Gill Hicks’ artistic potential was recognised early. An enthusiastic primary school principal called her parents in for a meeting, portfolio in hand, ready to convince them of her talent.
“And my Dad said absolutely no way,” says Hicks. “His view was then you’ll always be poor and it’s a very hard road, so no – you’re not going to do art.”
Taking her Dad’s protectionist impulse with good grace, Hicks found a new way to pursue her creativity. The young Hicks was driven to singing lessons by her brother and discovered a love of jazz, going on to complete training in the genre and perform regularly with local bands.
After the death of her parents in her late teens, Hicks made a bold and “naïve” move – leaping on a plane to London to pursue the dream of becoming a professional jazz singer.
“I knew no-one. I’d never been to Melbourne, I’d never been to Sydney, I’d never left Adelaide,” she says.
“I had no idea what I was going into, all I had was expectation and imagination… I was hoping wonderful jazz musicians would say, ‘please come and join my band’. You have the fantasy of what could be, and that’s what helped me sit on that plane.”
The reality of life as a new arrival in early ’90s London was less glamourous. Living in a share house with “no electricity or running hot water”, Gill quickly realised that jazz would have to compete with a job.
“I went down a more design route and ended up being a curator, but music was always there – just not as I imagined,” says Hicks. “I imagined I was going to be a musician first, but I wasn’t a musician first.”
In 2005, Hicks was working at the UK Government’s Design Council as head curator. Her life was abruptly and brutally transformed on the morning of July 7, when a bomb was detonated in her tube carriage as part of a coordinated terror attack.
After lying amidst the devastation for about an hour, Hicks was the last survivor to be pulled from the wreckage. Both her legs were amputated and she found her approach to life was transformed by the event.
“I looked at everything with a different lens. I thought, ‘if what we’re doing isn’t changing the world, I can’t be a part of it. I cannot waste a minute’,” she says.
For 10 solid years, Hicks worked exhaustively and broadly in peace activism – talking with former extremists, taking parts in events like a 430km walk for peace, speaking publicly and eventually moving back to Adelaide.
During that time, she barely had time for a thought about music or art. It was something she filed under “life number one”, not a part of the “life number two” she was living.
“It was only, I guess – probably that I was being worn down,” says Hicks. “When you work in something where there’s just so much ignorance and hatred, it’s very taxing.
“So, I began to look at, how am I feeding my soul? And I started painting again.”
Coming back to the canvas was an epiphany. Hicks discovered the potential to spread her message of peace in a new way – speaking in the direct and emotional language of art.
Around the same time, she returned to singing – appearing on a peace anthem written by musician Gary Burrows. Initially, she struggled to find a technique to suit her reduced lung and hearing capacity, but through determination developed a voice she was happy with.
Continuing with her counter-terrorism work and visual art – including major project Blink of an Eye – live performance remained on the back burner. But amid COVID, and thanks to a Fringe artist grant, Hicks found herself in another pivotal life moment.
“Most of my work around counter-terrorism and speaking are all in Victoria and NSW. So, finances just stopped,” says Hicks.
“I felt the answer was, you’ll be fine because you’ll create how you’ll get through this. How you come out the other side is by your design. It was around that time that Fringe were opening up… there were grants that were up. I thought, I’ll apply – I probably won’t get it, but that’s fine.”
Hicks got the grant. Her first self-devised stage show, Still Alive (and Kicking) was born.
Combining spoken word storytelling, live music and projections of her art, the work’s debut season at Adelaide Fringe this year had a profound impact.
“It was so emotional – it was 12 shows and after each one, I just sobbed and sobbed, because it was this incredible feeling of, I’ve never been so whole in my life, because here I am using every creative strand of who I am to communicate,” says Hicks.
It was equally resonant with audiences, receiving five-star reviews and winning the Adelaide Fringe Edinburgh Award, which provides $10,000 in funding to help an outstanding show make its way to Edinburgh.
Now, less than a year since a Fringe grant enabled Hicks to return to her performance roots, she is beginning to explore the possibility of a life on stage. This week, she will again perform Still Alive (and Kicking), this time recorded using Black Box Live’s innovative technology – with a stream of the event projected onto the Merchiston Tower at Edinburgh’s Napier University next week (August 26). The digital rendering will also be available to watch on-demand for online Edinburgh audiences.
At the same time, Hicks is already working on her next show – this time exploring the intersection of sound, art and neuroplasticity. After her formative Fringe experience brought her back after years off the stage, live performance has found its way to the very top of Hicks’ toolkit for achieving her ultimate goal.
“If I’m alive, what is my purpose? And if my purpose is to make a difference, then that’s what I need to do,” she says.
“We are communicators and we are communicating in the most powerful way possible, and that’s through the arts.”
Still Alive (and Kicking) is available for domestic audiences to stream on-demand through Black Box Live.
This is the first in a new InReview series – The Business of Art – which will focus on the development of performing arts careers and opportunities from Adelaide. The series has been produced with the support of the Adelaide Fringe.