For the latest in my series profiling independent makers, designers and craftspeople, I’m chatting to abstract textile artist Nikki Heaton, whose debut collection, ‘Foremost Fragments (2021)’, launches today. She’s been sharing tantalising snippets of it on Instagram over the past few weeks, and I was instantly drawn to the muted colours and minimalist aesthetic. But there’s also a wonderful depth to Nikki’s creations, in more ways than one. Formed from layers of linen shapes, acrylic paint and stitching, they explore the human experience and the life events, memories, joy and pain it encompasses. The results are beautiful, tactile and poignant, revealing new forms and new connections the more closely you look.
Over to Nikki herself for more about her work, the inspiration and processes behind it, and how a 20-year career in the product design industry has shaped her evolution as an artist…
Hi Nikki! Please can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your background?
“I now live in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, but I’m originally from a tiny mining village in north Nottinghamshire, where most of my family still live. I’m a product designer by education. I feel really fortunate that my career has taken me all over the world, and I’ve worked with some huge in-house studios including Cadbury’s, Nokia and Jaguar. But for a long time I struggled to feel grounded or ‘at home’ anywhere. Truth be told, I think I was always seeking ‘something else’ – something bigger, something more exciting, something new. I have a workaholic and perfectionist tendency, which drove and inspired me for many years, but mentally I’d become tired and a little lost.
“It’s taken a lot of soul-searching (and grief and loss) to finally come back to my innate values. The birth of my son in 2020 was a major turning point. I adore motherhood and I’ve experienced a shift in so many senses. I’m just not who I was anymore. I want to be there for his early years, and I want to create a new type of life, away from the pace and deadline culture of big-brand design. So, I decided not to return to my previous role after my maternity leave ended and here I am, armed with a new sense of purpose.”
Have you always been creative?
“I’ve always been enchanted by the arts and design fields. I think creating is simply how I show up in the world – how I ‘do’ things and definitely how I think about and ‘see’ things. At school I excelled in these areas and so I guess my career path developed from there. People talk about flow and how something can captivate your imagination and attention in such a way that it becomes meditation – I’ve always been that way when creating. Hours become days and sometimes days become weeks. Even at a young age I’d stay awake working on projects, generating ideas, creating, improving things and then repeating – something I’ve since come to fully understand as the design process, and which has undoubtedly followed me into my art practice.”
How would you describe your art, and how has it evolved?
“It’s abstract, textile-based and haptic in its physicality. It’s formed by building and interweaving layers of geometric linen compositions, which emboss and shadow each other. They also create purposeful negative spaces, which in turn create further formations. Next, I use acrylic paint to ‘weather’ the layers and set them in place. Finally, I add stitches with a sewing machine, linking the shapes and forms.
“I’m new to the fine-art world, but my work has evolved over 20 years of experimenting as a designer and specifically as a colour and materials specialist. Curating diverse materials, together with the other physical aspects and finishes of a product, is all part of the role – it’s not just ‘putting things together’, but creating compositional journeys through sight, touch, sound and smell. As a result, products that have passed through the hands of a colour and materials designer have layers of beautiful detail that appeal to our innate emotions. For many years the specialism was overlooked, but masters such as Ilse Crawford have paved the way and more recently it’s been embraced as a means to create holistic design with a human element.”
Does your work carry any particular meanings?
“First and foremost, I see it as a form of storytelling. It’s about life, our shared human experience and the journey we’re all on. I’ve always been intrigued by the ways in which people see and experience the world, and how they differ from my own. What is the texture of expectation? How muted is the colour of judgement and fear? And what shape is our joy or our pain? These are the philosophical questions that run through my mind as I create. The eventual shapes (or ‘fragments’) represent some of the familiar – but often deeply hidden – eventualities of life, such as joy, frustration and grief. Each one is influenced by and influences the next, creating a tapestry of stories. My stories, your stories, our stories – they’re all there. As for the stitches, they represent the way life events are connected and, just like life, they’re largely unplanned.”
You refer to your work as ‘haptic’ – please could you explain a little more about that and how it translates into the finished pieces?
“Haptic sensing relates to touch but it’s usually a combination of multiple sensing abilities. In design it’s paramount to consider the end user, and their experience with and around your product – ultimately, it’s about how it makes them feel. Great design elevates us by tapping into certain innate requirements that we have as humans, and for me creating an art collection involves the same elements.
“With my art practice, the obvious sense is sight and the secondary one is touch. I’ve always been a very tactile person, but aren’t we all as humans? And I’m not just talking about hugging and kissing. Imagine you’re browsing for a new winter jumper, for example. You’ll want to know how it feels – how soft it is, how it will sit on your skin on a cold, snowy day. I literally feel my way around my work when I’m making it – how the fabric feels, how the compositions feel, how the depth feels, how the textures feel. So, for you to fully experience it, I want you to be able to feel it too. I often like to display art without glass, as it removes a barrier and makes it less ‘museum-like’. My current work does need a certain level of protection from glass, but I use deep floating box frames to present it as freely as possible. And in the future I’d love to create a collection that’s designed to be handled.”
