03 Aug

If you own a Nicole Pletts, you’re lucky. But you know that, writes Anne Schauffer

 Nicole Pletts is unexpected. She’s wonderfully frank, a shoot-from-the-hip kind of person, who’s warm and funny, and bakes a truly delectable cheesecake. She’s an accomplished and highly successful artist both here and over there, and she works extremely hard. Always has. She swiftly explodes the myth of the pale artist wandering around in a paint-spattered caftan, working only when moved to, and painting only their truth.

For Nicole, producing art is what she does for a living: “We all have jobs. I was a secretary, and I hated filing – I didn’t get to say ‘I don’t like filing’. Artists sometimes forget it’s a career like any other. If I don’t feel like painting, I go to the studio and I paint. No day is ever wasted, even if it’s showing me what I can’t do.” She laughs, “You know, an artist begins to think they’re a little bit special. Like it’s a gift which sets them apart. Artists think ‘I’m so special, I won’t paint what the market wants – that’s infra dig – I must remain true to myself’.”

Nicole didn’t wake up one day with a calling. She’d always enjoyed painting, and like many, with a husband and three children, spent one morning a week at watercolour classes. She sold one or two, but it was a hobby – her family was her focus. Her work experience was secretarial, and she’d always been good
with numbers.

When Nicole divorced, everything changed. She needed to earn a living, and after much deliberation, she decided on art. Not the most stable of income decisions, but she had a little breathing space before crunch time, and was 100% committed: “I believed my time and money would be best spent at art classes rather than studying the history of art – and that was the right decision.”

Self-employment demands a great deal of anybody, but in some ways, it’s tougher in a creative field. It often feels like the flip side of creativity, but Nicole’s fortunate: “I’m a very strategic person, and it helped that I actually love figures.” Maths was always her strong point, and her spreadsheets are a work of art. She has them going back to 2003 showing every single cent she spent and earned – from a haircut to food to the sale of a painting: “I was setting up a business, a brand, and this was the only way I could analyse precisely how I was doing.” 

She may be brilliant at figures, but marketing herself, nope. A raucous laugh, “I hate sales, and hate going into galleries with my work. I had to come up with another way to sell.” And she did: “I was heading down to the Cape, so I Googled all the Cape Town galleries, printed out a map and highlighted them – all the way up to Worcester.” Nicole borrowed a Garmin, and set off. “I didn’t approach the gallery owners, or introduce myself. I went into each one, and walked around to
see if my work would fit in there – would the gallery suit my work, would my paintings enhance the gallery? If I thought it would, I took their card.”

Back in Durban, Nicole took a basic Photoshop course and produced her own stylish little brochure featuring her paintings: “I posted them to the galleries. I thought this was a better strategy than email – they have something there on their desk.” And it worked. »

For Nicole, there was no Plan B, so art had to work: “I worked seven days a week. I spent ages on decor magazines to see what the trends were – it’s tough responding to the market while also staying congruent to yourself. Commercially appealing or not, I never painted little ducks or chickens or even Nguni cattle – I left those to the artists who do those, and do them well.” 

Nicole is as disciplined today as she was back then. No matter her success – she sent five paintings to America last month – she remains fully committed: “On Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays I paint for the galleries, commissions and orders; Thursdays, I paint for solo or joint exhibitions, and Fridays … well, Fridays I always painted my children. My day, really.”

And to a large extent, she sticks to this routine. She also still goes to the same art classes a couple of times a month: “You never stop learning, but it’s more than that now. It’s about an exchange of ideas, stimulation, mutual crits of work, and just being out there.”

Nicole loves the industry, and speaks highly of it: “There’s something about artists – they see the beauty in everything. I won’t forget my very first watercolour classes when Thelma Buzzard showed me an oyster shell, and enthused about the colours. I saw only grey. Then showed me a leaf and pointed out ten colours. I saw only green.” Nicole says her early years as an artist were exhausting, because everything, everywhere, was a potential painting, and she couldn’t stop looking at the world through these different eyes. 

“It’s also a very generous industry,” she says. “Whether it’s sharing information, or turning down a commission because you know someone who’d be better at it than you are, there’s a great generosity of spirit among artists.” 

Nicole Pletts is a brand. She sees herself as such, and does whatever it takes to protect it. She keeps abreast of the art world largely through subscribing to a number of international newsletters which plop into her inbox daily: “There are some brilliant resources out there, whether it’s from a gallery or an artist’s perspective, that’s the generosity I was talking about.”

Nicole was very involved with the KZNSA for 12 years, and now, with Arts Interactive – an initiative of some 16 years – anyone who is interested in art, wants to become an artist, even become a better artist, is welcome to the monthly get-togethers: “We have speakers, slide shows, a meal, and a roomful of practising artists whose brains you can pick.” 

Nicole is somewhat bemused at her success, not because she didn’t work extremely hard for it, but because she didn’t ever see herself at the forefront: “I was always content to be behind, secondary, someone’s mother, someone’s wife or sister. But I had to make a success as an artist, and to my surprise, I did.” A grin, “It’s really about never giving up. You can’t lie down and play dead.” She certainly didn’t. *


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