Nicole Holley, Artist, Activist, Small Business Owner


Nicole Holley, Ceramic Artist, Painter, Environmental Activist,
on leaning into being different and embracing ebbs as part of the creative flow

Interviewed by Jade Roberts

When you find yourself travelling down rabbit holes on Instagram it can leave you feeling deflated. The curse of comparison might take hold and a sense of unease can set in with all sorts of feelings around success contrast, productivity shaming, self image, life image and such. This can be diffused however if you’re following those whose work inspires you, and whose stories energise and connect with you. There is good in the power of social media and its capacity to discover, connect with and support makers and creators from Melbourne, Australia to British Columbia, Canada and all ports in-between.

Instagram is still an incredible, modern, communication tool that facilities connection to story and takes you into the world of those you wouldn’t otherwise meet, across oceans from one home to another. This is the true of how many, including myself have discovered the work by mother, artist, environmentalist and doula Nicole Holley of Lennon and Birdie.

It’s where I feel most like myself. There are no rules, no limits, I can just exist and create.

I was first drawn to her poetic, curation of imagery and interior styling; a conscious approach with the planet in mind, as well as a gifted ability to source objects second hand and mix them seamlessly with the new. It wasn’t long before I was taken in, not just by the visual aesthetic of Nicole’s home and breathtaking surrounds but by her clay and acrylic paint creations, some of which eventually found their way to the walls of my home.

It’s never lost on us that art, in whatever capacity is an extension of that person’s heart, soul, dreams and boundless imagination. And when something is made thoughtfully, by hand, with natural materials and Mother Nature in mind, it does have the capacity to really imbue a space with life, well beyond the purchase.

Our Press Circle interview with Nicole is not about the end result and what to buy and where from and how she got to where she did like it’s some form of comparable success we all need to aspire to. It’s a conversation about how being unique and different is your secret weapon, about how to foster self belief when you feel fearful, it’s about strength in the power of connection and adjusting to the change when it is  forced upon us.

There are so many golden eggs of goodness in the words shared by Nicole including her creative evolution from jewellery, to cloth dolls and onto clay with no limits to where she’ll land. She also talks about her respect for artisans that have been perfecting their craft for generations, she shares some really do-able home health and planet love tips, as well as social media hacks. One of which is that she uses a printed calendar to plan her posts (no digital planners required!).

I hope you enjoy the read as much as me. One day when I get brave enough I’ll turn Press Circle into a podcast so that we can have a cuppa and hear the voices of those who generously share their time to teach us; as Nicole puts it her ‘lessons, heartbreaks, humble moments and happy dances’.

What are you reading, watching, loving, eating, buying right now?

Reading The Awakened Family by Shefali Tsabary. WatchingHome and Visible: Out on TV on Apple TV. Loving – the slowness of this time, not having to be anywhere. Eating – veggie sausages with fresh spinach and cherry tomatoes (currently our go to breakfast). Buying – I’m looking to replace my floor length linen robe.

Name five of your most favourite music tracks over your lifetime so far?

Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Cowboys by Willie Nelson, Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd, I Will Always Love You by Dolly, Wonderwall by Oasis, Let Her Cry by Hootie and the Blowfish. These tracks give me all the nostalgic feelings!

Tell us about your childhood? What was your personality as a kid; were you funny, quick witted, seemingly confident, charismatic, the leader of the pack? Where do these traits come from and when did they emerge?

As a young child I grew up on a farm in an old brick house with my two siblings. We had run of the farm, climbing the wood pile, building forts, swinging from the old willow tree vines and making mud pies. When we were older we moved to the next town over. A small quiet fishing town on a lake. I was always into the unseen or mystery of life I guess, looking up at the stars and daydreaming. I was shy and my mind was always wandering, maybe a bit of an introvert. All I knew how to do was to be me, and my parents encouraged us to be our own people. Looking back now I can see that I was a little different and other kids definitely tried to put me down from time to time. Which I do remember hurting but also being confused by it. I knew it was wrong and it seemed silly. As far as I understood we were all the same. I always tried to be a good kid, I liked to figure things out on my own, learn my own lessons. Which maybe made my parents worry from time to time. I had a good group of friends that were always up to something so we were a busy bunch. I’ve always been creative, finding new ways to wear clothing or make something new out of something old. My parents were separated and we didn’t have money for fancy name brand shoes or new clothes. So I just found ways around it. My sister and I would cut up shirts, tie-dye thrifted silk camis and add panels into our jeans to make our own bell-bottoms.

