The Aboriginal people of the south-west corner of Western Australia, the Noongar, call magpies coolbardies, a word intended to capture the strange, melodious and almost mechanical chortle-warble of the birds during the dawn chorus.
One of the continent’s most lauded birds, ask any Australian far from home what they miss about their country, and chances are they will fondly recall magpies singing in the new day, or signaling that the long night of partying is over when that unique warble starts up.
In Noongar lore, magpies are celebrated as the clever and quick-witted saviors of the world: the sky was once so close to the ground that everything was being crushed – plants couldn’t grow and people had to crawl along the earth. Doom seemed imminent, but the magpies knew what to do.
Working together, they found long, strong sticks, and they pushed the sky up and up until it sprang into place, revealing the beautiful golden sun and the world’s very first sunrise.
That sunrise can be glimpsed in the assessing and fiercely intelligent glare of the single amber-orange eye of Swoop, Nicky Shelton’s award-winning portrait of one particular magpie.
His name is a nod to the territorial behavior of the males during breeding season, and Swoop stares back at us from the canvas, oil paints capturing his confidence, background light dusting his black head feathers and highlighting the contours of his strong, battleship-gray bill. It is a fascinating picture, quite rightly winning “Best in Show” in the Animals category at USA’s Camelback Art Gallery Painting Competition 2019.
Swoop also graced the front cover of the European art magazine, Art Bazaar, and recently received an Honorable Mention in the jury-judged Fusion Art’s 2022 Into the Wild Art Competition, adding to the ever-growing list of accolades, awards, and prizes this Margaret River-based artist has built up over the years.
Looking at the avian majesty of Swoop, the character of the creature just bursting outwards, it would be an honest mistake to assume the creator of this piece was an “old hand”, decades of painterly experience finessed. And whilst this is partly true, the reality is more remarkable.
The art of making money
Nicky Shelton lives and works on a property within wind-battering distance of the Indian Ocean on the anvil-shaped promontory of the southwestern tip of Australia, a two hundred or so kilometers south of the state capital of Perth.
It is June when we talk, and whilst my dawn has just broken and the summer sun in the east begins to light up my laptop screen, Western Australia enters winter and lunchtime approaches.
Nicky informs me she has just finished vacuuming the back veranda after another storm of 110kph winds, marveling that her sheep and alpacas have withstood yet another gale-laden morning.
I am conscious of her schedule, aware that afternoons are for studio work, a strict 1pm – 5pm daily regime. But an open and confident laugh accompanies a reassurance that this counts as work, too; take all the time you need, she says.
This pragmatic, friendly yet professional approach is the lynchpin to her success, in whatever she chooses to do. Adhering to a work schedule is part of her nature, one honed out of necessity and experience.
Nicky had always been drawn to art (“I would walk around with a pencil or paint brush in hand”), but realized very early on The Money sadly lay elsewhere, and if one wishes to pursue a passion, you almost always have to have money.
After college, despite being offered a place at university to study fine art, she instead made the decision to defer, and entered the world of corporate recruitment. She harbors no regret – her career choice opened her eyes to the vast array of human personalities and emotions, and how to manage them; and it turns out she was rather good at it.
“It had to be about money, money, money; deferring was a no brainer. I ended up running a recruitment agency with my husband David that became very successful, which we eventually sold. Then we bought a vineyard, and got focused on the wine. Then, I went back to consulting for another company. But by then the fun had gone out of it, I wasn't passionate about it anymore, and I realized I was doing it to keep myself entertained. I rang David and said, ‘do we need it? No’. So, then I said, ‘well, OK, I'm going to paint full-time and I'm not going to make any money out of that at all!’ And then look what happened” she laughs.
Birds are gifts
Describing her style as “contemporary realism”, Nicky works with a select group of photographers who graciously assist with sourcing the reference material; she always gratefully credits them. She then uses her preferred medium of oil paints to turn that image of an actual 3D animal somehow into an even more present being.
Not wishing to change their inherent beauty in the least, she transforms them nonetheless into something incredibly there, as if ready to fly forth from the canvas into your personal space.
Sometimes rendered as regal portraits, others as situational depictions like hunting or preening, they all show the viewer their playful, mischievous and deeply resourceful nature. Birds have always been magical to this artist, fascinated by their primal intelligence, their ability to fly and communicate with song.
