What is something that you want people to know about you as a person or an artist?
One of the big things I would like people to know about me as a person is that art has freed me since I’ve been in prison.
You know, it’s been a freedom for me, it’s taken my mind away from all the negative things that happen in prison. And even some of the things that I’ve gone through with my family and stuff like that, just being here, because it’s very tough.
I’m a totally different person now than I was 20 years ago. And yeah, art is definitely one of the big things that has changed me.
Can you tell me more about that? How did you first start creating art?
I would just make greeting cards and stuff like that for my family. And over the years, I just kept doodling and doing stuff like that. Eventually I ran into some guys in prison who painted, and they saw some of my work, and they were like, you should paint. So I tried it out, and it turned out real well.
How do you decide what to paint?
A lot of times people request certain things like portraits and things like that. And some of the requests are wacky and way out there, and it’s challenging, and I just try it, you know?
Sometimes I have thoughts in my mind, maybe in my subconscious, that I want to get out, and I just paint. I just paint what I see in my mind.
So it’s a way for you to process things?
Yeah. For instance, the Chapter 3 painting: in my mind, I’ve visualized my life just being like a book. And chapter 3 embodies a moment in my life when I have an epiphany, and it just happened to happen in a cell, in prison, you know what I’m saying? Where I just changed my thinking about something and I started seeing life in a totally different way.
Can you tell me more about that?
Well, my case, the case that I’m locked up for, is self defense. I grew up in a very violent environment, so, you know, at the time, I was trying to deal with, you know, my own stuff, my own aggression, and look at violence like, why does violence happen? Trying to just figure out why I thought the way that I thought, in a certain time in life.
I was 19 years old when I committed this crime, but again, I was protecting myself. I felt like if I didn’t defend myself, I would have been the victim. And I didn’t want to be the victim.
So, this was just a moment while I was just trying to review why violent things happen, and just trying to think my way out of situations moving forward, so that I won’t react the wrong way. It’s a very difficult process, it’s something I still struggle with. And it comes from just being in a violent environment.
Have COVID precautions impacted your art?
It has, but I’m actually working on something now — it’s a for Christian organization that I always do stuff for. It’s the three wise men. But yes, this whole situation does slow me down a little bit because I would be doing a lot more paintings, working on my assignment as an art teacher in the prison. But now I’m restricted to my small space in my cell. It’s hard to work like that, especially when it’s so hot and stuff. Imagine painting in your closet.
What’s something that you want people on the outside who see your art to know about the criminal justice system?
I have a lot to say about that. And we only have four minutes left, but I will sum it up by saying that the Illinois Department of Corrections does not stick to its mission statement, which is to promote positive behavior in offender behavior, you know, through programs and stuff like that. That’s a joke. It’s a lie. You know, a lot of us have reformed ourselves in here, through being away from our families and stuff like that. And a lot of us looked to spirituality to better ourselves. But the department is not doing anything. They’re just warehousing us.
You can ask many of these officers that work for IDOC, “What is the mission statement?” and none of them know. They couldn’t tell you. But they can tell you any type of punitive rule or infraction that they can punish you for. They can recite anything, any of that. But they aren’t rehabilitating people, because a lot of them don’t even believe in that themselves.
What would you like to see for a change?
Well, I would like them to honor their mission statement. I would want to see more rehabilitative programming to help guys deal with their addictions, with violence. Violence prevention, life skill programs, more college courses, things like that, things that really help people to gain employment and to deal with theirself.
And what would you like to see for yourself, for your future?
When I get out, I hope to have my own website and hopefully people can commission me to do some art, because I plan on doing all forms of art when I get out.
What new kinds of art do you want to try?
I would definitely like to learn how to tattoo, because I don’t know about that.
I definitely want to do a lot of more mural work, oil paint, because I work in all forms of paint — acrylic, oil, pastel work. I would like to donate some of my talents to some worthy organizations when I get out, and I want to make a living off my art.
Additionally, I am assigned as an art instructor here in the prison. I teach the life skill of art to fellow inmates who also enjoy art and see it as therapy. This is something I would enjoy doing once released.
See our virtual gallery of Nickolas’s art here