Jenni Nichols- Artist, Mentor, Gallery Owner

When it comes to creativity and inspiration, look no further than Jenni Nichols. The owner of the Hunter Artisan Gallery and Café sat down with Creative Collections. After being recommended to me by artist Linda Parkinson, I was blown away upon meeting Jenni. I instantly became intrigued and inspired by story, and I think you will too.

Art on the back burner

Jenni had always been drawn to creative elements within her life. “I think that I was always a frustrated artist,” she says. Jenni explains that as a child she was always drawing or making things out of air-dried clay. Sadly, she didn’t have the opportunity to pursue visual arts at St Joseph’s Lochinvar as there weren’t enough interested students for the subject to run. “I got stuck with science-based subjects as well as economics which was a nice compromise. But it wasn’t my passion”.  Although her passion for art was slowly bubbling away, life took over and Jenni soon found herself moving on to different things.

Upon finishing school, Jenni began work in a lab; got married and became a mother. Over the years, she had several of her own businesses none of which were art related. “I always found a creative element to those jobs like designing brochures or marketing. I worked for the Maitland Mercury in advertising for eight years so not only did I get to sell ads, I got to design them too. It was perfect,” she says.

Jenni also earned her town planning degree and enjoyed the art aspect of that. “I’m a people person, so I took on responsibilities as a social planner dealing with how development impacted communities”.

From there, Jenni opened her own restaurant in 2009 which is the same building that her art gallery is at now. “It was 7 years of my life in a fine dining, fast paced atmosphere. It was hard work but I absolutely loved it,” she says. By this point, Jenni was in her 40s and finding that the niggling passion for art still wasn’t going away.

A turning point

2015 became the year that everything would change for Jenni. She put the business and the building on the market. But by June 2016, the building nor business had sold. It was in this moment that Jenni decided to go to art school at the age of 53. “People had a lot to say about it, but I followed my heart”.

Jenni attended the Hunter St TAFE where she studied art and really honed in on her talent. On her first day, she tells me, she was both excited and nervous. She cried for 2 months straight because she felt so overwhelmed by everything that was happening at art school, a lot of which Jenni puts to self-doubt. “I really doubted my abilities and wondered if I would ever be able to create art pieces that were of a certain standard”.

One day, Jenni’s art teacher approached her and asked her why she was feeling this way. She opened up to him, immediately saying that she felt hopeless after losing a child and separating from her husband. “He told me that I was so lucky, which left me confused. I was lucky because I had this amazing opportunity to be who I wanted to be and do what I wanted to do.”

Planning the art gallery

After finishing at art school, Jenni set the wheels in motion for the art gallery and café. It was something that had been in her thought space for awhile and it was suddenly becoming real. “I had met a number of people who told me how hard it was for them to get their art into the world. I knew it was time to make the art gallery a reality and a place for talented artists to show their work to the world”.

Jenni played around with business names to find something that wasn’t already taken. Within a matter of hours, a Facebook page had been set up and business cards were ordered.

The Hunter Artisan Gallery and Cafe Opens

Within 6 weeks the gallery opened. Jenni thought that come opening, her work would be the only on show. But she was overwhelmed by many artists wanting to have their work shown during the opening period. “Many had never had their work exhibited before, like me, so they were so excited to be part of this brand-new project”.

By the time the gallery opened, Jenni had 25-30 artists exhibiting their work. Within 18 months, the gallery has grown immensely and frequently changes exhibitions and introduces new artists to the community. All artwork in the gallery is also for sale, which Jenni says often sparks
interesting conversations. “So often, people will come in and fall instantly in love with a piece. It’s like you can actually see hearts in their eyes.”

Jenni tells me of a more recent encounter with an artist from Branxton. She posted a photo of the artwork before putting it up in the gallery. It was instantly seen by a lady who had known the artist and her family 40 years ago on the South Coast. The painting represented the South Coast so the customer instantly fell in love. “She told me that she had been looking for something exactly like this. So she drove up to Maitland to pick up the painting. I’ve never seen anyone so excited to buy a painting. She told me about her connection to the artist and it just made me so happy to have been apart of that”.

Jenni as an artist and mentor

In terms of Jenni’s individual artistic style, most of her work is figurative. “They always involve people. I love that connection that I make with people when I paint them. The less conventional they are, the more interesting I find them and their story”. There are times where Jenni feels like people won’t understand her work much less like it, so every time she sells a piece of her own work her passion continues to grow.

Jenni says that she likes to think of herself a mentor. Quite often she mentors other young or new artists when they come into the gallery. Sonja Elise, who is currently exhibiting her work, has been part of Jenni’s life for a little while now. “I met her at TAFE and like me when I first started, she was quite sad,” Jenni explains.

At her own liberty, Jenni approached Sonja asking what the matter was. Sonja opened up, telling Jenni about her self-doubt and how she had just left an abusive relationship in Queensland. From there, they became friends and Jenni mentored her to create the work she is exhibiting now. “Her exhibition is called ‘Emergence of Hope’ and it really reflects her,” Jenni says.

As our interview draws to an end, Jenni tells me that the Gallery and Café offers a variety of workshops for people who have a passion for art and writing. These include Life Drawing Workshops and writing stimulation workshops. “The gallery is more than just a place to display artwork. It’s a creative space that I hope stimulates the mind and ignites people’s passions”.

As for the food, Jenni has created a menu of items that she loves cooking and will change the menu on occasion.

How Jenni left me feeling inspired

I leave my interview with Jenni feeling so inspired and creative. Given that I interview creatives regularly, I am constantly feeling inspired by people’s stories. But this time I was so inspired to write that as I was driving home, I already had the story playing out in my head. There’s so much more to Jenni’s story and I could certainly write a lot more but these are the things that I found most inspiring about her and the gallery. Who knows, I may even do a follow-up article one day.

Visit the Hunter Artisan Gallery to see what's on: