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Joe Nicholson is an illustrator, storyteller, and muralist living in Omaha, NE. Joe views art as a means to tell stories, and stories as a means to inspire art. He uses ink and watercolor illustrations to create thought provoking picture books designed for mature audiences. The aim of these stories is to probe lightheartedly into the philosophical and social problems that face mankind. Joe is a surrealist who creates large oil paintings that explore his interest in philosophy and spirituality. He also makes artwork for clothing, does freelance work for small local businesses and creates public art. He has three murals scattered throughout Omaha. Joe has spent many years finding out who he isn’t through artistic experimentation, and it is his hope to one day discover his true self wandering around somewhere inside of a freshly created piece of art.
We recently sat down with Joe and asked him about his art and creative process. Read his Q&A below:
Curbside: How did you first become interested in art?
Joe Nicholson: I first became interested in art at a very young age. Thinking back, I cannot recall a specific moment where I made the decision to become an artist, it is something that I have always done. Growing up I was encouraged by my parents, relatives, and teachers to pursue what started as a sort of natural talent. I was always drawing pictures for other children in my classes as far back as preschool.
C: Where do you find inspiration and who are some of your influences?
JN: I find a lot of inspiration in nature. The natural world is full of amazing and creatively wonderful things. I also gather inspiration by looking at other artists’ work. The internet is great for discovering new artists and ways of creating. I sometimes stumble upon really amazing work by people that I would not otherwise have discovered. It’s always inspiring to see just how many different ways there are to treat a single subject. My major influences lately are illustrators, as that is the path I have found myself going down in recent years. Some of my illustration heroes include: Maurice Sendak, Bill Watterson, Ralph Steadman, Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, Edward Gorey, Chris Van Allsburg and the work of Walt Disney, to name just a few. However, I still have a deep admiration for great artists such as Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Picasso, Dali, Bosch, Durer, Klimt, Schiele, Caravaggio, and Rivera, even though I have all but abandoned my attempts to paint masterpieces of such magnitudes. Illustration seems to fit in with my natural inclinations.
C: What is your preferred method for making art and why?
JN: For better or worse, I am a fool for making art in the “traditional” way, and though I have dabbled a bit in the digital realm, it just doesn’t speak to me the way a sheet of nice paper and a palette of paint does. My two greatest loves in art are ink and watercolor and how seamlessly they marry together. As much as I adore and miss working in oils, there is just something natural about watercoloring; the way it moves and bleeds. Perhaps there is a kinship there since we too are made up of so much water. But it is also a very clean and tidy material. One has to be meticulous when working with watercolor as it is far less forgiving than many other mediums, which I think lends itself to my meticulous nature. Mistakes are often permanent, forcing one into careful planning and last-minute problem-solving. Ink is equally unforgiving, but I love the challenge that it presents by allowing one only the use of two colors (black and white) to deliver information. This forces a person to consider line weights, various forms of hash marks, and stippling when creating an image. It is for my love of the nature of works created in these mediums, as well as my understanding of these materials that make them my favorites.
C: How has your process changed since you first began making art?
JN: I first started making art seriously in college, maybe slightly before. In those days I wanted to paint massive oil paintings, imagining creating masterpieces fit for galleries and museums. That truth however was not mine to have. My natural tendencies, as I learned later, were far more suited for illustration. I discovered that I liked telling stories through my art, and I liked creating characters, and that was what I was good at, so I decided to focus there. I could spend a year painting one picture that fell short, or allow myself the freedom to dream up the fictions that my mind wished to dream. The decision was easy, really. It was discovering this truth about myself as an artist that took many years.
C: What are some common themes you try to use or depict in your artwork?
JN: Outside of designing artwork for clothing, my main passion is for creating characters and coming up with stories for them. I am, however, far from your typical illustrator. I have no interest in creating children’s books. What I like to make instead are what you might call picture books for adults. This does not mean that I am out to make lewd or suggestive material, however. On the contrary, my main goal is to create books that convey philosophical and social commentary in abstract ways for a mature, thinking audience. At first glance, my characters are fun and might appear to be targeted towards children, but there are usually much deeper themes running beneath that simple inviting surface. Then again, sometimes I just do things for fun, because I wanted to.
C: What do you do in your downtime when not creating?
JN: My favorite things to do when I’m not creating are reading a good book, watching a good movie or show, and hanging out with family and friends. I love nature, so taking lazy hikes through the woods or camping are always high on my list. One of my all-time favorite things to do is to sit around a campfire in the fall with a good whiskey and good company and talk and laugh, maybe pull out the guitar or drag the telescope into the yard and stare at the moon or try to locate the planets.
C: What is some advice you wish you had when you were first starting out?
JN: I think overcoming distractions was, and still is, something that I struggled with, especially early on in my art career. Art is not an easy thing, and it requires a lot of patience and dedication to progress. There is also the fear of failure that can really get in the way. I always just try to bear in mind the old saying that “in order to increase your rate of success you have to increase your rate of failure”. That is the most true statement that applies to artists. Dali once said something like, “Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never attain it.” I think this way of thinking is natural for many artists. I can always see every mistake in every piece of art that I’ve ever made. Also, I think it is important to stay true to your unique style. Experiment, but don’t try to mimic other artists’ work. Take what works for you and disregard the rest. The best artists don’t waste their time trying to be something that they are not. Do what speaks to you the most. Finally, the lesson that I wish I would have learned sooner is that of business. If you want to make any sort of living off artmaking, unfortunately, you have to find ways to sell it. The business side of things is something I have only just begun to tackle and it is my least favorite aspect of artmaking. I have been confronted with many challenges in this over the past few years. While an artist has to pay his or her dues along the way, always stand up for yourself!
C: In your vast catalog of art, is there any one piece that stands out to you from the rest? If so, why does it stand out?
JN: A few years back I would have had a different answer, but I suppose my character Seymour Finnegan is my favorite at the moment. It mostly has to do with my excitement for the future plans I have for his series. He was also my first character that I actually turned into a book. His creation marked the turning point in my artistic life where I decided that I wanted to do more books. Coincidentally he emerged at a time of radical change in my own life, so I suppose I feel a pretty special connection with him. He feels alive to me, seperate from me, but within me, like an old friend.
C: Are there any ways that the current social climate has changed the way that you approach art, whether it be your own or someone else’s?
JN: Social climates undoubtedly always affect art and the ways in which it is interpreted. New light gets shown on old works that can drastically change the way we feel about something, either positively or negatively. I think artists have a responsibility to reflect back at the world what truths they perceive and experience, and in this respect some of my work attempts at a dialogue about current events. Certain topics can be very sensitive and I have found myself shying away from things that might be misconstrued or controversial, less out of fear or apathy than respect and acknowledgement that perhaps I don’t have much business meddling in certain topics. It is not my goal to make artwork that hurts or offends, so I try to tread lightly when necessary. My goal is to make a connection with the viewer or reader, and the only way to make a true connection is to bear yourself and offer yourself up to the viewer. Therefore I can only create that which is me. When viewing others’ artwork, I try to be as accepting as I can be as they bear themselves to me. Not every piece is going to speak to me, just as my work is not going to speak to everyone. There are definitely themes which turn me off as a viewer, but that is not to say that those themes aren’t important. I respect anyone out there exercising their right to have a voice, especially through art.