'Art is like a fingerprint'

Award-winning ‘Handle With Care’ by Molly Timms. Photo: Tatiana Harper.
Pace - Nour Hassan.
Dominic Hoey talks to two emerging artists, both winners of a unique award that shines a spotlight on mental health. [In partnership with Upstairs Gallery].


The Upstairs Gallery sits amongst the forest atop Lopdell House at the edge of the Titirangi Village in Auckland. Over the past decade, they’ve played host to The Upstairs Gallery Emerging Artist Award, which for the last two years has been themed around mental health.

Gallery manager and curator, Sammy Milne explained that she noticed how many artists were using their work to “express their own mental health journeys”. Sammy has said the response from artists has blown her away and she wants to make sure the gallery continues to be “a safe haven for artists who are dealing with mental health”.

This years winner, Molly Timms, was announced at a ceremony at the gallery earlier this month. She received $2000 for her interpretation of this year’s theme ‘Listen’ and will have her work shown in the gallery along with the other finalists. I spoke to both Molly and last year’s winner Nour Hassan, about their art practice, mental health and what this award means for their careers. 

Handle with care

Molly’s winning work Handle With Care, was created using pencil despite the fact her training is in painting. “I have a background in realist art,” Molly says. “Years ago I would spend hours replicating people, places and things.” 

In contrast, Nour was relatively new to painting when she won the award in 2018. Her foray into art began when she pretended to be an artist to impress a writer she’d heard speak. 

“He asked me what I did and the first thing that came out of my mouth was that I was a painter, even though my job was in pharmaceuticals.” Staying true to her word, Nour then quit her job and returned to Aotearoa to dedicate herself to painting. 

- Nour Hassan. 

Lived experience 

The award’s alignment with mental health is one that speaks to the lived experience of both artists. Molly has had struggles with her mental health her whole life and saw the awards as a way to share her own experiences. Her winning artwork Handle With Care, focuses on her relationship between anxiety and drawing: “Specifically how popping a trail of bubble wrap as a means to an outlet of anxious energy can have the same effect as obsessively drawing the material.”

Winning the award gave Molly the confidence to continue talking about her anxiety in her art practice, something she avoided for a long time. 

“This exhibition showcases the struggles and triumphs of mental illness and helps reduce the stigma surrounding it. Winning has equally nourished my art practice, and also my confidence in being more open about the vulnerable moments of life.”

“Winning has equally nourished my art practice, and also my confidence in being more open about the vulnerable moments of life.”

The uncertain life of an artist

For Nour, it was the transition from a well-paid job to the uncertain life of an artist that led her to feel “trapped in my own body”. This is reflected in her work Threshold, which was “the first collection of paintings I released depicting women semi-immersed in water.”

“Looking back at it now, this was where I was at the time. I didn't do the painting for the art award, I did it for myself in hopes it would connect with others, I always thought if I can move one person with my work, then that is all I need.”

“I always thought if I can move one person with my work, then that is all I need.”

People did connect with her work, and a year on from her win, Nour’s career is blossoming. She is currently in France studying at the Studio Escalier in Angers. She tells me there's “a lot of information to take in. Theory is one thing, practice is another.” 

Largely self-taught, Nour initially struggled with whether she should return to university to study her craft. But it was her desire to connect and speak through her art that helped her to stop questioning her lack of formal training. “Artwork is like a fingerprint. Being self-taught means my references come from everywhere - travel, life, books, background, discipline, what and how I choose to see things.” 

What’s next?

While Nour is currently working towards a new series and a solo show in Auckland, Molly is in her last year at Whitecliffe College and is busy building up to her final show.

“My work is focusing on New Zealand women artists of the twentieth century in an attempt to honour their work while expanding my own practice, which began with looking at my Grandma's hobbyist paintings from the 80s.”  She says that while her work which employs embroidery and paint is different from her award-winning piece, there are “similarities between the process/repetition of embroidering and that type of drawing. I am just about seeing needles and thread in my sleep!”

An open door

The work of Nour and Molly is not only a success for them, but the wider community as well. Sammy Milne tells me that she and the team at Upstairs Gallery believe that “art is a tool for emotional wellbeing and that it can help people understand mental illness in a way that is enlightening and therapeutic. Studies have found that publicly ​displayed art is an effective way of increasing empathy and understanding towards mental illness​.”

And for any emerging artists or those interested in exploring art as a response to their mental health journey, Sammy is quick to say “We love meeting artists that are not even aware of the talent they have. I am always here with a cup of tea and welcome anyone into our beautiful gallery.”

Image by Tatiana Harper

View the 15 finalists of The Upstairs Gallery, Emerging Artist Award: Listen and vote for the Peoples’ Choice Award! The gallery is open every day from 10 am to 4 pm and the finalists will be on display until Sunday 6 October. For more information, please head to Upstairs.org.nz.

A special thank you to the sponsors of the award: Changing Minds and Ember.

Written by

Dominic Hoey

21 Sep 2019

Dominic Hoey is an author, playwright and poet based in Tāmaki Makaurau. His debut novel, Iceland was a New Zealand bestseller and was long-listed for the 2018 Ockham Book Award.

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