When you first look at Tiffany Nickel’s paintings of women, you see bright colors. You see pink and green and blue. You don’t see faces. You just see shapes.
Perhaps you’d never know that in the middle of painting, sometimes Nickel cries. Sometimes, she gets angry. Her heart breaks over and over.
While she outlines their bodies, she thinks about the stories these women told her while they posed, without any clothes on, for her and laid bare terrible moments and feelings they’d never spoken of before.
Nickel, a self-proclaimed “empath through and through,” feels what they feel.
Sometimes, she has to step away from the canvas. She has to write down what she’s thinking. Or, as she wrote once, she has to take a hot shower when she feels like their pain has seeped into her very skin.
The Colorado Springs artist has painted portraits of 225 women, all who have survived sexual violence or domestic abuse. Each woman shares their story with Nickel, who translates pieces of their trauma and healing and everything in between into colors and lines and curves.
Her mission started in 2017 when she entered an art contest, which was broadly themed on survivors.
Nickel came up with the idea to paint women who had survived sexual assault.
She didn’t win the contest. But she believed in the art.
“Seeing the women I paint see how I see them is incredibly special,” she said. “I really believe that it can make our world a better and safer place.”
Nickel strives to be that safe place, too.
When women pose for her, she listens and validates.
On some occasions, she can say, “Me too.”
When she was 17, the guy Nickel was dating drugged and raped her. She grew up in a Morman family and community in Utah. When she told a youth leader about the abuse, the leader told Nickel it was her fault.
“It sort of shaped my whole young adult experience,” she said.
She then entered a very toxic marriage.
“To get out of it, I ran away,” Nickel said. “Literally.”
She escaped to Alaska and soon met the man she’s married to today and has a young daughter with. She soon started painting.
For each portrait, the subject poses naked or nearly naked. Nickel then asks the woman about their experience with abuse.
“We get real really fast,” Nickel said.
She sketches what she sees and hears, the sadness and trauma and the steps toward healing.
The lines she paints, which add up to form the woman’s body, represent those many steps and moments.
“While the subject matter of what we talk about is very dark, my paintings are very vibrant and full of color,” Nickel said. “I think of it like a cavern. If you’re in a cavern of the darkest places you’ve ever been in your life and you leave that cavern, you have light that’s shining on you. You come out of those dark places.”
In addition, each portrait goes without facial features.
“The reason for that is we don’t always know who we are in when we come out of those places,” Nickel said. “We don’t recognize ourselves.”
She hopes, as she writes on her website, to “evoke an experience of self-love and healing in spite of violence.”
She also hopes to make change.
A portion of the proceeds from Nickel’s work goes to nonprofits that support survivors of sexual violence.
The process of her paintings can be heavy.
“Moral of the story,” Nickel wrote on Instagram. “What I do is hard, scary and sticky.”
And it makes people, online followers and art show patrons, uncomfortable. But Nickel carries on.
“If we don’t talk about these things, they will never ever change,” she said.
She remembers that, too, when she’s in the middle of painting. She doesn’t just think of their pain. She thinks of their power. She feels her own heart healing.
As she wrote, “My heart also soars at their bravery to overcome, even if only for a moment, what has been done to them and their bodies.”