scratch in a new society).
Since the end of the course, I have been exploring in paint the Japanese concept of Kintsukuroi which is the art of mending broken pottery with gold. No attempt is made to hide the mend. The mended piece is more valuable both in aesthetic terms and in monetary terms than the original piece. Using Kintsukuroi as a metaphor for sickness and healing I have painted the Kintsukuroi series and I present one painting below which is based on the medical interventions made on my own body over 67 years.
What is next for you?
In my gut, I feel that there are perhaps more Pandemic Paintings yet to emerge from my brush. Thus far, I have painted Bedsit Blues and the Nothing to Be Frightened Of series detailing loneliness and death. My friends in India regularly express the terrible collective trauma that the country has experienced because of the mismanagement of healthcare provision and the huge disparities in wealth among the Indian population. And I suspect some of this will express itself in paint in the coming months, perhaps more abstractly than figuratively, I do not yet know.