Confidence and growth didn’t come ‘til much later. One summer as a teen we were on a camping trip a few hours away and I met a friend my age who was also there camping with his family.

Confidence and growth didn’t come ‘til much later. One summer as a teen we were on a camping trip a few hours away and I met a friend my age who was also there camping with his family. This was before the internet was a big thing and before cell phones. My parents were definitely not going to pay long distance phone bills so he and I became pen pals. He was from a big city and to me his life appeared so different from mine. That was the first connection I had made outside of my family and friends in our little town. Our friendship was a changing point in my teenage life. A view on the world I had never seen. And a chance to open up and share my true thoughts and feelings on paper. Having someone I could write to and be honest with, without the risk of feeling judged or told that I was wrong was an escape from matters in my life I guess I didn’t know how to deal with or want to deal with at the time. Looking back now it was almost like teenage therapy. And it really helped me find my true authentic self and grow as a person.  We wrote to each other on and off for many years and have remained friends as adults. I guess I was a bit sheltered as a young kid and didn’t really realize what I was cable of. I went away for college to an environmental school about six hours from home. Naturally I met more people with all kinds of stories that helped shape mine. Away from home I was able to become who I needed to be. I discovered that I had a voice, I WAS different (and that was a good thing) I was stronger than I thought and really came into my own during those years. Later I moved back home to find I had completely outgrown that safe little town of mine. So I followed my younger brothers’ lead and moved out west for the summer. Living in British Columbia felt like I was destined to be here. It was literally everything my dreams were made of. I met up with some friends from high school here and we did all the tourist things around the city, even surfed for my first time in Tofino.  I was living my dream here, I had stopped looking and searching. I was happy and content. I had no idea the universe had big plans for me, I met my now husband here and obviously a summer trip turned into our love story. And as they say the rest is history.

As a kid were you a good student? Were you hanging with the art kids back then? – tell me more.

Drama and art were totally my favourite. I would definitely say we were an artsy bunch. The majority of us have all grown up to pursue careers that include art.

Acrylic on Canvas by Nicole Holley, Lennon and Birdie
Tell me about your relationship with art, design and creating from when you were younger – was it always present in you to be creative?

Yes, it’s a full on love affair. It’s where I feel most like myself. There are no rules, no limits, I can just exist and create. I’ve always found ways to make it present in my life. And it’s always been a passion.

When did you start your business? And at what point did you know that working with clay to make handmade products as well as acrylic paint was something you were good at and that would take shape as your business?

I started my first business in 2012 when I was pregnant with my first daughter Lennon. It wasn’t always clay and paint. At that time it was jewellery, mostly organic materials. I actually made my dear friend a headpiece she wore for her wedding. I then moved on to crafting cloth dolls out of upcycled materials, wall hangings, mud cloth pillows and then eventually paint and clay. Always continuing the same theme of organic materials. As I grew so did my work.

Images via @lennonandbirdiehandmade
Were these abilities/skills an inbuilt trait or did you develop them over time?

When it comes to art I seem to be pretty determined to figure out a way. If I can see the end results in my mind then I can figure out the steps to get there. Growing up my mother was always very creative with our space and the pieces in our home. So I like to think I get it from her.

Where did the business name come from? What is the story behind that?

Lennon and Birdie is the home of my imagination, where I can create with no boundaries. It was difficult to put a name to that. But after spending so much time creating in our home alongside my babies it seemed natural to use their names. They are after all my greatest inspirations. Our oldest Lennon is 8 years old and our youngest Ivy Bird “Birdie” is 5.

