Interview: 2016 Visionary Award Recipient De Andrea Nichols

On April 25, The St. Louis Visionary Awards will celebrate the passion, determination, and imagination of six women who dive into the trenches daily to improve our city’s arts culture by stimulating artistic ability via education, philanthropy activism and public engagement.

The honorees selected were chosen by a committee of prominent professionals who include include co-chairs Sara Burke and Kim Eberlein, as well as Adrienne Davis, Alison Ferring, Renee Franklin, Melissa Howe, Cynthia Prost, Marilyn Sheperd and Donna Wilkinson. Check back each week as we dive deep with all six honorees.

Photo courtesy of The Visionary Awards

De Andrea Nichols. Photo courtesy of The Visionary Awards

One of the honorees, De Andrea Nichols, is an activist, museum arts educator, social entrepreneur and creative badass. Born in small town Mississippi, Nichols spent her formative years in Memphis before moving here to attend Washington University where she graduated with a Masters of Social Work from the Brown School of Social Work.

Since then, Nichols has been relentless combining the arts with social design and entrepreneurship to make St. Louis a better community. An ardent activist with a knack for meshing social entrepneurship with diversity, her savvy and determination has resulted in several endeavors including Civic Creatives (formerly known as Catalysts by Design), an organization deeply rooted in societal design strategies aimed at building communities. Another of the tenets of her steadfast resolve for improving our city is the Clinton Initiative venture Design Serves (D*Serve), which was formed as a mechanism to teach K-12 students a plethora of design and civic engagement skills designed to pinpoint and actualize social change at the neighborhood level.

She also has a deep appreciation for the culinary arts. As the founder of FoodSpark, a monthly potluck that literally brings artists, professionals and movers and shakers to the same table to discuss how art and design can better serve our municipalities. These brainstorming sessions harness the energy of full heads and tummies to forge an ethos of new ideas that encourage collaboration and ingenuity.

Never one to lose momentum, Nichols commented on her award, her work and what it means to be a catalyst for jumpstarting creativity and positive cultural change.

As we approach the Visionary Awards, can you tell us how the arts have impacted your life?

I am someone who has always been involved in the arts. It’s something that was birthed in my nature. As a young person, I remember the first time I ever got in trouble was because I had drawn all over my grandmother’s walls and something clicked in my family to also nurture that natural curiosity and interest.Since then every holiday and every birthday always included some kind of art supplies. So my family nurtured that natural inclination.

I went on to go to a creative and performing arts high school and majored in communications design in high school and find my pathway in a career that both nurtured my artistry as well allowed me to support other young artists and engage in social issues that I care about through the arts and through creative practice. It is definitely something that has impacted my life, my entire life.

Describe your creative process?

As an interdisciplinary artist, my process often changes based upon the media that I am using with regard to the making of the actual work. But I am also a communications designer and was trained as such and there is a design process we use for any project despite the media that is being utilized.

So literally because I am both trained as a designer and as a social worker, there is this … alignment between the evidence-based process and the design thinking process usually actualizes itself by building relationships first with the community that I am working with and creating with and then discovering what is the social challenge, the social issue we are addressing and that we aim to engage through art making and through the design process. Then we got through iteration. I am a lover of ideas so I keep these notebooks that are just full of different ideas that have come up from brainstorms with community members, with other artist friends and once we have as many ideas as possible we start to funnel those down and once we funnel those down that’s where we decide the type of media that we are going to use. I speak in terms of the ‘we’ because so many of my projects are not necessarily solo projects and so once we have that chosen media, that chosen platform of expression that we want, that’s when the magic happens and that’s when the excitement really, really starts. Sometimes things really take off with people and sometimes there are smaller projects and I celebrate and I honor and I value both of those outcomes.

How can St. Louisans better champion the arts?

I think St. Louis, and the nation at large, could really benefit from changing and shifting and growing the way that the arts viewed. The arts are not just some feel good platform. The arts are not just for expression, artists really have the ability to transform how we think, the way that we lead, the way that we consider social issues, the way that we create awareness about these same issues.

I think St Louis could really benefit from seeing artists as leaders, seeing creative processes as necessary parts of the civic brainstorming process. By seeing the intersections between the arts, civic life, tech life, entrepreneurship, I think we can create more innovations for the city and more solutions for the issues that we’re still engaging and trying to figure out.