“Why do I like birds?” she responds to my formulaic question. “Oh, you know, they’re mother nature's gifts! So unique, and they're so intelligent. They have such different, big personalities, like the magpies. We've got several families that live here. I have to tell you a story about them! When we lived in Perth, in the suburbs, we had a family of mags that sort of hung around. We had this white cat called Bob, and he used to walk the walls, you know, patrol the property. Unfortunately, he had an early demise, he got cancer, so we buried him in the front under a rose bush. I got up in the morning to get the newspaper, and the magpies are all in the front yard, and they’re having a dance, like a, what we call in Australia, a corroboree, Aboriginal for a sort of party. I looked down, and where Bob was buried was covered in magpie feathers. I said to my husband, you gotta come see this. They're throwing a ding-dong! The cat's dead! A day later, they’d all disappeared. So, our standard joke was another cat must have died and they were off there instead!”
Like this funny (and potentially quite accurate) backstory around the bird behavior she saw, Nicky’s appreciation of birds informs her art, ensuring it is instilled in her work.
We talk of the glorious blue and turquoise plumage of the fairywrens, and how she can just relax on that back veranda near her pond with a glass of wine, and be visited by twenty or so different varieties of birds. “They’re like these little jewels flicking around the garden, gifts granted to us, you know? And they’re right there, in our backyards! They’re just beautiful.”
Alignment; the dog!
The decision to retire happened to coincide with “the universe lining up”. In between all of the previous ventures, knowing she had always been good at art, Nicky had been dipping in and out of art classes in Perth.
One of her tutors invited Nicky to join a one-year intensive portraiture course; this was only open to a select group of just ten artists, which she says was very flattering.
“That particular art tutor [D’hange Yammanee, a self-taught and multi-award-winning Australian artist] is now a really good friend. He is my mentor. He taught me technique, and with his blessing, I’ve been teaching his technique at Albany Summer School, which is the longest-run summer school in Australia, and you have to be an invited tutor, so that was wonderful. In my old life I specialized in legal and accounting, and one day an ex-client of mine asked me to paint her husband; but that path didn’t feel right. I'd just had 30 years in the recruitment industry dealing with people. And I realized I kept gravitating back to birds. Why not portraits of birds?”
In just five years, she went from art student in 2012 to Resident Artist in 2017 at the Village Art Gallery at Whiteman Park, one of Australia’s leading wildlife sanctuaries focussed on education and conservation of the nation’s natural and cultural heritage. That is some impressive achievement.
“A girlfriend in the art class said to me, did you know that Whiteman Park has a gallery and they're looking for an artist? It’s this huge wildlife park with kangaroos and other unique Australian animals, a lot of people go out there to see the cockatoos. So, I made an appointment, and when I got there the front doors were shut, and there were minimal paintings on the walls. It was sort of a place where artists seemed to be hiding. They took me on as a bird life artist, and then I assisted with transforming the gallery. I got signage put up, we brought in extra artists; I opened the front doors! We called it the Village Gallery, and out the back was this big space that backed onto a park where everybody went for barbecues and all that jazz. I had signage put all across the back as well, arrows pointing ‘Village Gallery’ this way, you know? And it worked, it worked perfectly. But then I had to leave because then we went overseas to see our daughter”.
The couple spent nearly two years away from Australia, ostensibly to see their children but they ended up pet-sitting across Europe, so that while in essence they were closer than Australia, they were not “insidiously in their pockets”. They had only intended to go for 12 months, but kept extending. Then one day the next stage came along a little abruptly.
“Our dog Charlie was with his clipper in Perth, so I sent her an email saying we'd been offered a long-term in Argentina. She sent a message back saying, OK, but can I keep the dog? Well, my next call was to Qantas! We were on the next plane, we were outta there. David, we've got to get home to get the dog, quick!” she laughs.
Upon their return from Europe, they needed to find somewhere to live, as their Perth home was rented out, and that’s when they thought about locating to Margaret River. On the property they chose was an old hay shed, which Nicky immediately identified as her future workspace. Last year, they found a local tradesman who converted the shed into the new studio. People can come and visit by appointment, plus Nicky now participates in the Margaret River Open Studios, hosting her first one last year in 2021.
“It was hugely successful. In the Margaret River region, we have the largest open studios in Australia, possibly the Southern hemisphere. There are 168 artists! That’s quite an achievement. It just creates awareness, it's great to be able to meet your clients, develop relationships, they see where you work. I’m in one of those lucky situations because my artwork generally sells prior to completion. I sell a lot of prints; I have lost count of how many. But with every single sale of an original artwork including commissions a portion goes straight to BirdLife Australia.”
Donating to Birdlife is key to Nicky’s purpose: she is devastated to think about all the wrongs we are foisting upon the world of nature, and the species that are becoming extinct because of our very actions.
