san francisco art magazine

Leopi Nicola

"The Holy Tribe"

Turn of the Century Fine Arts
Berkeley, California

Reviewed and interviewed by Rachel S Rosen
The Flood of New Orleans - Leopi Nicola

The Flood of New Orleans

     "I trust all those who have 'thought' with their bodies ... ."

--Francesco Clemente, Italian born painter

     The sun surprised us all that day by setting so quickly, the darkness fell like a velvet curtain on the near-empty East Bay streets. It was December the 22nd, but the hush of holiday vacation could not deter me from attending a reception at Turn Of The Century Fine Arts Gallery in Berkeley. As I brushed the darkness from my lapels and entered the threshold of Turn of the Century, the warm glow from a myriad of candles welcomed me and transformed the gallery into a reverent space. The gently flickering tapers, however, were not the only source of illumination. Leopi Nicola's luminous, life-sized paintings seemed to emanate a light of their own and filled the room with jeweled tones of oranges, rose pinks, and blues. That night, I was privileged to experience these unique works and to interview the artist herself.

     Leopi Nicola's paintings are mysteriously captivating. The most basic aspect that piques interest is the dramatic play between blues and oranges on the canvas, creating a harmonious vibrancy and depth in the paintings. In accord with these striking colors are the sumptuously rendered figures--monumental apparitions, with their unflinching gazes, lithe postures, and glowing orange and blue skin--commanding the viewer's full attention.

Madonna and Blue Man in Creation - Leopi Nicola

Madonna and Blue Man in Creation

"The Holy Tribe" marks Leopi Nicola's second show in the Bay Area since moving here in 2004 from New Orleans. Upon mentioning her old residence, Nicola remembered that during a solo show in New Orleans, "My figures really upset some people. They just couldn't get over the fact that the figures were blue and naked. They wanted the figures to be normal somehow. On the other hand, other people, especially people of color, were so moved by the work that they couldn't leave the gallery." Though influenced by the Symbolist painters like Odilon Redon, Russian icons, and Renaissance painters like Giotto, Nicola maintains that her work stands outside any one school or art movement. Thankfully, Nicola finds that the Bay Area is an excellent place for artwork that is difficult to define, a by-product of the area's cultural diversity.

      In 1995, deciding that she wanted to pare down her symbolism, Leopi Nicola began this series of paintings. She explained, "I wanted to come down into an essence of being in my paintings, without having to uphold some kind of mathematical equation delineating meaning for each symbolic object in my paintings." Indeed, Nicola's paintings go beyond a mere step-by-step interpretation of objects to a deeply felt, visceral experience. There is a quality of movement in the paintings, a fact that Nicola correlates with her mother's influence as a ballet dancer. Nicola remembers, "My favorite part of dancing was learning how to be in my body, how the movement of my foot was connected to the movement of my head. That's also why the paintings are so large. They are life-sized and bigger than life so that they can do a dance, meditation, posture, or thought for me." One might almost say that the figures in Nicola's paintings are at a pause in the midst of movement, confronting the viewer to impart some forgotten wisdom.

      One aspect of Leopi Nicola's work that pushes the boundaries of the contemporary art world are her depictions of birth, challenging what is pictorially "appropriate," as well as the viewer's assumptions about the body. Nicola commented on Madonna and Blue Man in Creation, "This is the Madonna renewed, actually giving birth through her vagina, just as sacred as she's always been, but let's admit it, she gave birth through her vagina!" In this piece, the crowning vagina of the Madonna is at eye level, something that many viewers (mostly those who haven't given birth) find unsettling. In a way, Nicola's paintings don't passively allow themselves to be viewed; instead, the viewer must actively digest the experience and come away changed or chose not to really see the work at all. There is no middle ground.

Midnight with No Fear - Leopi Nicola

Midnight with No Fear

On the other hand, Madonna and Blue Man in Creation in particular has some especially harmonious elements, imparting a sense of peace and strength. Nicola continued, "The painting is powerful, it's about our bodies and the creative power that they have. I cannot believe that this is pushing the edge after everything else in modern art. We still cannot have a picture of a woman giving birth that to me looks almost like a Renaissance painting. She looks like a Madonna, she's peaceful and beautiful, but her vagina is there, at eye level, and it really shocks people. We have a long ways to go being comfortable with our bodies and looking at our bodies. Interestingly enough, many men are fascinated by the painting and want to keep looking, but if someone is watching them, they will wander away and then wander back again. It's really lovely to see men engage with these paintings."

     In addition to being an active painter since early childhood, Leopi Nicola has practiced midwifery for the past 23 years. She reflected on how this has influenced her art, "What I see in my profession is something incredibly secretive in human beings. During birth, I see in every single human being, regardless of where they come from, the same essence as what's in those paintings ... we just are, we're a soul in the body, we are ancient and we are timeless ... All the identities, masks, and ideas of this woman and this man are erased and you begin to see the real being. That's what I try to capture in these paintings, the exalted purity of a soul within a body." More than just archetypal images, Nicola's figures make the viewer pause and consider the spiritual truth buried underneath the neuroticism of our day-to-day existence. Nicola added, "It's as if the figures in my paintings are saying, 'Just would you remember something! Just stop and remember this truth!'"

      On my way out, I spoke with gallery owner Lewis Meyers, who revealed that Turn Of The Century Fine Arts Gallery will be moving to Weed, California, in April and that this would be the last show in Berkeley. Berkeley's loss will be Weed's gain. As Lewis optimistically remarked, "Weeds are flowers yet to be discovered." Thank you, Turn of the Century Fine Arts, for representing local Bay Area Artists for over 17 years, and thank you for giving the Bay Area Leopi Nicola's work.

-- Rachel S Rosen

Rachel is a freelance writer, artist, and educator in the East Bay. Check out her Myspace at

All images this page © Leopi Nicola.

For more information about Leopi Nicola visit

For more information about Turn of the Century Fine Arts visit

Note: opening quote by Francesco Clemente from
     Jeanne Siegel, Art Talk: The Early 80s (Da Capo Press, 1990), p. 134.