You use a lot of recycled textiles and industry waste. Is sustainability key to your approach, and do you think it enhances your art?
“The design industry – an industry I’ve been part of for two decades – has without a doubt contributed to the monumental waste problems we’re all facing. I’ve learned a lot about what could help improve the outlook for our future, and we no longer have the option to create products without considering the sustainability of the materials, suppliers and methods used. So to that end yes, it’s a key part of my decision making.
“I’ve always sourced second-hand textiles, frames and canvases, and I think I always will to some extent. I love the poetic notion that they’ve lived a life before my art – it certainly enhances the process and I hope the eventual outcome. Good-quality second-hand materials aren’t so easy to come by in the volume I need, however, so I’ve sought other ways to expand while being mindful of my impact. I’ve now partnered with a small textile business to use their salvage, which is reliable in slightly larger quantities, and my frames are handmade by a local FSC-certified craftsperson.”
What inspires you?
“Gosh, so many things – and often not related. I met a new Instagram friend recently and we were laughing that we’re both self-proclaimed ‘minimal magpies’. I need process and order and calm, but I’m also messy and chaotic and erratic of mind – and a real collector at heart, particularly when it comes to textiles and soft furnishings. I’m constantly inspired (and distracted) by interior design, art, books, magazines, old objects, colour in all its forms… And people. People inspire me and my work the most. Their strength, their beauty, their hardships, their courage. Their stories.”
Do you have any personal favourites from the works you’ve created so far?
“It’s taken quite some time to create and curate my debut collection, and I can honestly say that I love it in its entirety. It means something really big to me, both the pieces individually but also their overall significance with regards to this new stage of my career. Saying that, there are a couple of works that are especially close to my heart: Fragments [of our lives] (2021) and Breathing Chaos (2021). It’s a combination of their meanings but also their colour, their form and their inherent tactile nature. The most wonderful but simultaneously frustrating aspect of being an artist is how nothing can ever truly be recreated, try as you might. Some things just happen – a line, a shape, a particular colour or texture, a combination of all four together – and it’s like alchemy. I’ll be sad to see those two go, but I hope the joy they bring to others will make it worthwhile.
“There’s also one piece that I’ve chosen to keep. Following some months of creative flux and stagnation, it was the first work in the collection and the one that brought everything together: my love of textiles and patina, a tactile haptic quality, minimal forms, space and light, neutral tones and above all the human element. It represents a pivotal point in my short life as an artist – my ‘aha’ moment – and I’ll never sell it.”
What does the creative process look like for you? Do you go through any particular rituals or stages? And do you need to be in a certain mood or place?
“I like to be absolutely alone, in my studio with incense burning and classical or deep trance music playing. I can’t listen to music with lyrics, as it distracts me. Mood isn’t such a part of it, as I’ve learned that flow and progress come from momentum and that momentum comes from discipline and habit – showing up, over and over again. The more I’m in my studio, the more and the better I can create. I can go to there in a foul mood or a great one, it doesn’t really matter in the end.
“My actual creative process looks much like the design process. I don’t think I can really help that – it’s just a part of me. I research, I immerse myself in inspiration and conceptual ideas, I sketch and draw, I create templates and prototypes, and then I narrow down the outcomes to the most successful ones. It’s quite logical in a way, and I think It’s how I tame the swell of emotion behind the works.”
What’s next for you?
“At the moment I feel like I’m standing on the edge of a precipice. Something exciting is about to happen, but beyond falling or flying I have no idea what! I’m usually an optimistic person, unless my anxiety has a full choke hold on me, so I hope to fly. I hope people will connect to me and my work, because without connection art is just ‘stuff’ and I’m not interested in making ‘stuff’. And then I hope to create discussion and dialogue – to open hearts and minds and packets of biscuits with cups of tea. And of course I hope for more collections.”
Finally, do you have any advice for others looking to launch their own creative ventures?
“Above all, follow your heart. As clichéd as that sounds, it’s impossible to launch and maintain any creative practice without doing so. Saying that, you must take your head along for the ride too. Running a creative business involves much more than simply painting / photographing / making, so work hard, build momentum, make mistakes, keep going and never stop learning.
“I’ve been (and still remain) petrified to launch this collection. It’s really nerve-wracking to put yourself out there, and with that level of vulnerability comes fear, but the fact I’m scared means I know I’m on the right path. So get scared. Be brave.
“And finally, find support – after all, we’re humans not islands. I have the most supportive family, friends and partner that I could ever wish for, and I’ve recently found a wonderful community of artists and creatives on Instagram. But the best thing I’ve done has been to work with a creative business coach, Annie Ridout (@therobora). It’s given me the push I needed to get going with my venture, and she’s an expert in so many areas that I’m not.”
Excellent advice to end on. Thanks Nikki, and best of luck with the launch!
See ‘Foremost Fragments (2021)’ in full here. You can also follow Nikki on Instagram at @nikkiheatonstudio.
All photography by Justyna Kulam