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When you ask Nicola Dench what she’s been up to since graduating from The Learning Connexion in 2008, you need to be prepared for a lengthy answer. In short, this enterprising painter-turned-ceramicist has been out in the ‘real world’ forging a creatively sustainable lifestyle and gaining some real kudos along the way.

Nicola is a woman on a mission with no time to waste. Like many of her generation, her early creative interest was knocked on the head by an educational system that believed art wasn’t a ‘proper’ career. But, despite going on to gain a very ‘proper’ Bachelor of Science, Nicola followed it up with correspondence courses in photography and watercolour through the New York Institute. The enthusiastic response she received from her painting tutor gave her the impetus to indulge her interest in creative pursuits once again.

The Learning Connexion entered her life in 2004, when she was awarded a scholarship to study as a distance delivery student, majoring in painting. “This was amazing for me as it was the opportunity to explore so many different areas,” says Nicola. “It also allowed me to get my hands on some clay, something I’d developed an interest in.” Four years later, she gained a Diploma of Art & Creativity (Hons), along with some valuable experience. “As a distance student I had to work independently, which helped set me up after I left,” she said. “TLC also helped me to believe in my artwork.”


With her TLC study behind her, Nicola formulated a plan that would enable her to work as a full-time ceramic artist. She began by constructing a purpose-built studio – ‘The Clay Penguin’ – right next to her house in Seatoun, Wellington. A kiln, purchased via Trademe and collected from the Hawkes Bay, soon followed. “Having my own studio and kiln allowed me to experiment with different techniques and control the ceramic process more through the firing stages,” Nicola says. It also gave her the opportunity to share her passion for clay with kids and adults, teaching clay workshops and hosting ceramic parties for those who want to come away with finished pieces of art.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that running a business and kick-starting a career would leave little time for anything else. Yet, alongside her ongoing commitments, Nicola has managed to stack up an impressive number of accomplishments. She won the Wellington Potters Association’s Premier Award at Ceramicus in 2009, as well as the Inaugural Travelling Scholarship from New Zealand Potters in 2011. She was a finalist at the Portage Ceramic Awards and Waiclay National Exhibition in 2011, and had her work accepted for inclusion in ‘Ceramics Today’, a reference book published by US-based Schiffer Books in 2010. In addition, she set up the Miramar Peninsula Arts Trail and the NZ Potters mentor programme in 2011 and was elected as the NZ Potters council member for the lower North Island in 2013.

Despite the daunting schedule she maintains, it doesn’t look like things are going to settle down any time soon for Nicola. Her intention for the future is to carry on as usual, overseeing and managing her multi-faceted business, making art (ensuring she carves out time for her experimental work), applying for artist residencies and continuing to grow her burgeoning creative career. She acknowledges that it’s a challenge, but works on the premise that “If you keep making what you love and keep working hard, then you will reach your goals.” From an outside perspective, it certainly seems to be working!