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In Conversation with Antonio Scott Nichols
Part 2: On Process, Friendship, and Love
Last week, I published Part 1 of my conversation with Antonio Scott Nichols. Antonio and I spoke a few weeks back, and our chat was so rich and wide-ranging, I knew I had to release the whole thing in two parts. I’m so excited to share the second part with you today.
In this final installment, Antonio sheds light on his experiences at Bard College and walks us through his process creating his senior project, “Thanks to You I’m Alive.” Along the way, he shares his thoughts on friendship, love, and the future. I hope you leave this conversation inspired and energized. You can check out Antonio’s work here.
Let’s talk about college. How do you look back on your experience in Bard’s Studio Arts program?
It was most definitely fun. I remember the first class I took was with Joe Santore. I love that old man so much. He’s so fucking wacky and weird, but he’s a fucking genius at the same time. Taking that class was helpful for me in transitioning from drawing to painting. I’ve always loved drawing. I started drawing people in my senior year of high school. That was my first experience with drawing realistic portraits. Before that, I would draw anime, cartoons, and other stuff like that. So to go from drawing realistic portraits in high school to painting people was amazing. Before that class, I had never painted a day in my fucking life! That class was also the first time I worked with oil paint, which is now the main medium I work in. Learning to oil paint in Santore’s class was quite the learning experience. But it was something I was open to. It was a very white experience but it was still important for me. And it was great to walk into a classroom, set up an easel & canvas, have a new model come in, and just paint them. You just don’t do shit like that where I’m from. So I embraced it.
I learned a lot during my four years in the Studio Arts program. But when it came to Black art or even just Blackness in general, the program didn’t offer much. I was also the only Black senior in my class in Studio Arts. And there was never any conversation about Black artists nor did we ever study Black art. That’s what I kinda missed out on at Bard. In the end, I learned to paint and I learned about a lot of white artists. And don’t get me wrong—white artists are cool as fuck. But I wish I would have learned more about Black artists. In my senior year, I had to teach myself how to paint Black skin. The only time we had a Black model was one time during my junior year. That is one time in four years and I used to paint models once a week. And that wasn’t even in a class where we were learning about painting! That was in a third-year class where we were supposed to have already mastered painting. Overall, I think Bard’s program was a good experience for me, but I found it lacking in terms of what I wanted to learn as a Black artist.
That resonates with me so much, bro. I’ve definitely felt that in my own field as well. It can be so draining navigating educational spaces as a non-white artist. You have to take what’s useful to you, while also making peace with the fact that the space will likely not nurture you the way it nurtures others. It’s hard to move through that.
I’m so glad you were able to make that space work for you and still create amazing art. Speaking of which, I want to talk more about your senior project. What did you learn through the process of interviewing and painting your friends?
I learned a lot. I learned a lot about my friends’ features. You hang out with your friends everyday, but it’s not everyday that you get to paint them and figure out how their facial structures work. And I think in that process, I got closer to all of them. I also got closer to them through the interview process, which was more like a conversation. But mainly, I learned a lot about my friends physically. And you rarely get an opportunity like that. You don’t generally get the chance to learn so much about a person physically, unless you’re in a non-platonic relationship. It was so amazing to just sit there and paint them. Even when they weren’t in the space, they were in the space, because they were on my wall.
I also learned a lot about myself. I learned how much I value my relationships with my friends and family. I realized there is no difference in the way you should treat a platonic relationship versus how you should treat a non-platonic relationship. Besides a few obligations, there is basically no difference. And I also just learned how to fucking paint Black people. And I also learned how to paint so many other different races and ethnicities. And that was just a beautiful process. I’m very grateful for it. And the best part about it was that I was able to put everything I learned on display. And I was able to see my friends look at themselves. It was like they were seeing themselves in a different light. I need to fucking paint you, Rishi. I’m sorry I’ve been in this self-portrait phase. But I am going to get out of it and I am going to paint you.
I’m keeping this in the interview.
Word. (Laughs). But yeah, it was so special seeing them see themselves through the lens of another person. I was talking to my project advisor and the people on my board. And I told them, “I painted these people slightly more beautiful than they actually are in life.” And it’s because I view my friends as such beautiful beings. It’s funny because my girlfriend loves nature and landscapes. She loves looking at that type of shit. And it’s not that I don’t love looking at those things, but I’d rather look at a fucking human being. I just love the way people look. I think people are fucking beautiful. And I just want to paint them.
