From Juxtapoz Art and Culture Magazine, March 08' Issue
Written by Erin Dryer:
A first impression of Miss Anne Faith Nicholls evokes a demure poise. Which she has. But scratch the surface some more, and what is she really? Eager. Driven. At times admittedly pushy, but with purpose. She’s sturdy in her artistic aspirations (“I listen to everything people tell me, but I don’t do everything people tell me to do”). She’s also restless with energy, stashing a cacophony of ideas up her sleeve. Striking are her politeness, meticulous manners, and attention to detail. Words meet her ears with acute attention. And yet on the inside she’s realistic and fragile, and certainly on guard against being hurt or taken advantage of. She’s a young woman trying to find herself, not to mention a relative sense of balance, while also striving to succeed at what makes her happy: that being an artist, with a flare for living as a character of the arts, so to speak. A self-described “weirdo,” she’s nevertheless quite relatable, and both qualities come across in her work. Unlike a rapacious scout discovering noble models in mall-wandering crowds, this artist wasn’t plucked from a sea of art hopefuls. Rather, she has forged her path and learned lessons by taking risks, making mistakes, employing luck, and earning scars as a result of it all, some self-inflicted, others part of the journey. Call her a survivor and explorer in the game of art.
I had no preconceived notions about what Nicholls might be like. After all, we met during the height of the 2007 holiday season with the end of the year approaching and its typical pressing deadlines in tow. I’d hoped we’d initially meet at her first solo show opening at the Shooting Gallery in early December, but she hadn’t arrived by the time I moved on with my evening. Come to be a Friday afternoon in late December over lunch at Neiman Marcus’ fancy Rotunda restaurant, I arrived atop the fourth floor of the luxury chain’s downtown SF location unprepared for a traditional interview, more expecting a typical meet and greet over a brief bite, perhaps an hour long where we’d discuss ideas and get an initial feel for one another. To my surprise, Anne plunged in cordially, offering unprovoked insights to her deeper self to which I’d interject here and there with spontaneous questions. We parted company more than three hours later, having covered topics like her childhood, strict Christian schools versus art school and her unsheltered discovery of young life, her love of all things art, a desire to make a living at it, and her strategies for doing so. (“Thank God I threw that voice recorder in my purse,” I sighed with relief upon departure.)
Originally from Victoria, Vancouver Island in British Columbia, the 28-year-old Anne Faith Nicholls made her way to San Francisco via Seattle, Washington, where she was primarily raised by her single mother. Nicholls fared well in high school, after which she began college at the strictly religious Seattle Pacific University. On an art scholarship, she originally chose a business major as a planned path towards a secure future. When buying schoolbooks meant selling small works of art in local coffee shops, thoughts of “what I want to be when I grow up” bubbled to the surface. “Maybe I can apply my business sense to being an artist,” she reconsidered.
But where? SPU was so censored, “I couldn’t even do nude figures,” she says incredulously. “It was clothed figure drawing—like how the hell are you going to learn about art that way?” Before long a trip to SF and a tour of the Academy of Art won her over, and two years later she powered her way through a BFA in Illustration.
As a student, Nicholls was known to email favorite artists hoping to meet people like Joe Soren and pick his brain about art. Post-graduation, she did her time hitting the pavement, and finally began hearing back from those she’d always admired. National attention caught on, too; within the past three years she’s welcomed representation by the Shooting Gallery, made 7x7 Magazine’s Hot List 2006, designed Strata’s latest album art, embarked on a collaborative partnership with Vans shoes, begun a creative production collective, Pretty Picture Movement, with her boyfriend, artist Jacob Arden McClure, participated in group shows, and is just recently off her first solo exhibition, Low Tide Collection. “I feel like I’ve finally hit my stride and people are starting to notice,” she enthuses. And while she’s up front about being “very in your face, I give everybody my card,” her goal isn’t to compromise. “I don’t want to look like anybody else, I don’t want to be put in a girl-only show, and I don’t want to be a business bitch,” she affirms. “I want people to know that I’m ambitious and all about diversity. I’m trying to create the Anne Faith Nicholls brand: the face, name, and art. The three prong approach, which all comes from a place of trying to improve myself.” Read: An informed business decision to properly aligning herself so that ideas and deals come together. “I think Anne is incredibly talented, and it has been really great to see her evolve as an artist in the five years or so that I’ve known her,” Nicholls’ admired friend Liz McGrath rhapsodized. “She’s definitely a networker, and with her determination and abilities I believe she’ll achieve all that she sets out to do.”
The art game isn’t one for the faint of heart, after all. This much is no secret. And when it comes to hearts, Nicholls’ tender, chest-encased organ has been through quite the battle to stay beating. Born with a major congenital heart defect, a number of surgeries well into her childhood eventually corrected the malformation, leaving Nicholls with a large vertical scar down the center of her chest. Understandably, the close call impacted her young life, she says, while it also “must have something to do with my impatient ambition.” In her “unapologetically autobiographical work,” she continued, “I often identify characters as myself with a painted scar. I also like to use the heart as a symbol of growth, repair, anguish, and love.”
