Interview: Paper Hands

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Free feeling

Local artist Paper Hands (aka Holly Neilson) approaches the topic of anxiety with a quite literal breath of fresh air. The illustrator and watercolour painter is set to unveil her ‘Free Feeling’ exhibition, the first instalment of the In The Frame series, at Barbara in Fortitude Valley tomorrow night. We sat down to chat with Holly to discuss the local art scene, mental health and the magic of mother nature.

Photography: Thomas Hobbs

So I guess we should start right at the beginning. How did you get into art?

It was honestly a really random start. It was after I pulled out of university and I was just working a 9–5 admin job. I always did illustration on the side, but it wasn’t until so many of my friends said to me: “Look, you should just get your work out there, even if it’s just a cafe. Just try, you know?”. It was out of that, really, that I decided I’d create something.

When I first started, I didn’t really intend to make it a business. It was more about having a platform where I could showcase my work occasionally and see how it flies. And then it started to grow, and I started to get random orders and custom orders and even shows. People were starting to contact me—it felt like luck. Since then, I’ve started to shape it and form it into something I could actually live off. It’s pretty much what I do now full-time. It’s taken about four years, but I’ve always just persisted with it. I think after getting encouragement and support for it, I was encouraged to grow it more and more and turn it into a livelihood, which is crazy.

Is there anything that inspires you visually when crafting your art?

A lot of my work is everyday things. So, it was just inspired by what I did during the day—nothing really specific. I really love the outdoors, so I’ve done a lot of travelling and I guess I grabbed a lot of inspiration from my overseas trips and hiking and a lot of outdoorsy stuff. It was kind of a mixture. From the beginning, art’s been my outlet for getting my emotions and feelings out—so it’s been a therapeutic process as well as just to draw beautiful things.

Did you always have the same style? Do you draw upon things that you like, or has it always been something that came from within?

I think I’ve always had a weird style. It definitely came out in Grade 12 when I did visual art. I was starting to get into kooky, weird figures and drawings. Once I finished school and I wasn’t so restricted in style, I naturally formed my own. I think it was just my mind that allowed it to be what it was, without trying to force it too much. It was kind of a natural process.

Is there a theme for your upcoming In the Frame exhibition?

Yeah it definitely has a theme this time. It’s called ‘Free Feeling’. It’s inspired by a lot of natural spaces that I’ve been to recently, and the feeling you get from being in those spaces—particularly feeling free. Also, a lot of my work is centred around mental health. I guess I want to create pieces that allow people to feel calm and at peace—particularly people that have anxiety. It’s to celebrate how mother nature can have this magic healing power over our mental health.

Can you tell me about any specific pieces that you’re really proud of for this exhibition? Or that you’re really excited about?

Yeah! I don’t know what conjured it up, but I’ve got a bird series going on at the moment. There are three pieces in the exhibition that are around anxiety and how I’ve battled with it over the last few years. But the bird represents the comfort that I’ve found in mother nature. I don’t know why it was birds, but I just find them very freeing to look at. I’m excited to show that, because it’s a really personal side of me—even though it probably doesn’t appear like that. It just feels like a really honest piece for some reason.


What do you think of the local arts scene right now, particularly in Brisbane?

I think it’s starting to really pick up. I think Brisbane—we’re just slow movers. We’re not necessarily behind the times, it’s just taken us a little bit longer to establish the art scene. But there’s a lot of talent out there, and there’s a lot more movement happening now. There’s a lot more shows going on and support around artists. The community’s growing, we’re just still getting there. But, I think things are starting to really pick up at the moment. I definitely feel like it’s been much more supported and embraced, which is exciting.

As an artist yourself, what do you think institutions could be doing better to support people like you?

It’s tricky. I think we need to create more art courses—I’ve found that has been more restricting. I think that’s just a pocket that we’ve missed, because a lot of places like RMIT and those sorts of universities are in Melbourne. There’s not a whole lot of those specific, more individual art schools in Brisbane.

I always think, funding more opportunities for artists, you know? Having more events, maybe with not as crazy fees around them. But I haven’t specifically thought of anything that’s impacted me yet, I’ve been really lucky.

Has most of your work been focused in Brisbane? Are most of your customers and exhibitions based here?

Yeah, a lot of them have been in Brisbane. But also there’s a bit in Melbourne and interstate; a few countries overseas—Canada particularly, a lot of people from there. So it’s nice to hear that things are travelling abroad as well. But particularly Brisbane. It’s been really lovely creating a name here.

Do you have a favourite work of art that you’ve ever produced?

I don’t think so—I’m really seasonal. There’s certain pieces that impact me in those moments, but nothing that’s been that specific: ‘This is the piece that’s really touched me’.

Do you have a process for when you’re creating a piece?

Not particularly, but I generally start all my pieces early in the morning. I don’t know why that is. I think it’s probably because I’m an early riser and that’s my most creative time, but I like it because it’s sort of an untouched day. I think I don’t feel so tainted by the day, because nothing crap has happened [laughs]. It’s sort of like a fresh feeling.

I definitely like to start paintings in the morning, but the process just comes naturally. It forms from when I’m feeling good or inspired. There’s not really a particular process that I follow because it’s always different—or slightly different.

When it comes to finishing a piece, what is it that makes you think ‘it’s done now’? Or is that feeling something that never really comes?

I think it’s when I stop questioning the piece. I know I’m not finished if I keep going back to it and looking at it. I guess it’s a feeling in the moment. If I don’t have to keep looking at it and questioning it, then it’s generally a thumbs up.

So, what’s next for you?

It’s quite busy. I’ve got Finders Keepers market in November, and then I’ve got a bunch of commission work to finish up by the end of the year. And then I’m hoping to get into a lot more workshops and mural work in the new year. It’s definitely building, which is exciting, but I’m also trying to wind down and have a little break in January as well.

Do you have an artists that you look up to or want to follow the trajectory of?

Yeah, there are a few. I’ve always loved Del Kathryn Barton. I really resonate with her work, so she’s probably one of my biggest inspirations. There’s a lot of people that inspire me, but probably her the most.

Holly’s latest exhibition ‘Free Feeling’ will be on show at Barbara in Fortitude Valley from October 24 - 31. Entry to the show is free. For more information, see the Framed Facebook page.

You can see more work by Paper Hands on her Instagram.

Cassie Dimitroff