A Conversation with Artist Nicolas V. Sanchez Explores His Relationship to Family, Memory, and Identity
April 6, 2020
Colossal managing editor Grace Ebert spoke with artist Nicolas V. Sanchez via email. This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Grace: Can you tell us about your childhood growing up in the Midwest and how it relates to your work? It seems like you’ve done a lot of projects that feature cows, sheep, and horses, so I’m wondering if that’s where your interest in farm animals stems from.
Nicolas: I was born of immigrant parents from Guanajuato, Mexico, that migrated to the U.S. to start a family. I grew up in mid-Michigan, the Lansing area, with my parents and two brothers. In my work, I depict my experiences growing up biculturally. Images of rural animals, landscapes, and family are the primary subject matter in my work, and they all derive from a combination of where I grew up in the Midwest and my family’s rural history in Mexico.
Sometimes my work includes realistic recollections of people and places from life in the Midwest, and sometimes I explore fleeting memories where the line is blurred between familiar and unfamiliar. There’s a sense of uncertainty, yet a familiarity of space, when I’m looking at memories and how they impact me now. I also grew up spending time in the woods, exploring local wildlife and rural neighborhoods. My draw toward nature and animals has always been a part of who I am.
Grace: You’ve said before that you think a lot about family and how that history shapes identities. Could you expand on that?
Nicolas: Yes, the values instilled in me were largely based around family. The importance of family led me to explore ideas of inheritance and the identity that is simultaneously lost and gained through preserving a legacy. Of course, where I’m from plays a big part of who I am, but whether its pride, loyalty, pressure, or a sense of responsibility, family history finds a way to influence the present and future.
Grace: We’d love to know more about your drawing technique, specifically in relation to how you shade and blend colors.
Nicolas: My drawing process in ballpoint and colored ballpoint is actually very simple. In those ballpoint pen drawings, I don’t use any mixed media or washes of any kind. I also don’t use pencil at all, not even to draw a preliminary outline or guide. I only use ballpoint pen from beginning to end to complete a drawing.
I find keeping it simple and minimal makes for a better drawing experience. The colors are never actually blended. Ballpoint pen simply doesn’t work that way, and the inks don’t blend with each other. Different forms of crosshatching and overlapping of color, while using basic color theory, allows me to stretch the medium farther than at first glance when picking up a pen. I also have been drawing all of my life and draw every day, so I’ve had the chance to become familiar with the unique properties and behavior of ballpoint pens.
Grace: How do you decide which pieces that begin in your sketchbook should be expanded upon with paint or charcoal? Are there certain qualities you look for? And how do the works change throughout that process?
Nicolas: A sketch from my sketchbook that turns into a painting isn’t always something I plan or premeditate when I draw. I’m open to letting the sketch develop how it wants, which allows it to lead me somewhere I may not have considered. I let the drawing get in the driver’s seat.
A sketch usually turns into a larger scaled version of itself in paint rather than charcoal since the drawing experience is similar to sketching. The works or initial idea can change throughout the process by leaving things open in the beginning. Other times, making bold decisions to start can make the drawing or painting take an unplanned left turn. What’s important to me is that I stay responsive to what’s happening on the surface in real-time.
Grace: You’ve done a lot of commissioned pieces, in addition to your personal projects. How have you managed those two in the past? Is there a certain balance between them that you’re trying to achieve now?
Nicolas: Managing my commissioned work and my personal work is challenging. I would be lying if I said they are the same thing, but my commission work (is) derived from the personal. Portraits specifically were something I was already doing in my more conceptually developed work, so there is definitely an overlap.
I think it’s very important that there is always a strong overlap between what someone asks me to make and what I would already make anyway. Balancing multiple bodies of work has always been a challenge and fluctuates throughout the year, depending on what demands my focus at any given time. The waitlist for my commissioned portraits has been a year-long for the past five or six years since I finished grad school. They mostly manage themselves, but I’m very fortunate that I have an amazing team to keep me on track!
Grace: Part of your recent work has been to develop scholarships and after-school programs. Could you talk about the role you see mentorship and teaching having in your professional life, both currently and a few years from now?
Nicolas: Mentorship and teaching are very important to me. I rarely teach drawing and painting, maybe once a year I’ll offer a weekend workshop. I don’t think I’m the best teacher, but I do think it’s important to have a dialogue between people who have similar goals especially in the art world. My mentors and teachers have played a huge role in where I am in life today.
The Nicolas V. Sanchez Art Scholarship Program awards annual scholarships to students at every school that I have attended throughout my academic career: Haslett High School, Lansing Community College, Kendall College of Art and Design, and the New York Academy of Art. It is also my privilege to offer my mentorship to each recipient of this scholarship for additional guidance and support. This scholarship program aims to provide an opportunity to further young artists’ development through art education.
I am so grateful for my personal and creative growth through my experience at each school. To give back in this way has been a long time goal, and it is only possible because of the love and support I have received over the years. I feel super excited to support future generations of artists and plan to continue this for years to come.
I also designed and created my own ballpoint pen, the NS1, to support art education. A portion of the proceeds from the pen goes to the Center for Arts Education, a New York City public school arts education initiative. It is my privilege to help support arts education, as my arts education has supported me.
Grace: What’s next? Is there anything we could share with our audience?
Nicolas: We are all currently feeling the impact from the novel coronavirus and the pandemic it has become. I’m fortunate I can still work from home and wanted to do something to help essential medical workers on the frontlines and need medical supplies here in New York City. As someone who lives and works in Manhattan, I want to help the city that has provided me opportunities.
I started an initiative on my social media platforms called the #nicoartchallenge. Starting April 1, I have been making new small paintings each day that people can bid on to raise funds for a great nonprofit organization called New York Cares, which supports medical workers and COVID-19 relief. 100% of the proceeds will go to New York Cares. I’m using my platform to encourage artists to do the same.
After it’s safe to travel again, my hope is to gather with the artist community, fly to Michigan to see my family, and plan my next exhibition. Good things to come!
Head to Instagram to keep up with Sanchez’s work.