Congratulations on having created a consistently thoughtful and aesthetically beautiful, curated Instagram page. It’s provided a platform for your art to reach many people around the world.
How do you schedule time to make the social media content happen – talk us through your process?

Anything that is even a little bit techy doesn’t come easy to me. So I have learnt with much practice and patience. In my feed you’ll find a mix of my art, every day life at home, my children and family, our pup and the adventures we take. To me it’s all one. It’s intertwined, just a beautiful mess of it all. I do try to stay current with my posts but it’s hard to keep up some days. When my children were in school it was a bit easier to plan shoots, and with our new normal I’m just going with the flow. I really try not to over think it.

What are your favourite scheduling apps, planning apps, photo filtering apps, cameras?

My most favourite way to schedule is still good old pen and paper on our family calendar. I use my phone for photos because it’s the easiest! And still my favourite editing app is VSCO.

And how can other creators and makers/small business owners use Instagram in a way that plays a pivotal role in broader reach for their work? (Trials and tribulations).

I would say really look at it as your profile, who you are and what do you do. Be inviting and open to connecting with like-minded folks. In connection with others naturally different opportunities will arise. Keep in mind to be patient with yourself and your work. Nothing happens over night.

When you close your eyes and you think of complete freedom to do exactly what you want to be doing right now by way of work or anything – what does that look like? When are you at your most energised and inspired? What is creative freedom for you?

If I were to close my eyes and imagine complete freedom, I would be creating in my own studio nestled in the woods. Perhaps elbow deep in fresh clay at a potter’s wheel. Surrounded by paintings and dirty brushes. A set of French doors would be propped open on a beautiful spring afternoon. My girls would be running barefoot under the freshly hung sheets on the line. The birds chirping, the leaves of the trees swaying and my children’s giggles in the wind. I’m most inspired in nature surrounded by my loved ones.

Your inspiration/s/what/who Inspires you and your work?

In everything I have created, Mother Nature has always been my muse. The world through my children’s eyes inspires my use of colour. I borrow a lot from nature. All the different textures, landscapes, creatures and seasons. It’s hard not to be inspired here. I have so much respect for artisans that have been perfecting their craft for generations. There is nothing like a handmade piece. It’s a person’s vision brought to life that carries a piece of their soul forever that they are sending out into the universe. That in itself is very beautiful and inspiring to me.
You have to just be ok with failing a few times at least. Not everything you do is going to be great. But those are the things that help build a bridge to where you want to be. Take all you can from those experiences. Be open-minded, be humble, be honest with yourself and what you’re trying to create. Understand that it’s ok to have bad days. We all have them. If you believe in what you’re creating then keep at it. One of my favourite quotes is “not everyone is going to understand your energy, make peace with that and move on” Don’t compare your journey to someone else’s. We’re all unique in our own way and there is room for us all.

Fear can hold many back in the pursuit of art and expression as a business…What advice would you have for young artists who are chasing their creative dreams but are scared to be judged, to fail, to do it wrong? Do you ever feel stuck, limited by a lack of self-belief? How do you move through that?

I totally do! I just see it as some days are for creating, some days are for adventure, some days are for rest and some days are for laundry!

As well as a running a business, making time to create, and execute well on social media, you are a mother of two and a doula… how do you make time to fit it all in? Is it a well-oiled machine or embrace the chaos kind of approach?

At this season in life it is not a well-oiled machine. Haha, however I do have hope for the future on that. I have taken a break from my doula practice for now. I would say family life/mama-ing takes up 90% of my time right now and 10% my work. My husband works in the city so with his full time hours and commute most days it’s the one mama show over here. We don’t have family around to lean on so we have had to work it out on our own. It’s been that way from the beginning, it’s made us a very close little family.

Images via @lennonandbirdiehandmade
Tell us about your very special work as a doula?

It’s definitely a very special journey. Witnessing a miracle like birth is one of the greatest honours I’ve had in life.