“I’ve loved birds for as long as I can remember. I grew up in the Western suburbs, and I used to sit on the front veranda where we had little red robins come by and flit around the rose bushes. I was tiny, probably a toddler. But then one day they were just not there anymore. I asked my parents where they'd gone, and they explained that we’d had a pigeon problem on the train lines, so, the local council dropped poisoned grain onto the train line, which of course then killed a lot of birds. And I never forgot that. So now, I donate a portion of every original artwork I paint directly to Birdlife Australia. I do promotion work on Facebook and Instagram for them, I put on every post that I’m supporting Birdlife Australia, and in return they guarantee me that the funds I donate are designated specifically for the conservation of endangered birds.”
One in six of Australian birds is under threat, either via urbanization, habitat loss, invasive predators and so on; but one that has stayed with her from childhood and really angers her is secondary kill poison, especially given that it is so unnecessary and easily changed.
“We have a responsibility to conserve”, she enthuses. “Once they're gone, you know, extinction is forever. If we all sit around daily and do nothing, nothing happens! So, we have a responsibility to ensure that these birds, all animals that exist on the planet and are here for generations.”
Fulfilling the passion
One of her favorite birds to paint is the red-tailed black cockatoo. She has painted several for herself and for commissions; their fun and mischievous nature captivates her, and they are just so beautiful. In 2017, one of Nicky’s most treasured portraits was selected for the Midwest Art Prize, one of the most prominent and valuable prizes in Western Australia. On her website, Nicky says,
“The sideways glance, regal distinctive plumage and ability to so beautifully compliment her surroundings is what attracted me to paint this striking female Red-Tailed Black Cockatoo. I have affectionately called her “Nelly”. If you look closely, you can see she is covered in love hearts – which seems to portray her lovely demeanor.”
Getting her paintings into competitions is all part of it, of course, but the commissions are equally necessary, and Nicky is very keen to reach further than the Australian market. She does all her own marketing and promotion on social media, graciously thanking everyone who comments on her posts. I wonder aloud at how the commission process works, are there always a few paintings on the go, and if she ever feels bogged down by it her success.
“I've got a marketing side and a creative side, you know, the two different sides of your brain. When I step into the studio, I have to let go of the admin side and pull in the creative side. But I do all my own marketing, and my husband is a strategist, so he's very helpful. If someone else were involved it would take the fun out of it. I don't want to be a factory, although that's what my husband calls my studio, the factory. I'm off to the factory now, honey! But I need to have control of it because when I was in the corporate world, I was working 24/7, seven days a week. I don't want that anymore. I'm 60, 61. I don't need that.
“I paint for fun; I paint because I'm passionate about it. But once I finish the painting, I disconnect. I've only got one of my bird artworks in the house and my husband chose that, he's connected to the painting. I don't particularly love it, but he refuses to let me sell it. It's called Jacko, a red-tailed black cockatoo, the first one I painted.
“With commissions, I'll send them images and they can choose, but then they have to trust me: I have to obtain from them the ability to add some artistic license. It can't be a dead copy of the photo because, really, what's the point, you may as well just buy the photo. So once that’s agreed, off I go and I paint. I don't part with an artwork unless I'm a hundred percent satisfied. And I’ve never had a dispute with a client.”
Her advice for aspiring artists is simple. If you have a passion for something, you have to go for it; and if you don’t have the money at the beginning, then you have to work for it.
“You've got to be passionate. And if you are broke, well, then you get a job and you paint part time! You support your passion, and push yourself out of your comfort zone. Try to take on something a little bit more complicated, it makes you better at what you do. That's a personal aim. Take yourself out of your comfort zone, take on new challenges because it's more rewarding when you get there. You just need to have confidence in yourself. And if you make a mistake, you paint over it!”
In 2015, a lover of realist bird art by the name of Dr Gary Holmes noticed that even though many Australian artists competed in other countries, there was no such contest in Australia.
Having the means to do so, and rather than bemoan this, he simply decided to set up his own. The Holmes Art Prize for Realistic Australian Bird Art is now a nationally coveted accolade, with prizes ranging from AU$15,000 to AU$1000. The deadline for submissions is the first week of August, so Nicky is currently hard at work on her piece; as well as five other commissions, naturally.
She did have an entry for last year’s competition, but, weighing up that she needed the prestige more at that time than the potential money, she sold it instead to an Indonesian diplomat.
There is an iota of regret, but this doesn’t last long: time moves on and there’s always this year. It is this looking ahead with an eagerness to fill each moment – and have fun with it – that ensures Nicky’s art will continue to be admired, loved, and placed in the highest regard.
She shows no signs of stopping, and why would she; her exceptional talent has been universe-aligned to help showcase the wonder and beauty of birds, who so desperately need the limelight, more than ever. Who better to place them in it?