A Beautiful Canvas

Artist Nicole Bresnik found herself and her purpose in pushing paintbrushes and boundaries

Always painting

I was born in 1965, so the tagline on my business card, “Nicole Bresnick: Fine Art since 1965,” is designed to amuse, but it also tells my story.

Lon Michels, who painted since childhood and was Louise Nevelson’s studio assistant in the eighties, literally put a paintbrush in my hand, a canvas and a mirror in front of my face, and guided me through painting a self-portrait. It was only the second painting I had done in my life. “More orange!” he said. “That’s it, Nicole. It’s popping now!”

Though I hadn’t had much studio art training, art-making and creativity had been a through line in my life. That I had been an artist from birth came to me through Louise Nevelson herself, when I visited her work at the Chazen Museum of Art and waited for her to arrive. Though she had died over two decades before, Lon told me she would be there. Soon I felt a presence, and then I heard a voice. She said to me, “You’re always painting.”

Even in moments of frustration at the canvas, when I take a break to let new inspiration in, even when I’m not holding a brush to canvas at all, I’m inside the painting process. In fact, I have always been creating; that is who I am. But my arrival at painting, signing, showing, and selling art as a central expression of that creativity has a story behind it.

An altered reality

I was in my early teens, it was the late seventies and early eighties, and Madison was home to a lot of cutting-edge art. The Elvehjem Museum of Art, the Madison Art Center and their film and performance art series, MFA and faculty shows on campus—even my mom had the Judy Chicago book on her shelf. Film societies showed Warhol’s “Heat,” the Majestic Theater showed “3 Women,” and the Little Professor Book Center sold underground comix to minors. I told comix publisher Denis Kitchen about the last bit when I met him here in Madison as an adult, and he said, “We always wondered about the kids who got their hands on this stuff, what effect that would have on them.” Indeed. My mind was opened up, I dropped acid, and I generally got the idea that turning on, tuning in, and dropping out was a respectable choice.

I did pursue an independent major in postmodern art criticism from Oberlin College, and by the time I had my BA, I was entirely sick of institutional learning and jargon and returned to the “turn on, tune in, and drop out” theory. By age 28, I had a distrust of reality, a skeptical, deconstructive postmodernist perspective, and a bipolar diagnosis. In my detachment, I saw life as one big performance art project. Not something to build and enjoy, but part canvas to paint, and part ice cream sundae to devour. I often hit the road, bound for nowhere; I once took a road trip through Missouri, the South, and up to the East Coast, and when people asked me what I was doing, I told them I was “making a shape.”

I did a lot of visual art but only for my own enjoyment, rarely showing it. I lived wildly and freely and selfishly and was told by dear friends and partners that I was really difficult to hang out with for any length of time. I was in denial and ignorance of my own trans* identity as well. I was raised male, and I began an awkward, homeless, drug-addled transition to female in 2000, when I was 35. And pretending I wasn’t an artist was almost as harmful as pretending I wasn’t female, or pretending I was straight or bi, when I knew had always loved women.

Sadly, most of my creative output of the next eight years is no longer in my possession because as dark as it is, what I do have I really love. My mode of production was to line up a pad of drawing paper, a set of markers, and some mood-altering substances, fill up the pad with imaginative, uninhibited, colorful, and iconoclastic images and text, and then try to find a meal and a place to sleep. I thought I had to be in an altered state of consciousness, on the margins of society, to produce art and to be my true self. I did art for its own sake, which is a beautiful thing, but I also hadn’t yet learned to share it.

Dropping back in

I eventually found my way to recovery, got clean, and got support to begin taking responsibility for my life and well-being, and things finally started to turn around for me. Another year later, more grounded and happy than I had ever been, I met Lon Michels and Todd Olson, a vivacious and artistic couple. Lon became my mentor, and I became his studio assistant. Todd and I became painting partners, and every day Lon would give us an art lesson. I was part of an art tribe.

Within a couple of years, I had the honor of showing my work with Todd Olson and Professors Emeritae Gene and Evelyn Kain, who ran the Ripon College Studio Art and Art History departments, respectively, for 30 years. That Common Wealth Gallery show in September of 2012 was a hit, both critically and in sales.

Todd’s and my side-by-side paintings of the same subjects became our “Déjà Vu for Two” show, December 2012 to April 2013 at Overture Center for the Arts, another success which led to more exposure and more sales and commissions.

Out of that show, Todd and I created an event called Teen Pride Arts. Our purpose was to encourage queer teens to tap into their artistic selves and create. Support came from Overture Center via Beth Racette, Gallery Coordinator and a great artist herself, with funding from The Culver Foundation. Queer teens filled up the Rotunda Stage seating. Todd and I gave talks about our work, Lon told some of his story and led an art-making workshop, teen theater troupe Proud Theater and community theater group Conceal & Carry: Queers Exposed performed. To encourage attendees to make art a part of their everyday lives, we sent them off with colorful gift bags containing a pad of drawing paper and a set of markers.

At Teen Pride Arts, I gave a talk I called “Choosing Beauty” and shared openly about my trans* identity. Transitioning to female was a big part of my journey as an artist. Now, clean of drugs, living as female, and mentally stable, I have a loving relationship with myself and the world around me. All of my wild experiences at the fringes of life and reality enter into my work but are now grounded in an artistic practice. I choose beauty over the ugliness and insanity that I had seen and been a part of but incorporate that darkness as well. I paint portraits of people I love, still lifes of beautiful objects that have personal significance to me, and landscapes that make me feel that I am both witnessing and a part of the divine—all through my own imaginative lens. I am grateful that I have learned to bring all of this richness to my painting practice today. I am not running from the past but integrating it into positive creativity. And that was the message I wanted to share with my community via Teen Pride Arts.

The second Teen Pride Arts event was in the Spring of 2014, and I found even wider support from the community: Overture Center; trans* friends at the Madison Area Transgender Association; Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools (GSAFE) youth and staff; University of Wisconsin – Madison LGBT Campus Center students and staff; artist Michael Velliquette, who talked about his inspiration and process and then led an art workshop; Proud Theater; Our Lives magazine; and generous donations from individuals. We had an after-party at the new Cargo Coffee East coffee shop via co-owner Lynn Lee—another great artist I’m honored to know. Next spring, Teen Pride Arts will return.

Like any artist engaged in their work, I am evolving and experimenting, deepening my intuition through practice, trying new things, finding the old approaches I’ve always had and bringing them back, studying the work of other artists, and a most fruitful exercise for my mercurial personality: daring myself to stay the same.

When I’m not in my studio, I spend quality time with my family, take care of my cat Diego (Rivera), volunteer with women in jail, and work with Deaf and hard of hearing students at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. I am always trying to bring creativity and beauty to the daily choices in my life.

And as Ms. Nevelson told me, “You’re always painting.” Yes, I’d agree that I am.

To see Nicole’s work visit nicolebresnick.com or see her work in person by appointment at the Mansion Hill Microgallery.