You strike me as someone who is calm and collected and who doesn’t get too rustled by the interruptions or derailing of plans (COVID!) on every day life; what is your approach to living with calm and more mindfully?

We have embraced this time as a family and focused on all the things we COULD do as opposed to not do. Learning to take life a little slower is good for the soul. Like everyone else we have had ups and downs but in the end we are truly grateful for each other.

A lot of artists struggle with defining their uniqueness, their key messaging, their story… you’ve been able to define Lennon and Birdie through a really beautifully consistent and uniquely yours visual aesthetic; what advice do you have for businesses trying to create, style, edit content/imagery for their own social media?

Thank you! Above all else keep true to you and your message. Be open to sharing a bit of yourself, your work, your story and your beliefs. People are genuinely interested and are looking to connect. The more true to your journey you are the better the likelihood of making real solid connections with like-minded people will be. Also, if I could just add this. Show your face! People love putting a face to a name.

While incredible content was once all you needed on Instagram; for visibility and cut-through it is now moving towards being a predominately paid platform. Has advertising on social media (Instagram) been important to generate better visibility algorithm limitations? What has worked/hasn’t?

I guess that was only a matter of time. I think that if you do have it in your budget to send out a few ads into the universe it could always help. At least a little. I found the greatest tools in the game is pairing up with like minded artist for giveaways, auctions and my favourite, trades. Trades are great, they help you get to know a like minded artist and you’re both able to support each other.

Where you live looks absolutely breathtaking; coming from the other side of the world, tell us about the place you call home…

My family and I are living in British Columbia, Canada on the outskirts of Vancouver. We’re lucky enough to be surrounded by some of the world’s most breathtaking landscapes, the ocean, farms and many local farmers markets. The weather here is pretty mild compared to other parts of Canada. Everything around us is so alive. The smell of our fresh air and the sun hitting the mountain tops. It’s so surreal. We spend every free moment we can outside. I grew up in Ontario, I moved out west about 13 years ago. Everything from the weather, the vibe and the people are different here. It’s home and we love it.

Nicole pictured with Ivy Bird “Birdie”, British Columbia, Canada.
Nicole’s daughters Lennon and Ivy Bird taking in the breathtaking landscapes near their home in British Columbia, Canada.
I know that you’re super passionate about environmental care and living sustainably; in what ways do you make a conscious effort to tread lightly?

Yes, we have definitely taken a hard look at our consumption within our own home. The energy we use, the waste we create, water use, chemical use and so on. You really can’t make a change unless you have the facts. The knowledge to do better. We have adapted to new routines to consume less, go chemical free and saved to switch over our gas commute vehicle to an electric vehicle. In all the changes we have made we have involved our children. It’s a very good opportunity to teach them why and how we can have less of a footprint.

What are the small ways in our every day lives that can make a big difference to living with more care for the planet?

Making changes to your lifestyle to reduce waste and live more consciously doesn’t have to be hard. You can start with one change, and keep at it for a few weeks. Once it’s become second nature you can move on to a new one. For our family it helps if we get our children involved, which they both really enjoy. Some easy examples that have worked for us are washing our clothes in cold water, hanging them to dry whenever possible. Recycling or trying to bring in less waste like containers, boxes and bottles. Buying second hand, this has served us well for the pieces in our home and some of our clothes. Go chemical free and make your own green cleaners (this one has been my favourite change for us, it feels good not to be bringing all those hash toxic chemicals in to our home. My girls also enjoy helping me make the cleaners).

Shop at a local bulk foods store that sell your pantry items loosely and bring your own jars and resealable bags. Eat more plants! Buy local, support your local farmers and community or plant your own garden of herbs and veggies. While your at that add a bee house or butterfly house.

Lastly teach your children about the earth and its creatures and why it needs saving, knowledge is power. Watch documentaries together or listen to podcasts in the car directed towards children educating them on the earth. One of our favourite podcasts is Earth Rangers. Some kid friendly docs are Planet Earth, Disney Nature (there are a bunch) and Here We Are – Notes to Living on Planet Earth.

