I sat down for an early afternoon interview at Stella’s with artist and activist Nicole Harp. I first met Nicole when she was organizing an event to raise funding to protect animals here in Norfolk.
Upon returning to Norfolk she was asked by Michelle Tillander, former director of the GSA Visual Arts Program, to teach classes for them. She began teaching for Norfolk Public Schools at Granby High School and remains a vibrant teacher and artist, involving her students in projects such as the Inside Out Project and the installation of student work in downtown Norfolk. She has been a tireless and innovative advocate for animals; she worked for the Norfolk Society Against The Cruelty of Animals to create one the most successful fundraisers for the organization. As an artist Nicole has been included in numerous exhibitions, including the New Waves in 2013, the TVAE Exhibition at the ODU Art Gallery and most recently a solo exhibition at the Selden Gallery in Norfolk.
AltDaily: Could you tell us a little about your first experiences with art?
Nicole Harp: My Mom was born and raised in Manhattan. She was consistently exposed to culture and art, and she taught me to keep my eyes wide open and have an open mind regarding art and creativity. The artist gene runs in the family and I was encouraged and taught at an early age to cultivate my talent from my Mom’s relatives. Plus the oil paint by numbers of horses at age six did not hurt either; they are so addicting and fun.
Later I was encouraged to enter art shows and contests in elementary school and then high school and I started winning. In my last year of high school they started the very first Governor’s School for the Arts here in Norfolk, I applied and got in.
How would you describe your art?
My art is Abstract – Modern Art that has good aesthetics and design. Color is my specialty. That is what I do best, put the colors together. My degree is in design from VCU so I have always had an affinity for text; text has flowed in and out of my work throughout the years. Each body of work leads into another. That’s what artists do: create a problem to solve and exhaust the solutions until we are driven to another problem. My latest bodies of work engage an already existing dialogue regarding our stewardship towards animals, environment – our world, and taking ownership for our place in it.
I like that I bring into the world something that never existed before, that makes people think and brings them joy to live with it. But mainly I love how art changes the energy of a space you exist in. My hands and mind are just the vehicles in translation, from soul to canvas.
What inspired you to pick up everything and move to Atlanta?
College really doesn’t prepare you for the real world. The thought of packing up my car, dog and paintings and driving to a big city to make it as a painter was exciting. I had a friend from college, Peter Casey, that said, “come down to Atlanta. You’ll like it. It’s a big city with a lot of art and the (clincher) you can live with me for FREE.” So I did!
What did you learn form your time in Atlanta, working the Carter Foundation and King Family?
I try to volunteer everywhere I live to get a sense of the community and its people. You only get back what you give.
I started in midtown Atlanta where I lived, Buttermilk Bottom, Sweet Auburn- 4th ward district Grady Cluster, working for the Jimmy Carter Center, Tap Into Peace and the Mural Project. I completed three murals in the city as a volunteer. The last one they hired me, which lead me to the Martin Luther King Jr. Family and the King Center. Atlanta is a dangerous city; the people I worked with experienced a lot of oppression and death. I really connected with the people in Midtown where I lived and thought some people really have it rough. If art and I can be part of their healing, I’d like that.
Can you tell me a little about your interest in the self-taught artist Alexa Meade?
I found Alexa on Ted Talks. I am always looking for different approaches and solutions to art for my students. I try to show them work I am not fond of along with work I really respect to create a somewhat divisive dialogue, or to challenge their ideas of what art is. I love the idea that Alexa was on Ted Talks, which featured the best and brightest minds and ideas. She traveled all around the world making her art and I just emailed her and called her right up. “Hey Alexa can you speak to my high school students about your process of making art?” She was so humble and happy to Skype with my students to discuss her process.
As an artist and a teacher, what do you want your students to learn from your classes?
I want my students to be curious, to question, to be critical and never become complacent. I want them to know there is a whole world outside of their neighborhoods that is beckoning them to engage in be part of. I want them to care and get involved, to speak up. I want them to know it takes time to cultivate their talents, it requires everyday commitment and emotional involvement.
I want them to want something, anything.
Could you tell us a little about your work with your students and the Inside Out Project?
I will say there is a level of camaraderie achieved when you step outside the classroom into the community and become part of something larger them yourselves. To achieve the actually portraits on the wall took a huge community effort: from the city leaders in the Planning Department, Virginian-Pilot reporter and photographer, artist photographer Knox Garvin, Fast Signs for the banners, Provost Construction and Bobby Wright for the actual crane and grunt work up and down on wall 50 feet in the air, various big donations from John-Garrett Kemper and Matthew Hales and Martin Thomas Jr. and many more pieces of the big puzzle.
The INSIDEOUT PROJECT for us was a way to connect to the bigger global picture. My students want to create a culture of kindness; the idea is it starts one person at time until the whole world is evolved. The project was inspired by JR’s large‐format street “pastings.” INSIDE OUT gives everyone the opportunity to share their portrait and make a statement for what they stand for. It is a global platform for people to share their untold stories and transform messages of personal identity into works of public art. I love that my students are thinking of others and accepting responsibility for their actions. Inside Out Project is a way to connect people and art to create a dialogue for change. I feel lucky to have been a part of it.
You are quite the passionate artist and person. Where does this passion come from?
Where does passion come from? Isn’t it who we are, the very core of our existence? The energy we are born with, the fire or need to express the burning inside. I don’t know I have always “cared.” I have always rooted for the underdog and felt a connection to the pain and happiness.
How would you describe how you make your artwork and the new series you have exhibited at the Selden Gallery?
My new work is metaphorical. Fragments of thoughts or text almost like a poem that you question its meaning or have to read between the lines. The artwork itself is made from the 5 elements: water, earth, wood, fire and metal. I literally use those materials in the work itself to express compound ideas of our environment. I use skeleton form stencil like graphics to represent the beginning and end of life. Text is used as hints to the bigger picture, drawing and mark making to support my message and the design quality of the artwork.
More of Nicole’s work can be found here.