Nicholas Tsekouras goes their own way

Unorthodox in the truest sense, the queer, multi-disciplinary artist doesn’t need you to understand them.

By Rachael Evans

(Supplied: Jack Mackinnon and Isabella Toppi)

Nicholas Tsekouras refuses to ascribe to the notion of forging a career out of a singular pursuit. This becomes discernible early on in our conversation, although even before our interview, a quick skim of their LinkedIn profile revealed an extensive and varied working history. Tsekouras has been a retail manager, paralegal at a top-tier law firm, gym receptionist, venue manager, lifeguard, and tutor – and even this list is not exhaustive. Their Instagram account, however, paints a story that their LinkedIn profile has seemingly neglected; Tsekouras is also a prolific artist.

When I sit down with the artist, I immediately notice he’s mastered what’s been a trivial challenge for many of us working from home during the pandemic – his Zoom lighting situation. He’s in his bedroom, sitting at a desk positioned in front of a vast window that overlooks his street, his face lit up. His room is tidy but has little breathing space – a result of having to merge his studio with his bedroom because of the Melbourne lockdown. An easel with artworks stacked against it sits in the corner of the room beside a clothing rack, collage materials are piled around the room, and much of his wall space has been taken over by miscellaneous pieces of art.

In 2021, Tsekouras graduated from a double degree: a Bachelor of Visual Arts and a Bachelor of Laws. When I tell him that the two disciplines present an interesting dichotomy, he laughs and says, “it’s a very unique combination, for sure.” Some might have found the combination jarring, but Tsekouras tells me the balance was good for his mind, “I was able to go from one to the other…from the studio to the court room.”

In some ways, Tsekouras is a testament to why writers need to do their research before and after an interview; they are incredibly modest when speaking of their achievements. Alongside completing academically rigorous degrees while juggling different jobs and volunteer roles, he was also the President of his university’s law students’ society, and later the President and Director of the Australian Law Students’ Association, a national company. Once more, these are not things he mentions, rather, it’s his LinkedIn profile that helps me piece things together.

As he reflects on the intensity of the last few years, I begin to wonder exactly how he managed to pull it all off. When I ask the question, initially they say they don’t know. He pauses to reconsider, eventually conceding “it was hard, to put it simply.” I suspect their ability to remain tenacious in the face of challenges offers another facet of the answer to my question.

“I think everyone should be encouraged from day one…to always and continually reflect on who you are…what you actually enjoy, and practice that.”

We move into talking about his practice – Tsekouras is a visual-based artist, whose work comes in array of forms. At present, his practice is centred around works that are produced on watercolour paper. He works heavily with the medium of collage, and has run over 30 collage workshops in the last year. Tsekouras admits to being fond of colour, and accordingly, his work is filled with explosions of various hues. He works with a range of materials: inks, markers, fine-liner, acrylic paint and watercolour – often all found in the same piece.

While I will later learn that Tsekouras is not one to limit himself to specific materials, themes, or styles, an unchanging feature of his work is the is the use of black fine-liner. Picking up an Artline 200 Fineliner he says, “these have been the number one thing I’ve used in my practice… [they are] pretty much in every single piece I ever do.” He tells me he enjoys them because of their precision, and because they can’t be erased: “the fact that it can’t be erased allows me to not take my drawings too seriously.”

Collage works exhibited for Connection Arts Space’s ‘RIOT!’ exhibition in 2020. (Supplied)

Tsekouras’ work explores a vast range of themes, but ideas surrounding the human condition, social issues, and sexuality are particularly prominent. Oftentimes, the process of creation offers them the space to flesh out their identity, experiences, and thoughts. This was especially true for the series of works they created for their graduate exhibition.

The exhibition featured two series of collages by Tsekouras that documented their journey from birth up until the present. While the exhibition was cancelled due to the pandemic, they were able to install the works in the gallery space and take photos. When he tells me about the exhibition being cancelled he’s visibly disappointed, but what he says next comes somewhat as a surprise: “I think finishing my final pieces of work for my graduate show was the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had, [the process] was very introspective and personal to me…it uncovered a lot of reflection and thinking, and that was all present in the works.”

One would perhaps assume that for the artist, their art being viewed by audiences is a large part of what drives satisfaction. While this may still hold true for Tsekouras, it also becomes clear that the experience of creating in and of itself is deeply fulfilling and cathartic. He does not appear to rely on an audience for gratification. It prompts me to think about how he conceptualises success.

When our conversation does arrive at the topic of success, they say that while it’s perhaps something they’ll have to continue to overcome – they’ve largely let go of external markers of success and opinions of their work. “I think there was a sense of crisis as to what works I needed to produce to become successful…that’s turned around completely, it’s become very internal as of late.”