What made you want to become more deeply involved in our arts community?

I originally came to St. Louis to study at Washington University back in 2006 to study. After I graduated I stayed around a little bit for a few months and then I left on a design fellowship that allowed me to go back down South, to different parts of the rural American South and create and design with, for and within different community spaces and throughout that experience I had been accepted to study at the Brown School of Social Work but I kept deferring. Eventually everything just made sense. So much was happening while I was away from St. Louis that I wanted to be involved in.

Even while I was away I kept getting opportunities to come back and speak and be on panels. The Regional Arts Commission and Brown School of Social Work were a big part of that process of getting back. I knew that my mission, my purpose here in St. Louis was not over. I came back. When I made that decision it was one of the best decisions of my life because moving back to St. Louis in 2012 changed my own life drastically and progressed in so many amazing ways and at the same time the projects and the creativity of that creative process has gotten bolder and more vibrant because I am here.

I think what it is about St. Louis that keeps me here and brought me back is the strength of the artist community and creative community here. There is so much love and so much support for artists and amongst artists and I really value that.

In addition to that I think because I am also someone who uses art and uses design as tools and platforms towards changemaking and creative impact, St. Louis is also a city I’ve learned to love flaws and all. It’s the flaws, the opportunities for change in the city that also attracts me and keeps me here.

When I read an article that says St. Louis is number one for all these horrible things, whether it’s mental health crises or police brutality and social injustice, I don’t see that as an opportunity to knock the city. I see that as an opportunity to help build and strengthen the city and to be welcomed and supported to that through that the arts—that’s what’s keeping me here. That’s why I continue to be an advocate for getting other people to come here and live here and make their practice here.

What can other artists and creative professionals in the region do to foster stimulation in the arts?

One really great opportunity is to build some type of tool or some type of consistent support system that allows artists to know how to make a living and go full-time with their artistry. One of the unfortunate things, myself, I am included in this; many creative people often have multiple lives that they are living. That is especially true in St. Louis. I know a lot of amazing artists who, by day, are working at a retail shop and by night they’re bartending—and then they have the arts and all of these other gigs just to make a living to support their practice. I think that if we could put our heads around how to make the arts sustainable for people on that individual level, we could really come up with some amazing things.

One thing I would really love is that if there were a media outlet that was solely dedicated to telling the story of artists and creative people who are doing good work within community spaces. That’s what’s unique about St. Louis. There’s such a massive amount of artists here who are literally using their creativity and their practice and their design skills for the better good to really help community members, to help youth to help nurture and solve problems. That creative problem-solving is something that I think, we as artists, could dive more into collaboratively and creatively.

How does the Community Impact Award reflect the work you did in 2015?

I think the Visionary Award reflects my ability to organize other artists and visually articulate a vision for changing the world.  One of the biggest projects that happened in late 2014 and really develop throughout 2015 was the Mirror Casket Project. That project was created from that pain and that trauma of being on the ground in Ferguson.

I was haunted night after night by this nightmare, or series of nightmare actually, and in one of the nightmares was this consistent image of men and young people and older people carrying this casket that was made completely of mirrors. Then ,I organized a team of seven other artists to help build this casket and actualize that dream on the ground in Ferguson.

From Ferguson, came this spiral of other communities creating even more of these types of symbols and icons to really raise the call to action and for us to garner greater empathy for the lives that are being lost at this senseless violence, while at the same time visually sparking new ideas and new ways of how life can be better—that’s part of that process.

In addition being on the design side of things as well, so much of my practice in 2015 and beforehand was all about going into community spaces, working collaboratively with communities.  I wanted to help them identify what the voids are that they care about and how to fix that and then to help them set that vision of how to approach it and then take them through the design process to create the solution themselves. I think that skill and that ability is constantly visionary.  So I am very honored and very humbled that this part of artistry and being an arts organizer is celebrated and supported.

With such a diverse and active agenda of accomplishments one would expect De Andrea Nichols to slow down. However this is simply not the case. Her latest project is a YouTube series entitled, “In My Blackness,” which features stories and content that focus on creativity and identity as a means to explore racial identity and ethnicity.

For more information about De Andrea Nichols visit her website, deandreanichols.com

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