Current track



Painting Outside The Lines With Damiane Nickles

Written by on April 20, 2023

Chicago artist Damiane Nickles expresses himself through painting and is inspired by the city to experiment with form, texture and color through multiple mediums. 

Originally from Brooklyn, artist Damiane Nickles brings his passion for painting to the streets of Chicago. Starting his career as an illustrator he quickly realized the quick-paced environment of print media was not for him. Transitioning to working with canvases, he learned to play with patterns, textures and color, exhibited in the majority of his work. Having Trinidadian heritage, he says the bright colors and textures seen throughout the West Indies are an inspiration for him. 

“I feel like we grew up with a lot of heavy colors,” Nickles explained. “Using heavy color fields really speaks to me.” 

Since moving to Chicago six years ago, Nickles has made waves in the city’s arts community, creating opportunities for art to be experienced in unconventional spaces. Last summer, his artwork was featured in gallery and creative space The Martin, where he was the second artist to take over the gallery and present a solo art show. He has one permanent mural displayed on the walls of a bathroom at the space. 

Using bold colors and a variety of patterns, he creates opportunities for viewers to connect with art through the feelings his pieces evoke. 

“You are attracted to the thing you are attracted to because of all of the experiences that you have had,” Nickles said. “It’s almost like a taste memory … That allows for unique relationships.” 

His passion for painting and creating community has also led him to create a plant business called Not A Plant Shop, where he sells hand-painted pots for plants in an effort to add character to homes and other spaces. 

In this segment of “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Damiane Nickles shares how his art plays with form, textures and colors and is inspired by Chicago camaraderie. 

Damian Nickles standing in front of his experimental mural, which he created using a found Sellier & Bellot 10mm FMJ casings for the print. Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

What do you do?

I went to school for art, and worked at a design agency for quite some time and then that, I wasn’t quite wanting to follow that. That was in 2016, so I had just graduated college, I went to Syracuse. I was fresh, I was young, I was a baby, I was like 22. I had some family out here. Thankfully, my brother was like, “Hey, just come crash with me. And like, if you want to explore, you can explore, you know?” 

What neighborhood did you live in when you got to Chicago?

I actually landed in Skokie, which is funny. My brother had just bought a house out there, he was working at the army base. And so that was my first introduction to the city, actually, which was nice, because I would take the Yellow Line down to the Red Line, and it kind of forced me to explore the city. And it felt a lot like Brooklyn, honestly, like you go from neighborhood to neighborhood, and the city sort of rolls into itself.

I love New York. It’s my hometown. But I think there’s this anonymity in the city that can be pretty divorcing for people. Do you know what caul fat is? Caul fat is like the connective tissue, in, like, the intestines of a pig. And you can take it out and make sausages and all different kinds of stuff with it. But it holds all the internal organs together. And it feels like, in Chicago, you have this like, it’s almost like this web network effect that you don’t quite get in New York. New York, artistically, a little culturally, is a little more pocketed. 

Now, I will say Chicago is very segregated. And that can make it hard. But simultaneously, I found, specifically with the art community, with the performance community, with the food community here … there’s a level of there’s something here where people just, they magnetize to one another, and I think that is something that has really stuck with me. 

Damiane Nickles in his studio with samples of his work displayed on his table. Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

Where do you live now?

I live in the near West Side. It’s like west of West Loop, north of Pilsen, east of Garfield Park, under Ukrainian, like what is this? We moved there about a year ago. Love it there. We live in a one-level of a three-flat, like an old Victorian Greystone, and it kind of just reminds me of the neighborhood I grew up in. I grew up in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, and it was all row homes. And people had their tiny little gardens in front and a lot of families, and just like a homey, comfortable feeling. Yeah, it’s beautiful. 

What kind of art do you make?

I’m a painter. I originally went to school for illustration, which was fun, but wasn’t really my bag. I think learning to sort of bang out and execute drawings really, really fast, for editorial, wasn’t quite something that I was interested in. I always used to do a lot of mixed media, a lot of collage, a lot of painting in high school. But more recently, I’ve been doing a lot more flat work, a lot more work with canvas. I like working with lots of layers. I’m pulling from a lot of heavy color use.

My parents are from Trinidad. So I feel like we grew up with a lot of heavy color … My parents let me choose the colors for our house once when we were younger, and it was like yellows and purples. So those, using heavy color fields really speaks to me a lot. 

Damiane Nickles experiments with patterns and bold colors across multiple mediums. Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

What do your paintings look like?

My work is super pattern-based. To me, it’s about texture. Changing the texture of a whole wall or of a bathroom or piece of paper, I think that there’s a couple of sort of directions I’m going in right now. One is this idea of collective ownership and how can people share pieces of artwork, right? And how can you divide something up, and almost fractionalize it, so that someone can have a piece of an experience.

It’s almost like when you’re staying at a hotel. Like, you’ve bought one room in this hotel or the studio in this building. You’ve bought this one room, but you’re all in the room together, right? And so, even in that space of enjoying a piece of artwork that you’ve bought in your home by yourself, you’re also part of this other thing. So I’ve been doing a lot of paintings on canvas and then ripping them up, so they all sort of live on their own and together. That’s something that I’m really trying to chase after a lot, because it also … keeps the artwork accessible.

I like working big. Working big is super fun. But you got to make art for yourself and for your friends and for your people and people who are like you. So I feel like it helps you sort of pull that lever a little bit. I want to buy art, too. I like buying art. 

I want to live in a world where everyone can purchase art and consume it. It’s about relationships, right? Like, you saw a thing that you liked. And based on your collective experience, you were drawn to that, or it intrigued you, all the things you’ve experienced, that give you your point of view. Whether it’s like, where you’re from, you know what kind of artwork you were exposed to before, there’s something about that thing that is pulled … it’s almost like a taste memory or a smell memory. You are attracted to the things that you’re attracted to, because of all of the experiences that you’ve had. And that allows for unique relationships, you get to connect with somebody over what seems like a thing that is coming out of only your head, someone else is responding to it. And I think people should be able to have that. 

Your art can be so personal. It’s almost like in restaurants; it’s not like every restaurant is making its own specific strain of beef, and so on and so forth. It’s just, these are how we take these commodities, whether it’s beef, chicken, pasta, flour, and then we put our sauce on it. This is how we think this dish should be composed. I think it’s very similar with artwork. 

Inside Damian Nickles’ art studio, with a clear view of downtown Chicago. Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

What has kept you in Chicago?

I’ve lived here for six, seven years now. But the last two years really showed a lot of the character of the city and it was like, “Yo, we pull up super hard for each other” — in a way that New Yorkers do, but it’s just a little different here. And it really made me kind of love the city. I mean, all the people. It’s hard to move to a new city, regardless of like — I think about why my parents moved here from way further than I did, and they just did that thing. It’s really difficult to do that. And so, to be embraced in so many different ways in a city is really cool. 

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Audio editing and production by Ari Mejia

Written introduction by Joshua X. Miller

Photos by Ari Mejia, edited by Omi Salisbury

Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

More from Vocalo: