As it did for so many of us, Nicole Pearce’s life was turned upside down when the pandemic struck in March 2020. As an award-winning lighting designer for dance and theater whose career has taken her around the world, Pearce (Theater MFA 98) saw her livelihood completely evaporate when productions were forced to go dark that spring. Suddenly, finding herself standing at a proverbial crossroads, Pearce could not help but wonder what the future might hold for her art practice.
In response, she started to dig deeper into the art that she wanted to create but had never had the opportunity to engage in because of her busy professional life. Soon, Pearce found herself undergoing a sort of evolution. “I realized that fine art is where I started and where I wanted to go back to,” she said.
Some of Pearce’s initial inspiration for this metamorphosis came from a documentary about an individual who became an artist because he wanted to recreate the colors that he saw during a near-death experience. She also called upon her own experiences utilizing light for live performance. With these ideas interplaying within her mind, Pearce began experimenting with the ways in which light filtered through colors to create feelings using acetate and alcohol ink. It was work that harkened back to her days as a graduate student at CalArts. “I would take animation and drawing classes for hours on Fridays and I would walk out and not be able to see straight but I was completely satisfied,” Pearce said.
Her work eventually evolved into a highly moving public art installation called Tiny Paintings for Big Hearts. It was a project designed to be a direct response to the pandemic and the impact that it was having on her Queens neighborhood. It encompasess 1,000 unique paintings inspired by the story of Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese child who, while suffering from leukemia derived from the Hiroshima atomic bomb at the end of World World II, set out to fulfill the Japanese legend of folding 1,000 origami cranes.
“What inspired me most about Sadako’s story was that the legend states if one completes the task, they are offered a wish for long life or recovery,” Pearce explained. Her wish was for recovery and healing from the pandemic that had ravaged her community. The goal of producing a thousand unique paintings was daunting at first but it was exactly what Pearce was looking for at that moment. “I knew that I wanted to make a concentrated effort on a project,” she said. “And I didn’t want to let myself off the hook.”
Elmhurst Hospital, which had experienced some of the darkest days of the early pandemic in 2020, fully embraced the idea of Tiny Paintings for Big Hearts and Pearce began working on it in January 2021. Her 1,000th painting was completed on Aug. 6—the 76th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.
The images are mounted on white card stock, each averaging about six inches square and designed to evoke the movement of fluids through the human body. As her website notes, “when shown together each painting’s fragility floats past the viewer drawing a parallel to relationships with lost loved ones. If we are quiet and stand close to the paintings their details rise to the surface. Similarly, if we’re quiet and listen, the love felt in life is tangible after death.”
While working to finish Tiny Paintings for Big Hearts, Pearce found herself entirely transformed as an artist. “I really feel like this was a huge step forward for me as an artist and a person,” she said. “I think that my calling is centering art on healing and hope. And wherever that can be trangentally expressed, I’m interested in exploring. That’s my new mission.”
— by Greg Houle