Symbolism is a key component in Nicholls’ art, such that animals and elements of nature, lovingly inspired by her Northwestern roots and love of the outdoors. Prominent are uses of heart images in her paintings and mixed-media illustrations for Low Tide Collection at the Shooting Gallery. The practically sold-out show recharged Nicholls’ batteries by receiving good praise, having surprisingly resonated a dark narrative so far unseen by the budding artist. The exhibition visually mixed a sense of mystery while simultaneously exposing a new dissection of Nicholls’ private side. With regard to the way she sees herself, “I think it’s very different from what I allow myself to show people on a day-to-day basis,” she admits. “I’m very much a person who turns on different personalities at appropriate times, but the art is the most telling of who I really am. The Low Tide Collection is about peeling back the surface like a receding tide, to show the little weird vulnerable parts that I won’t or can’t communicate to people normally.” Nicholls’ preparation for Low Tide Collection equated to therapeutically painting through the ebbs and flows of her own personal tides; she was ridiculously broke, hungry, humiliated, and on the heels of a round of disappointments professionally, artistically, and financially, she recalls. “The end result of this body of work is at first alluring—that’s my hook, the colorful cuteness—but upon a good look it’s in fact a very raw, narrative, and symbolic depiction of a young woman trying to find herself, and these things I was trying to get through.”
My curiosity is piqued about where she draws the line between what feels like actual work and what feels self-serving. Rarely do creative wonders have an off/on switch. My query was accurate as she works all the time, considering she chose a career that revolves around everything she would be doing anyway, she confirms, like visiting museums and art openings, traveling, studying art history (everything from American and colonial folk art to Victorian portraiture to Mexican and Indian folk art, surrealism, and Dadaism), indulging her interest in photography or altering things like fashion. “The times I’m reminded this is a job is when I have to hustle for sales, shows, and jobs to pay the rent, when I’ve painted over the same canvas nine times and it’s still not right, and of course dealing with people who think they can take advantage of artists,” Nicholls says. “My greatest fear is disappointing the people that have invested their time, money, and energy in me. So I wouldn’t say there’s a line drawn between work and play, but there is within my personality so that I can deal with these two aspects of the industry.
“You’re expected to be an artist, but you’re also a girl, so people assume, ‘Oh, she’s cute so that’s how she gets shows.’ No, that’s not it,” she maintains, raising the issue of double standards. “Every woman comes up against that in their career: trying to be taken seriously but not so serious that no one wants to deal with you.”
Her solution? Meet the All Business Anne Faith Nicholls, whom she describes as stern, rough around the edges, and meticulous to the point of always getting agreements in writing. The flip side of that, then, is Eccentric Artist Anne Faith Nicholls, a social butterfly at openings, art history junkie, a bit of a diva, and always dressed up, something she actually learned firsthand from McGrath. When Nicholls debuted in her first show at the Shooting Gallery alongside McGrath and Helen Garber in 2003, Liz constructed Nicholls a costume to wear the night of the opening.
“I promised Anne I’d make her an outfit to wear since I’d made one for myself and a hat for Helen,” McGrath recalled. “With the show and such I ran out of time, so I threw the sewing machine in my Chevrolet Cavalier, drove up to SF, dropped off mine and Helen’s art, and then late the night before and all of the next day I made her a dress. I can’t really sew so I don’t know why I wanted to make a dress, but Anne was a good sport to wear it!” At the risk of sounding “like some kind of furry or annoying art lady with a wacky hat who loves the color purple or something,” McGrath explains, “I think it’s polite to dress like you care when you’re an important part of an event or a special guest.”
Nicholls echoed the sentiment: “As soon as I got into [McGrath’s costume] I sort of became this little art character. From then on out I’ve really used clothing and fashion as a device to attempt to define myself and set myself apart as an artist and an eccentric.”
Fitting, then, is Nicholls’ collaboration with Vans shoes as an official Vans Girl, which features the artist in a national ad campaign in young women’s publications TeenVogue and Nylon Magazine. While she happily accepts free loot as a perk to being one of many influential female faces for the popular brand, it’s a relationship she couldn’t be happier about. She’s a longtime supporter who’s “always worn their stuff,” appreciative of the positive feedback from young girls internationally, but dually encouraged by Vans’ corporate power offering widespread exposure and subsequent propulsion of her career. Business is business, after all, and Nicholls invites more such traffic along this two-way street.
So how does she encourage young girls and artists struggling to bridge the gap between dreaming of an artist’s career and actually getting the job done publicly? “Ban together with other weirdoes and artists and try to materialize a bigger vision,” she offers.
“The ad campaign has been amazing. I get messages on my website from 13-year-olds in Spain and Argentina. All these girls are checking out the art and realizing, hey, you can do this, you can go further. That’s been really inspiring, and really the best thing all year, getting these feedback notes from girls.”
Most recently, Nicholls documented her artist experience at the Sundance Film Festival in mid-January. Stay tuned for how it will be used, but expect it to build upon Vans’ core message of individual-based free expression and Nicholls’ desire to continue influentially giving back. She’s also set to release a book, Collect My Thoughts, expanding on her mission.
“It’ll be less of an art book and more introspective, hopefully inspiring for other girls, young women who are trying to figure out who they are in an art sense, with facets of self-expression.” With so much on the table, it’s clear as day that Anne Faith Nicholls has her eyes on the prize and her story’s to be continued.