November 3, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For Artist Joe Nicholson, life after college wasn’t the masterpiece he had imagined. Fancy-schmancy art degree? Got it. Dead-end corporate job? Yep, got that too. Plenty of dough to make ends meet? Check. Despite all this, Nicholson kept putting his faith into black-and-white doodles he drew in his basement—just pen meeting paper, his savior in its infancy stage.

“College asked me to focus on one thing, painting,” Nicholson says. “I was tied down and didn’t even consider illustrating a possibility until after college. Once I did, everything changed.”

Now at age 32, Nicholson is a lot of things. Down on his luck isn’t one of them. Whether he’s creating his own illustrated books, freelancing for myriad local eateries, or preparing pieces to be shown in galleries, all his work manages to tell surreal and symbolic stories, with his whimsical and emotional style tying them all together.

Nicholson may be new to the professional illustration game, but this is hardly the first time he’s traded paintbrush for pencil and pen.

“Art has always been a part of who I am,” Nicholson says. “In preschool, I was the one who loved to spend his free time drawing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It made me different.”

Throughout his adolescent life, Nicholson continued his pursuit of all things art, eventually receiving a bachelor’s degree with an emphasis in painting from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. While studying, he was exposed to different mediums but refocused fresh eys on art and putting brush to canvas.

“I wanted to grow up and become a painter of huge masterpieces that would hang in museums,” Nicholson says. “After I got out, I realized this path didn’t make sense for me. Then I got a corporate job and hated that, too.”

And so those aforementioned basement doodles became much more than a free-time hobby. After quitting his necktie-laden job, art began to be his focus once more, with his sketches acting as the start of full-blown illustrated storybooks.

His first two books, available for purchase on his online studio, exemplify his trademark style. Both are light on color but heavy on symbolism, exploring such themes as evolution versus creation and spiritual philosophy.

“I used to paint pictures that told stories,” Nicholson says. “I’m just taking that same idea and stretching it out into a more complicated, comprehensive thought. Each book takes an idea and spells it out, yet keeps it open for interpretation.”

One story, The Involuntary Life and Death of Seymour Finnegan, illustrates the adventures of a half-man, half-fish creature. Readers who look closely will see a fishhook on every page, a metaphor for the omnipresence of death and desire in any person’s life. His other illustrated story, The Birdhouse Man, shows the epic tale of a man with an empty birdhouse growing from his head. Totally normal reading, right? Totally not.

However, it’s this daring uniqueness in his work that’s led to Nicholson’s success. Both books were chosen for display in a 2016 exhibition at KANEKO.

“When we first met Joe, it became clear that art is truly his life’s pursuit,” says Chris Hochstetler, KANEKO’s executive director. “I would describe him as a contemporary philosopher who asks the same very deep and nagging questions that we all yearn to know, but through the depth of art.”

Beyond illustrated books, Nicholson uses his talents to help businesses tell their brand stories. One such job came from the most unlikely of places—with hands in suds and grime, washing dishes for the Boiler Room. Proof that even in the art world, it’s all about connections. His friendship with sous chef A.J. Swanda blossomed into a paying gig. Last year, Swanda opened his own restaurant, Ugly Duck, and commissioned his old pal to create a 250-square-foot mural and design T-shirts.

That’s not the only trendy midtown hangout that’s benefitted from Nicholson’s artistry. As a pseudo-reward for being a loyal regular, Nicholson was hired by Nite Owl bar to create wooden liquor menus and T-shirts with an old school Americana design. Yes, Nicholson knows food and drink very well, but he thought he was in over his head when hired by Definitive Vision to create a mural that doubles as one large color blindness test.

“I was really excited, then I thought, ‘Shit there’s a lot of science behind that,'” Nicholson says.

As with most things in Nicholson’s life, it all worked out, and the mural still lives on the waiting room wall.

For Nicholson, he’s playing the long game—planning next to create up to 10 more surreal storybooks. Even with his reborn love for illustrating, his preferred medium may change again. It’s not what he uses to create that drives him, rather the challenge to create. The struggle is real and very much wanted.

“With each new project, I push myself to do something that scares me,” Nicholson says. “It’s just fulfilling to now be at a place where my art isn’t just kept in the basement anymore.”

Visit joenicholsonstudios.com for more information.

This article published in the November/December 2017 edition of Encounter.