Obituary for Nicky Leigh. Published in The Witness, 9 June, 2017.
Obituary for Nicky Leigh.
by Janet van Eeden.
Nicky Leigh, well-known Pietermaritzburg visual artist, died on 26th May 2017. Born on the 29th April 1966, Nicky lived, studied and painted in her home town of Pietermaritzburg. Her artistic roots stretch back into generations of powerful women artists. Nicky’s mother, Leonora Everard Haden, came from a line of renowned women artists known as the Everard Group. These strong artistic genes were passed on to Leonora and to her daughters, Nicky and Alana Leigh. Their younger sister, Andrea Leigh, is a successful architect in London who also paints. Not only did the artistic genes come from Nicky’s maternal heritage, but her father was the late Derek Leigh, an artist and senior painting and history of art lecturer in the Fine Art Department of the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg. He taught Nicky from 1986-1988, while she was studying for her Bachelor of Fine Art Degree.
Both Nicky’s parents instilled in her an appreciation for art and encouraged her to draw from an early age. In an interview in 2009, Nicky recalled that her parents would take sketch books on holiday with them as they, and their children, spent hours in the veldt doing observation drawings. She worked in oil, oil and chalk pastel, charcoal, ink and watercolour and she was known for her bold and expressive style with a powerful use of colour, line and tonal contrast.
“My work has a strong decorative component to it due to the strength of my use of line,” she stated in the interview, “but underlying all my work is a deep personal or spiritual expression. I like to challenge myself to never become complacent with one particular style. I continually strive to find the best way of expressing my vision while remaining authentic in my interpretation.”
Nicky exhibited her work in both the Irma Stern Museum in Cape Town, the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg, the NSA Gallery in Durban, the Tatham Art Gallery, and the Jack Heath Gallery in Pietermaritzburg, amongst others. For many years, she also held art classes for children and occasionally ran workshops for adults at her home.
Nicky battled, as do most creative individuals, with the feeling of being unrecognized and unappreciated, especially in South Africa. It was difficult to maintain belief in one’s work, she said, when only a very small percentage of the public are interested in good art: art which goes beyond the merely commercial. She also suffered from depression, and one of her most remarkable exhibitions was at the Jack Heath Gallery in 2009, which dealt with how she came “through the fire” of depression, as she entitled it.
In one of her final interviews, Nicky summed up how difficult it was to remain true to her work as an artist. “One can become overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy at times and fall into the trap of comparisons,” she said. “Many times I have felt that I may not be challenging myself enough or that I am not ‘cutting edge’ enough. I came to the conclusion that I do not strive to be fashionable but I strive to be true to my inner vision. There have been many times when it has been so difficult that I have wanted to give up. But I have persevered in spite of depression and self-doubt being constant companions for many years. One feels a direct bond to the Creator through intense observation of nature and being able to recreate it through one’s own eyes.”
Nicky is survived by her mother, Leonora Everard Haden, and her sisters, Alana and Andrea Leigh. Her fiery spirit will be sorely missed by her family and friends.