And you see that love in every portrait. Take me back to the day the gallery opened to the public. What was that day like for you? I know what it was like for everyone else, but I wanna hear your experience.
One thing I loved about working on that project was that I was so immersed in it. It was my fucking life at the time. I barely ate or slept. I would sleep in my studio with the fucking paint fumes. That’s how immersed I was. So it got to a point where I was painting and I was fucking delusional because I was just in there for hours and hours. Even when people were done with their projects and at Spring Fling, partying and getting drunk and shit, I was still working. I remember doing the last two portraits in the span of two or three days. That was fucking insane. At that point, I was so delusional. I was actually wondering, “Am I a good artist?” I had major imposter syndrome. I was like, “This show is gonna be fucking trash. These portraits look like fucking ass.” Even though I knew deep down that this shit was lit and that I did an amazing job, painting like twenty fucking portraits.
I remember I went to sleep, woke up, took my paintings downstairs, and put them on the wall. And after I did that, I just thought,” Wow. All those hours of painting and now it’s all done.” And I put them up very specifically. I had my portraits on two walls and people could walk along them. And then I had the little study paintings I did on the wall as well to show not only the finished product but also my process. And then I had the recordings from the conversations playing so you could hear what the subjects were saying. You were not only seeing people’s faces, but also hearing the emotion in their voices at the same time. It was amazing to watch people experience that and appreciate that. It was so fucking full in there, Rishi. There were so many people. I can’t wait to have another show like that. That was amazing.
It was amazing. I remember that day so well. I’ll never forget the way people just stopped in their tracks and took in each portrait.What was it like seeing people respond so emotionally to your work?
It was satisfying, man. It was so satisfying after all the hard work. Especially to see my friends react emotionally. It's like, “You are looking at a product that I made of you. This is how I see you. This portrait is so much more than just a painting of you. This is the conversation we had. This is you opening up to me. This is you showing yourself to the world. Not necessarily through words, but through opening yourself up and showing that emotion. And I get to display you to the world.” Seeing them get emotional was just amazing, man. You can’t beat that. And it was amazing because I love them. The title of my project was “Thanks to You I’m Alive.” And that was the product. It was me saying, “Thank You.”
And I know they felt that gratitude. As you were explaining this process, I was thinking about the Arthur Jafa quote you have in your Instagram bio, “Love is the message.” What role does love play in your life?
Love plays a big role, man. I think love plays probably the biggest role in my life. Especially my love for people. I hate to say this but I feel like I’m in love with love. I love love. I love the good parts, the bad parts, and the ugly parts. I just all of it. It kinda pushes me to the next level in my life. And that’s why I love my friends so much because we kinda elevate each other. We love each other and we elevate each other, not because we want each other in our network. It’s purely because we love each other. And I think that in and of itself shows me that life is worth living. And if you really want to go into the depths of it, I recently read bell hooks’ All About Love. And that gave me a different perspective on love. And its helped me realize that love is more than just a word. It’s also trust and commitment and all of these other things. In order for you to love properly, you need those things. And I’ve been doing those things with my friends, my family, and my girlfriend for a while now. I’ve been doing that type of love for a while. And I didn’t even realize it. I feel like I’ve grown from this idealistic view of love and this romanticizing of love to a more realistic view. Now it just is what it is. I trust these people, I love these people, and it is what it is. I don’t know what else to say. I just love love.
Well, I love you, bro.
I love you too, bro.
And I think the things you’re saying are gonna resonate with a lot of people and help them. I’m excited to do this in some form or the other every few years because I think it’ll be really exciting to chart your growth. You’re at the beginning of your life and career right now and I can’t wait to see how your reflections change and deepen over time.
I can’t wait either.
I wanted to end by asking you about the immediate future. If things continue the way you’re hoping and working towards, what do you think your life will look like in a few years?
Yeah, man. A couple things. And I’m gonna be very realistic. I’m not gonna be idealistic. I hope to see myself graduate from grad school in some form of arts administration or studio arts. I hope to create another beautiful body of work and to have displayed it at galleries. I hope to see myself continue to grow emotionally and mentally. I hope I’m surrounded by art. I hope I’m surrounded both when I come home to paint and when I go to work at an art non-profit or workplace like that. I hope to help artists as well. And I especially hope my friends are where they want to be as well. And that we can continue to elevate each other, man. There’s nothing more beautiful than that.