Sculpting a legend: Zabeel

Nicola Lewis turned her back on a career in corporate finance to follow her dreams as a sculptor, and now the young Cambridge artist has immortalised a New Zealand equine legend, as Annie Studholme discovers

Nicola ditched a corporate career to make a living as an artist

Five years ago, Nicola Lewis was the chief financial officer for a Waikato dairy company. Now, she spends her days up to her elbows in clay and paint, utterly immersed in her art. The transformation couldn’t be more complete, and the 34-year-old from Cambridge is already achieving international recognition.

“It has not been easy, but it has been so rewarding,” she says. “It feels like I have been drawn into it, like the path is being laid out before me. There’s no more feeling like my career is a battle, like I was always pushing. I’m a completely different person… not just the growth with my art, but within. I have totally changed my beliefs to serve me and take me where I want to go, and it’s now all paying off.”

Nicola’s rapid rise to the top of the equestrian art world has been remarkable. Not only has she had the distinguished honour of immortalising champion thoroughbred sire Zabeel in bronze, but she recently learned her sculpture has been accepted into the Queen’s private collection at Buckingham Palace, where it will sit proudly next to one of his sire, Sir Tristram, created by her own father, Rick Lewis, almost 30 years ago.

Nicola is hugely proud of the achievement, and especially thrilled by the knowledge that her work will sit alongside her father’s.

“Family is so important and I’m so thankful and grateful that my father passed down these gifts to me and that I get to carry on the legacy.”

Nicola is the daughter of Sharon Delany, of the Antique Shop in Cambridge

Nicola grew up surrounded by creativity. She is the daughter of artist Sharon Delany, who works in the family-run Antique Shop in Cambridge, and internationally renowned Irish painter and sculptor, Rick Lewis. 

A former professional football player, Rick turned to art after an injury side-lined his career, first working for Royal Worcester. He later started his own ceramic business, Hereford Bone China, which developed a reputation for producing some of the finest hand-crafted figurines in the world.

He moved the company to New Zealand in 1981, the year before Nicola was born, and during his years here created a kingfisher which was presented to Prince Charles and Princess Diana on their state visit in 1983, a sculpture known as the ‘Proud Kiwi’ which resides in the Beehive and features on New Zealand gold coins, and bronze statues to commemorate Mark Todd’s double Olympic victory and the champion sire Sir Tristram.

The family went back to Ireland when Nicola was in her early teens, and it was there she began her love of horses. Eventually, Nicola and her mother returned to New Zealand, and settled in the Waikato.

The young Nicola spent many hours watching her parents in their creative endeavours, but a lack of confidence and belief in her own artistic abilities saw her pursue a career in finance instead.

“Deep down, I always wanted to be an artist. But my life was all about pay rises and going up the ladder. I was a dedicated and efficient employee and was very good at my work, but my heart wasn’t truly in it.”

The change came when Nicola pictured herself many years in the future, aged 90 and telling her life story. “It helped give me perspective about what kind of person I was, and what I wanted to achieve. I had thought about being an artist for years and years, and the desire finally became too great to ignore. I didn’t want to have any regrets.” 

So, in 2011, with the full support of her partner, Luke Verschaffelt, Nicola quit her job and packed up her life to travel to the wilds of Ireland where she embarked on an intensive apprenticeship under her father. As soon as she arrived, Nicola knew it was the right decision. “It was like a fairy tale. It felt so natural,” she says.

For 10 months she immersed herself in ceramic painting. “I just shut off from everything and got down to creating. It was about letting everything go and focusing entirely on me.” The experience not only gave her the chance to spend quality time with her father, but she says that spiritually, it was a re-birth. “It freed my spirit. Ireland gave me the chance to connect with who I really am on the inside; once you get that sorted the outer starts to materialise.”

The Zabeel project

After returning home, Nicola was honoured to be commissioned to create a limited edition bronze statue of Waikato Stud’s champion sire Zabeel.

Zabeel died in 2015, and was heralded as one of this country’s greatest ever thoroughbred stallions. During his lifetime he sired more than 1000 individual winners, 100 Group 1 victors and 43 individual Group 1 performers.

The task of immortalising such an icon might have been a little daunting, but Nicola relished the opportunity, despite her lack of formal training.

“I thought, ‘Yes, of course I can do it’. I truly believe it is usually our minds that hold us back, not our abilities. When we really want something and truly believe in ourselves, we find a way.”

Nicola fully immersed herself in the Zabeel project

Nicola fully immersed herself in the project, surrounding herself with pictures of horse anatomy. She visited and photographed Zabeel, talked with those that knew him intimately and got a distinct feel for him, identifying his unique characteristics and features – a protruding tooth, brands marks and the slight wave to his tale – before getting under way.

She found that the initial clay modelling process came to her with ease. “It was actually more natural than the painting. Maybe all those years of sitting there watching my father for hours and hours had rubbed off.”

An early version

After a year of painstaking work, and hours and hours of checking and rechecking, viewing her statue from every possible angle, Nicola nervously showed the prototype to Zabeel’s owner, Sir Patrick Hogan, who gave it his big seal of approval. The project was on track, but disaster struck when the first foundry she employed damaged the clay aspect beyond repair, rendering the mould useless. “It was devastating. I didn’t realise how much of a loss I would feel, but I didn’t want to let Sir Patrick down. I got it in my head that the next one was going to be better and it was. I just had to get on with it.”

Nicola’s second attempt took less than six months to recreate, but there was another major setback when a second foundry was also unable to complete the bronze. The third attempt, however, saw the finished 30cm bronze finally being completed in October 2015, just weeks after Zabeel’s death.

The 30cm bronze has been accepted into the Queen’s private collection


“I’m so grateful I got to do it. Sculpting Zabeel and to have Sir Patrick critique my work was both daunting and nerve-wracking, but what a huge confidence-boost to have my very first sculpture approved by Sir Patrick Hogan. Because of this it has given me more certainty and confidence to tackle other projects and I’m so excited to plan what I will be doing later in my career.”

A number of other commissions followed the success of the Zabeel project. She recently completed ‘Winston’, a French bulldog, and is currently working on a commission for Ashburton’s Sarah Green of Group 3 Skycity Hamilton Waikato Cup winner Vavasour in full gallop with jockey Danielle Johnson in the saddle.

Although she’s enjoying the sculpting immensely, in time she hopes to get back into experimenting with ceramic painting. “It’s such a unique type of art form and I would love to see where I can take it and what I can do with it,” she says.

Long-term her dream is to create a life-size bronze.


  • This article first appeared in the September 2016 issue of NZ Horse & Pony