We absolutely have to talk about your home. Which you describe as a home of your imagination. It has also captured the hearts of interior lovers around the world; were you always interested in interiors?

Thank you so much. Yes, I definitely have always had an eye for it. When we were young we used to go on Sunday drives with my parents checking out older and abandon homes. I always found such beauty in homes with character. It’s so exciting what you can do to transform a space. I would say that my taste is vast, I see the charm in a small cabin in the woods, the cleverly crafted details in a historical home, and the sleekness in a modern abode. It all takes my breath away.

How do you go about curating your space?

Our home is our sanctuary, our safe peaceful place. My first go to move is to let as much natural light in as possible. We don’t ever cover our windows with dark or heavy coverings. We stick to calming neutral colours for the walls and artwork. We choose well-handcrafted pieces we truly love throughout our space. We work with organic materials and textures and we bring in air purifying plants. Our space is very personal to us and as our family grows the space will grow and change with us. A curated space takes time, I’m always on the hunt for second hand pieces that maybe useful to us. Usually we work with the trade up system. Where we find the perfect piece for the living room and then move that old piece to another part of our home if it works. If it no longer serves us than we will pass it along to its new home.

Is it a mix of high end, home-made and second hand?

I would say our home is mostly made up of second hand pieces, hand crafted and a few new pieces. A few of our beloved pieces would be our cedar bed frame that our dear friend built for us as a house warming gift 3 years ago. Our vintage Turkish rugs and a few antique crocks my mother has gifted us.

What is your approach to creating the home of your imagination and the home goals for many?

Really view it as your family’s sanctuary. Choose to fill your home with pieces that bring you joy and tell a story or memory. Furniture that is well made and versatile, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to have the space of your dreams. Just think outside of the box, recreate pieces you have already, check your local buy and sell sites, hire local wood workers for custom pieces. Maybe save and invest in a few items you truly love or will use daily. Take advantage of all the natural light you have and add some plant life for well being.

What is the biggest sacrifice you’ve made/had to make in starting/running your own business?

This is a hard question, I think it would have to be the sacrifice of not having the security of a traditional career. For as long as I can remember I knew that I wasn’t after a specific career. I didn’t fit into a specific box. That I couldn’t just go to school and receive a certificate for one thing. I knew I wanted to experience different avenues and learn different ways of doing things. I’m at my best when I can keep at my own pace, make my own mind up and carve my own path. Which I truly believe I’m still learning to do.

What is the vision for your business? The end goal? Or have you reached it already? Do your goalposts keep moving and what spurs you on to keep creating? 

The vision for Lennon and Birdie does keep changing. There are no limits. The universe has its own timing and I believe there are many new opportunities awaiting. It’s been a really fun journey getting to this point. So many lessons, heartbreaks, happy dances and humble moments have been had. In which I am incredibly grateful for. As long as I’m passionate about this business I will continue it. Over the years I have grown and evolved and my work has followed so I have faith that that will continue.

How have you managed the on-going pressure of mum/business owner/creator/ and never-stop social media hustler/marketer (and doula) all at once? 

Firstly, I’m incredibly lucky to have a very supportive partner. He’s my in-house tech support for one thing. And he never hesitates to give me the space and time I need to create. My girls and I are blessed to call him ours. Secondly, life for me is always a balancing act that is forever changing. Giving myself time and patience to adjust. It’s learning what works within your lifestyle and running with it. 

Who are the artists/homes/interiors/makers/sustainability warriors right now, you’re most inspired by and why?

Hannah Henderson and Malia Bianchi Mau – their grace and laid back style. Mason St. Peter and partner Serena Mitnik-Miller – Authors, builders, designers and artists. Very inspiring pair! Whole Begings and Courtney Adamo – Holistic Education and parenting. For good news around the world @the_happy_broadcast on IG. And a few more inspiring artists that use organic materials are April Rose, Heidi Anderson and Adriana Meunié.

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