by Charles McGuigan Photo: Rebecca D’Angelo Design: Doug Dobey
Nicole Renee Randall has been drawing since the moment her memories began. Stamped deep on those earliest of neurons is the undeniable record of fingers gripping pen or brush or pencil, and of eyes sucking in the world and its dizzying array of images. Aloneness gave her time to perfect her skills; tragedy prodded her to seek resolution. Or at the very least, understanding. Years later she was able to impart soul into a veneer of ink and graphite and acrylic layered on the flat world of a painting. Nicole has since emerged as one of Richmond’s most gifted painters, an artist who imbues her works with personal narratives that suggest the universal.
Nicole Randall, legs tucked up under her, beneath the tent of a voluminous, floral printed skirt, bends forward at the waist, at times bringing her face right up to the thin brush she uses to detail a painting she later describes as a sort of self-portrait—“What it’s like to be me. One of me is always pulling the other. One’s out of control.” This work, along with a dozen others, will be on display from March 16 through April at Eric Schindler Gallery, an exhibition entitled “Little Birds”, a slight nod, perhaps, to Anais Nin, but more than that, a homage to birds, dead and alive, scattered through these paintings, each one a purposeful symbol that embodies freedom, artistic perspective, and the soaring human soul, beyond the reach of nets and arrows.
Through the lenses of the black-rimmed, cat-eye glasses Nicole’s eyes radiate a blue light. We move from her studio to the dining room table, and she travels back in time to her girlhood home in a valley town near the confluence of the twin forks of the Shenandoah River, a place called Front Royal.
When she was just five-years, old her mother moved to Virginia Beach, and Nicole was raised by her father and stepmother. Though she would see her mother for a week or two in the summer, questions plagued the girl. “Why doesn’t my mom want me? What’s wrong with me? She had two other kids with another man. Why did she keep them and not me?”
But Nicole’s father was always there, in her eyes, almost god-like. This, too: her father was a free-lance draftsman, which was how he made a living. So there was always an ample supply of vellum, tracing paper, mechanical pencils, compasses and French curves around the house. Nicole kept her father’s light table—a large, heavy affair—tucked under her bed, and whenever she could, she would slide it out with great effort and begin tracing everything under the sun. She was teaching herself how things looked—an arm, a face, a nose, a horse, a tree, anything. This kind of obsessive drawing started when Nicole was a very young girl, and it would never stop.
In both middle school and high school she took art classes, and always excelled. Nicole learned to use her skill as a sort “Get out of Jail” card. Say she failed a spelling test, and her father gave her a stern warning. She might show him a new drawing she had done, and he would rave about how talented she was. He’d forgotten about the spelling test altogether. A teacher would say, “If you paid half as much attention to other stuff as you do to drawing, you’d have straight As.” With her artwork, Nicole could always get positive feedback.
In that same time frame, Nicole became fascinated by fashion. She began sketching masterpieces in great detail, learning how to shade properly to bring added dimension. She loved the painting of Jacques Louis David and his detailed attention to the clothing of the period. Nicole would copy a painting of Mary Cassat, entirely in pencil, getting every fold in the fabric of the dress the subject wore just right. She was fascinated by the stories of women out of history. She drew sketches of Josephine Bonaparte, Marie Antoinette, and her own version of Mary, Queen of Scots, ascending the gallows with her dog hidden under her skirts. Over the years Nicole filled scores of sketchbooks with her drawings.
The art room at Warren County High School was Nicole’s sanctuary. It overlooked the Prospect Hill Cemetery, so there was that air of melancholy. But the art room was warm, sometimes hot, because of the potters’ kiln. Here is where she found members of her own tribe, a place protected from the popular kids, where she and her art peers could just be themselves. And when she was junior she had a teacher named Martha Lynn Nelson, a friend and mentor, who would expose Nicole to a painter who would change the budding artist’s life.
“She had boards up on the walls of different artists and time periods,” Nicole tells me. “And I can still remember turning around, and seeing a painting by Gustav Klimt. And I was like, ‘Hang on, who’s this guy?’ He’s gilded, and the clothing is painted differently. I was sixteen or seventeen. I was sheltered. I was a PBS kid. Seeing that grand illuminating style of his opened a whole new painterly world to me.”