I ask if his work being understood by audiences matters to him. “That was part of the issue, I think it really did matter me.” Tsekouras admits that he would get anxious when thinking about how people would interpret his work and whether it would be perceived the way he intended. “Now I’m like, I produced the work, I am personally, internally, pleased with it…As much as it’s nice that people might recognise it for the themes you explored or the motifs…that’s not as important to me anymore.”

Indeed, it appears that they’ve made peace with the risk of being misunderstood or not understood at all. Tsekouras is not interested in carving out a neat identity that is easily digestible for the world, and he applies this same attitude to his practice.

Paradoxically, he has found that letting go of trying to cater to the gaze of audiences has made his art connect with people more than ever. “The things that have truly tapped into me and my creative self have been the things that I think have been the most successful.”

It has also led to them developing their own style. Once you’ve encountered Tsekouras’ work and familiarised yourself with it, you could recognise it anywhere. While he is no longer as preoccupied with external markers of success, having a distinctive style is one you could consider ticked off the list.

“I think there was a sense of crisis as to what works I needed to produce to become successful…that’s turned around completely, it’s become very internal as of late.”

My interview with Tsekouras is scattered with anecdotes that arise from veering off topic and slipping into casual conversation. Oftentimes it’s these moments that reveal more about Tsekouras than my questions themselves. He tells me a story about neck pain he’d developed recently from drawing too much – he’d been drawing upwards of 10 hours a day. 

“It was stupidly long, to the point that I’d forget to eat, and then I’d be starving by the end of it and so exhausted.” He tells me the stretches were due to “really getting into the mood when I’m drawing.” And while I suspect the statement holds true, the story also helps to corroborate my theory of Tsekouras possessing an unrelenting work ethic. 
Their drive coupled with their work ethic has created a powerful force within them. So much so that it gives the illusion of having rendered them unstoppable. As we talk, however, the downfalls of these strengths begin to illuminate themselves.

We revisit his time at university. Tsekouras tells me that while he fared okay in his first two years, “by the time it came to third year, and I was doing really heavy subjects, it just became so overwhelming at points.”

“I remember twice, I think in my third year and fourth year, I just had to stop completely halfway through the semester.” He also has an autoimmune disorder and became sick more than once due to being overworked and completely stressed out. “I think it was just a combination of trying to do too much…it did become too much at some point.”

Before the pandemic, much of the world was already witnessing a rise in mental illness – an issue that has only been compounded since. Between March 2020 and September 2021, almost 21 million mental health-related services were processed in Australia. Mental health is something Tsekouras is ardent about, and it’s a theme he is increasingly exploring in his work. 

The subject features prominently in their drip collection, a series of works they began in their final year of university which has since turned into an ongoing project. Speaking of the works they say, “the whole collection started behind the idea of mediums essentially dripping down the page, and that being representative of an overaccumulation of emotions and feelings being expelled.”

Over the last year, the works have traversed into different ideas and imageries. He says that more recently the collection has been representative of “the importance of recognising and understanding your thoughts and feelings, and being connected to yourself.”

Indeed, being cognisant of one’s emotions and feelings is of upmost importance for Tsekouras, and an attitude he hopes to impart upon others. “I think everyone should be encouraged from day one…to always and continually reflect on who you are…what you actually enjoy, and practice that.”

We touch on sexuality in Tsekouras’ work. While they’ve been open about their sexuality for years, it’s never crossed over into their art. “It’s an exciting process that’s taken place in the last year…it’s something that I’d never thought of even exploring before.”

He speaks effortlessly about the exploration of his sexual and gender identities in his work, but his speech becomes more pensive as he begins to reflect on the concepts themselves. If we were to assign categories, Tsekouras identifies as a cisgender, gay man. However, he prefers the use of the word ‘queer’ to describe his identity. “I think it’s more encompassing, and I find the word so much more empowering.” He also tells me he’s open to a change in his gender identity, “I continuously am thinking about my gender and whatnot, and where I fit.”

Whether it concerns his excitement to continue exploring queerness in his work, or the way he welcomes the idea of his queerness evolving – both speak to the part of Tsekouras’ identity that is always looking to push the margins of the one he occupies. Perhaps the only constant feature of his identity is his willingness to lean into whatever comes next and a commitment to evolution.

I ask what the future holds for Tsekouras. He wants to be an educator, practise art, and practise law. He laughs, “it’s definitely not one.” He intends to do it all, albeit not all at once – the lessons of the past have cautioned him against moving too hastily.

“It might be at different times in my life that I do all these things…definitely afraid of doing it all, how I’m gonna get there, but just one step at a time I guess.”

It’s what he’s been saying all along: he doesn’t need to know the way – he just goes. 

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