First of all we need to get something straight. Nell is just Nell, no surname. She got the rid of the last part quite a while ago.
And it’s all legal too, on her passport, on her Medicare card. The reason? Nothing complicated as it turns out.
“People roll their eyes when I sign things and I can tell they are thinking, did a three-year-old do this?” Nell said. “But it really happened quite naturally.
Everyone in art school just knew me as Nell, then I got married and I didn’t want to take his name. And it wasn’t like I was rejecting my parents or anything like that.”
Nell is in Maitland – the place of her birth, childhood and adolescence – for the showing of her latest exhibition ‘Hometown Girl Has Wet Dream’ (a visual fusion of AC/DC and religion) at the Maitland Regional Art Gallery.
And despite its title Nell’s show has nothing to do with sexual desire.
“Maitland is my hometown and when I was looking for a title I went back to the lyrics of a Beatles song where they sing about everybody having a wet dream,” Nell, 37, said. “There is no sexual content in the show at all, so the wet dream part is this desire to leave your home town. It’s about wanting a life beyond the life you have and the one you are starting to imagine.”
For Nell this meant indulging her fantasy of being a rock’n’roll star and exploring a spiritual life she couldn’t access in the town of her birth.
“I did 18 years hard time in Maitland,” Nell said. “I was born and bred here and I went to Maitland Public School and then Maitland Grossmann High School and I think by the time I was 16 I really knew that art was the path ahead for me.
“But it was a different world when I grew up here. There was no internet, no movies, nothing.”
The day Nell turned 18 she left home.
“It was adios amigos and I went to Sydney College of the Arts. Then I went to America and also Paris.”
During this time Nell discovered Buddhism, a way of life that proves to be an enduring theme in her life.
“I became interested in Buddhism about 10 years ago and I’ve since taken formal Buddhist vows, but it’s not a big deal, it’s just life. Buddhism is not a club and it’s not really a religion, it’s more like a meditation practice. And the main thing is just to light up your corner of the world,” Nell said.
“It’s about how you want to live your life. It’s kind of like marriage in that you are making a verbal, public commitment about your life.”
Then, on the flipside, there is rock’n’roll and AC/DC.
“Yeah, yeah I’m an AC/DC fan, of course,” Nell said. “That’s the thing. You think you can have all this sophisticated taste but when you listen to AC/DC you don’t need to have sophisticated taste, it’s just amazing. AC/DC is kind of this universal music of youth across the world.”
As part of ‘Hometown Girl Has Wet Dream’, Nell has dotted one white wall of the Maitland art gallery with crucifixes constructed from paint brushes (once used by Margaret Olley and James Gleeson) and drumsticks belonging to Australian bands such as Cold Chisel and The Cruel Sea.
There is also a Zen Buddhist robe Nell has sewn, a pile of guitar picks with her name on them and a memorial candle in honour of legendary AC/DC front man Bon Scott.
“The whole feeling of the exhibition is this weird, kind of rock n’roll chapel,” Nell said. “There is lots going on and there are references ricocheting all around the room. You are supposed to walk in and think this is some weird, urban, shaman AC/DC thing. No-one is really meant to get it.”
While Nell may have been in somewhat of a hurry to leave Maitland, her ties to the town are strong. Her parents remain in the house where she grew up, one brother lives next door to them and another is at Wallalong.
“I might come home three times in three weeks or not for three months. So, yes, I do come back for family,” she said. “And I guess with this show I’m really playing on the fact that old cliché that you can take the girl out of Maitland but you can’t take Maitland out of the girl.
“The first 18 years of someone’s life are incredibly formative to who they are and I think my intuitive space was refined by not having much stimulation in Maitland. It had to come from within and it’s like being resourceful. It gave me a strength in my own creative resources to make my own stuff and do my own things.”
Next up for Nell are more exhibitions, work on a children’s book and also a private commission.
“They are a continuum of projects where on the one hand I am exploring my fantasy of being a rock’n’roll star, and all the aesthetics of rock’n’roll, and then there is also a pull towards a more contemplative, monastic life, I mean part of me would love to go and live in a nunnery. But both are true,” she said. “So being an artist is the middle point because you get to have exhibitions and be extroverted and then you get the quiet time in the studio.
“That’s a nice summation of it all.”
■ Hometown Girl Has Wet Dream closes on Sunday.