Remembering that time in her life, Nicole now realizes how important it was in her artistic development. In many ways it made her understand the importance of narrative in painting. “I was drawn to the whole romantic aspect of their lives, and it had to involve tragedy,” she says. “I needed tragedy to make me want to draw it. Tragedy and fashion. It made me always wonder, as a kid, what led Marie Antoinette to that, what happened here, why were these people thinking this way? It was never topical. I wanted to know interrelationship aspects of all of this stuff. Which is exactly what I do now.”
When I suggest that much art today lacks that kind of depth, Nicole nods.
“It has no soul,” she says. “And what are you without a soul? You can be good at art, but that doesn’t make you an artist.”
After graduating high school, Nicole was accepted into VCU’s Art Foundation Program. “I drew that crumpled up piece of paper, I did the perspective of the corner of the room,” she says, laughing. “I did all that. And, you know, the AFO is a really great program. They worked you hard. I didn’t get sucked into anything else at that point because I was still in the dorm and people would be in the hallway working on their projects so it was this big friendly competitive kind of atmosphere. And then I loved the whole critique aspect of it. I loved bringing my work into class, and having a teacher look at it, and everyone giving their feedback. I even miss that now, I have nobody to do that with, hardly at all, except for friends, and then I feel like I’m bugging them. I miss critiques.”
Nicole majored in painting and printmaking, and things began going south. “AFO was wonderful,” she says. “But then you get a bunch of disgruntled art professors who don’t seem like they want to be there, and they push you, they want to pigeonhole you into something. So you’re either a painter or you’re an illustrator.”
Some professors actively criticized Nicole’s work because it was too representational. They would remind her that they were of the Bauhaus and the conceptual persuasion.
“And they would just fawn and swoon all over these kids who were just using giant brushes and making these huge swoops across the canvas,” she remembers. “They just loved that. They ate it with a spoon. And I couldn’t do that kind of stuff. How was I to put my soul into that? It’s not who I was.”
Some professors recommended that she change her major to communication arts because her work was so illustrative. “So I did,” says Nicole. “I applied for CA, communication arts and design, and they said, ‘Well, we don’t know what to do with you here because you’re too painterly.’ I am not making any of this up.“
Things got progressively worse throughout her sophomore year, and then she would hit rock bottom as a junior. “I was declining,” she says. “I’m getting sadder and sadder. I’m drinking more, I’m cutting class. The only teacher in that year that I gave two s***s about was David Freed. He talked to me like a real person, he didn’t shove me aside, or make me think my questions were dumb, or what I was doing was not right. There was something about him that I connected with. He listened.”
Depression began to draw her in. To top it off she moved into an apartment on Hell Block, just east of West Grace Street’s Suitcase Alley. “People getting stabbed, prostitutes, homeless people ranting up and down the alley,” Nicole says. “The glorious 1100 block. And you had the slumlords. Good Lord, you turn on the light and the roaches just fall out of the fixture. This is what I have to do to be a real, starving artist, I told myself. I was Modigliani then.”
College classwork was no longer a priority. “There was no going to class if you lived on that block because it was just a constant party,” says Nicole. “People would just show up at your door with handfuls of weed. And I was like, ‘Come on in, I’ve got a candy dish for that.’”
And then to make matters worse, Nicole became involved with the man who would become her first husband. “He was a suicidal alcoholic,” she says. “A match made in heaven, but guess what, I was going to change him. The love of me was going to turn him straight.”
The pair finally married when Nicole was in her late twenties, but it wasn’t going to last. Her husband’s drinking had gotten out of control. He would down eighteen beers a night, then have Nicole buy him a final six-pack up at the convenience store. By then they lived west of the Boulevard, near Lafayette and Cutshaw, and they worked at Ellwood Thompson’s.
“The drunks got worse all the time,” she recalls. “Sometimes he would black out and punch me in the gut. I remember one night he came up to me with a pencil because he thought I was somebody else. He came at me with a pencil like he was going to stab me. And I was like, ‘This is really it. I’m gone.’”
But then she talked herself out of it. “I wouldn’t leave a cancer patient,” she told herself. “Why would I leave an alcoholic? They can’t help it.”
There was a final straw though. For some reason, her former husband would, when drunk, warm himself with a hairdryer. “So one morning, I woke up and he had passed out on the floor using a hair dryer to heat himself,” says Nicole. “And he had third-degree burns on his leg.”
