When Nell met Lindy Lee almost three decades ago, the aspiring artist was heartened, to say the least.
“What really smashed my world was that Lindy was so fit, healthy and clean and clear minded,” says Nell. “She didn’t have that clichéd artist vibe about drinking, smoking and going to the pub. She went for power walks at lunch time and swam a lot. I wanted to make art but I didn’t want to be fucked up, so Lindy quickly became my role model.”
It was 1993 and Nell was an 18-year-old student at Sydney’s College of the Arts where Lindy was teaching. Lindy recalls her student possessed a drive and focus beyond her years.
“From the beginning Nell had a very clear vision that she wanted to be an artist and that’s unusual,” says Lindy. “For most people there is quite a lot of soul searching to arrive on the artist’s path, but Nell was committed from the very beginning.”
Over the ensuing decades the pair embarked on a unique journey together, with Lindy becoming Nell’s mentor, spiritual guide, confidante and even housemate as two of Australia’s leading female artists supported and nurtured each other along their careers.
They share a passion for Eastern philosophy and questioning the white-male and colonial art canon, and while each woman has carved out a separate role in the nation’s contemporary pantheon they also share a commitment to questioning cultural norms. When they reunited at the Chinese Gardens of Friendship in Sydney, amid preparations for their works to be featured in the National Gallery’s Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now exhibition, the rapport between Lindy and Nell is instant and easy.
“With Nell it was always very easy because she already had the clarity, joy and sincerity, so the mentorship was very unconscious,” says Lee. “We hung out a lot together as our relationship evolved and I don’t think I did anything in particular, I think Nell just absorbed the situation all around her and look at her now!”
With a new book, Nell, celebrating her work, the artist is today known for her practice fusing Zen Buddhism and rock and roll that straddles sculpture, installation and performance. But she was a naïve and homeless teenager from Maitland when Lindy hired her as a studio assistant in the early 90s.
“I was going to go to do a residency in China and I needed somebody to house-sit because I had a cat,” says Lee. “Somebody mentioned that Nell needed a place, so I asked her to stay. When I came back it became obvious it was good fun to have her around so I made her an offer that if she worked for me one day a week that would be her rent and she could stay on.”
What began as a brief sojourn turned into three years sharing a terrace with Lindy in Glebe, as Nell soaked up everything about her world while working for the woman whose practice exploring her Chinese ancestry through Taoism and Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism has spanned over three decades and exhibitions around the world.
“Lindy really opened up her life to me in a way that was bigger than just making art,” says Nell. “I helped her with everything from paperwork and wrapping up works of art to installing shows and meetings. It was truly an on-the-job art apprenticeship and when the couriers came to take the art away I thought ‘this is going to be my life; one day the courier will come to take my art away’.”
As the mentoring relationship progressed, Lindy discovered it was a two-way street.
“I might think I have a high-falutin’ insight into something but the moment I speak it, it could be hollow,” she says. “Whatever is inside me needs to be tested out and one of the best ways is through the teacher/student relationship. An artist has to speak from a place of sincerity and a means of testing that authenticity is an exchange of advice or information between two people.”
“An artist has to speak from a place of sincerity and a means of testing that authenticity is an exchange of advice or information between two people.” — Lindy Lee
Lindy also introduced Nell to Buddhism, which the former discovered in the early 90s and drew on to express her experience as a Chinese-Australian in a country that has historically whitewashed its diversity.
“I had been exploring western art history thinking I was more inclined towards the west but after a lot of self-interrogation I realised a big part of me had supressed my Chinese-ness as a reaction to the bias and racism that I was born into here,” says Lindy. “I shifted the focus towards Eastern philosophy and Buddhism and I really took to it, or it took to me.”
Her studies at the Sydney Zen Centre soon began infiltrating her art, through techniques of wax splatters, ink spills and molten bronze pouring that referenced the ancient practice of “flung ink painting” by Ch’an Buddhists to embody the Buddhist act of renewal, where all that is held inside oneself is released. Lindy continued her exploration of mark-making referencing the Buddhist emphasis on being present in the moment by burning holes in photographs, through sheets of metal and on paper scrolls as her immersion in its rich spiritual traditions continued to deepen.
“The practice of Buddhism is simply three things: pay attention, meet your life and be curious about it without judgement,” she says. “For me that made the question of ‘who am I?’ a more profound question. Who you are is not your self-image. In fact, forget that and just enter into this relationship with the world and see what happens — that is who you are. When I do things like flung bronze I completely relinquish my conscious control and allow all sorts of relationships that constitute existence to come into play and force phenomena into being.”
After Lindy took Nell to the same Sydney Zen Centre, she too discovered Buddhism. It has manifested in Nell’s work exploring contemporary expressions of spiritual traditions, such as her Rock Gate piece for the 2019 Sydney Contemporary Art Fair, which took the form of a Japanese torii gate built from amplifiers. Buddhism has also enabled Nell to be more present in all aspects of her life, whether that’s in the studio or doing the dishes.
“I try to make my whole life one practice, whether it’s my art or just walking down the street,” she says. “It’s not like you just meditate and then you tick that box for the day, it’s about trying to be present and compassionate with whatever you are doing.” – Nell
Nell’s spiritual life evolved to a deeper level when the artist and her wife, chef Kylie Kwong, lost their son through stillbirth in 2012.
“I don’t know how I could have survived the loss of a stillborn baby without having had that spiritual backbone,” she says. “All those years I sat in meditation through difficult feelings and physical pain: in some ways it was a real training for that. Buddhism really helped because you come to understand that things are impermanent and that even though he didn’t have a long life, he did have a life. It was just a short one.”
Despite her loss, today Nell practices gratitude for what she does have in her life, and pays it forward through her own mentoring of younger female artists.
“Lindy’s mentoring was so profound, deep and generous so it’s been a great role model for me to be a role model for others,” Nell says. “I really enjoy helping however I can: just chatting to other women about their work and helping them reach their maximum potential. I have found female artists to be incredibly collegiate and supportive and as someone who has definitely been a recipient of that, I enjoy passing it on where and whenever I can.”
This interview was first published in the Spring 2020 edition of Artonview.