Not long after that incident, she sat across from him at a booth in the Village Restaurant. The jukebox played “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, and Nicole held the divorce papers in her hands. “It was heart-wrenching,” she says. “It was the hardest thing I ever had to do.”
She met, and later married Chris Godsey, a blacksmith known for his restoration work in Richmond, and the couple have two children, Eisen and Anelie. Her first husband ultimately committed suicide. And it weighed on Nicole. “There was note, but I don’t know what was in it,” she says. “One of my very best friend’s is a funeral director and she prepared him. He had a lock of my hair in his wallet. How do you mourn that? How is it socially acceptable to mourn that person?”
Meanwhile, her life had moved on with two children and a husband, a family she loves. But for years, Nicole had put her painting aside. She had tended to the needs of a grown man, and then became a mother devoting herself full-time to her children. She and Chris created a cozy home in Lakeside, where drama was not on the menu.
A few years back, Nicole entered her son in the Waldorf School, and things began to change. “Life didn’t really start to renew again until Eisen went to school, and I became friends with a different set of people,” she says. “All of a sudden I had friendships that were not based around drinking and partying. These were just real friends.”
One of those new-found friends, Ophelia von Ludwig, was immediately taken by Nicole’s art. (Incidentally, Ophelia’s father-in-law is David Freed, the one professor Nicole had given two s***s about.)
By then Nicole had begun painting again, and slowly discovered her own voice. Ophelia encouraged her to show her work to Kirsten Gray, owner of Eric Schindler Gallery. Nicole was reluctant at first. “No one is interested in this representational, fairy tale crap,” she told herself.
Eventually, she sent an email to Kirsten, along with images of her work. And the response was almost immediate. Kirsten loved the paintings and offered a Nicole a solo show. She put the show together in less than a year. “I could finally say I’m an artist,” Nicole says. “I’m with the Schindler Gallery.”
Nicole shows me a piece called “We Breath in the Dead”, one of the works she created for that first exhibit. “I just feel that the air is thick with souls of the dead,” she says. “We breathe it in, and we breathe it out. They’re just fluid, and they’re everywhere, and you can’t get around it.”
She remembers that year clearly, that year everything changed. “It was so cool having a goal, and I just painted and painted and painted and painted,” says Nicole. “It was like meeting an old friend. It was a little difficult. I stumbled along the way. And always self-doubt gets in the way, but that keeps you critical. And as you can see my style has completely changed because when you’re working day after day after day after day it’s so awesome how you progress, which is what you’re supposed to do. Right?”
At the end of that first show, Nicole had sold all twelve paintings. “I said to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, people really like this,” she says. “I was like, ‘Well, okay, maybe I can do this.”
Immediately after that first show, Kirsten invited Nicole to take part in a two-person exhibition. “I don’t think you should sit out too long,” Kirsten told her. “You’re new and we need to keep you out there.”
And now Nicole is in the final preparation stage for her third show at Schindler. We move back to her studio.
She shows me a large painting of a woman in a ballooning white dress and a black bolero jacket with a lace collar. Her head is thrown back in resigned fatigue, her arms weary. There is a dead bird in her lap, two living birds near her right arm. Behind her a sunburst like the halo of a goddess. And throughout the painting scores of tiny details, each charged with meaning.
“This is Sophia,” says Nicole. “Which is the embodiment of mother, the cosmic mother, the giver and taker of life.”
She shows me more of these new paintings. One of the maiden-mother-crone, another called “The Son of Justice. I look closely at each one, searching for the meanings in the details.
“I put little aspects of myself into everything,” Nicole says. “If there’s something in the painting of mine, it’s there for a reason. It’s symbolizes something. Maybe I’m the only one who knows what it means, but I don’t care, I like it that way. Or maybe they’re little nods to my friends. I don’t see how you can have a connection without that? And oftentimes I’ll have to make up a story about what’s going on with those people.”
Then she drops to the floor in front of the painting she is still working on. Again, she brings face close to the surface of the painting, and begins patient brushwork, periodically straightening up so she can look down on it, then bending forward again with her brush thrust out.
“Art is the intersection of craft and idea,” says Nicole. “You can have craft all day long, but if you don’t have an idea, you have nothing. And people filled with ideas who have no craft, have nothing.”