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Life as a Professional Portrait Artist: Interview with Nicole Bourgea


While doodling in the margins of a notebook or sipping Chardonnay at a wine and paint class, did you ever wonder what it takes to become a real artist—a woman who creates art not only out of passion but also for a living? Nicole Bourgea is a portrait artist in Washington, D.C., who takes on private commissions as well as public exhibitions. Two years ago, she created an Urban Project Initiative entitled “AS IS,” a series of ten life-sized paintings of strangers which she left on the street for the subjects to find and keep. In a world of mass-produced art, Bourgea looks past the surfaces we might see a thousand times a day to manifest the oftentimes-overlooked life beneath. We sat down with her to learn a little bit more about life as an artist.

What are the benefits and challenges of being a professional artist?

I think that one of the major benefits for me personally has been the satisfaction of knowing that I am spending my days exactly as I should be. I do think that some people are really compelled by something bigger to make art, and that they won't be truly happy unless they answer that calling with creative work. I definitely consider myself one of those people, and I love stepping into my studio every day with the assurance that I am at least showing up to answer that call. Plus, as an artist you get to really experiment with ideas in a way that other fields tend to write off as wasteful, or even childish. In art, that daring risk and play is necessary to innovate and to create something new or beautiful.

The problems of being a career artist generally break into the two distinct categories: the struggles with the work itself and the challenges associated with being an entrepreneur. The two don't really have anything to do with each other, but pursuing a career as an artist means waking up ready to tackle both on a daily basis.


How did you make the decision to pursue art as a career?

I actually never considered that a career in the arts could be seen as a terrifying thing. I am lucky to come from a super supportive family of art teachers, artists, and architects, so I suppose I never thought of it as an alternative career path! But it was an incredible feeling to sell my first painting. Realizing that someone else saw enough value to spend their income on my vision was such a thrill!

What is the “AS IS” project, and how has it been received?

What inspired "AS IS" was the idea of someone hurrying around a corner and then meeting his or her own image. I hoped that it would make them smile and feel that their presence in this world is significant. Every person deserves to be seen. It was such a simple thing for me to do, to tell people that they matter. And so, using my experience with commissioned portraits, I launched an urban painting project in Washington, D.C., and called it "AS IS." I chose ten people in the city at random, painted life-sized portraits of them, and hung them in the place where I met each person. Then I put up a sign telling them that if they recognized themselves, the portrait belonged to them.

It was a difficult thing to do because I was putting a year’s worth of work out in the open, in the rain and the weather. What if they were thrown out or returned to me? But I remembered that the heart of this project was to not see art as a precious commodity, but as a gift that is meant to be given. I left these portraits out on the street as a gift to each of the people I painted. It was not supposed to be about me. It was meant to be a message to people that they are seen and that they matter.

The response to the installation has been humbling. All but one of the portraits made their way to their subjects, and oftentimes it got to them through the community—friends who found the subject and delivered the portrait, even shopkeepers who would bring the art in out of the rain. I have received posts on my blog, emails, and a Christmas card. The unexpected reception of this project has been so surprising and gratifying.

Would you describe the artistic experience as a spiritual one?

On the best days, I would! I personally pray that God will work through me in my art. Every once in a while, when everything within me seems to align with the bigger picture, I do feel like I get the smallest, teeniest, most fleeting glimpse of the eternal. That is what keeps me going.

Of course, most days it’s an all-out street fight: showing up to the studio slinging paint and getting knocked right back down to size!

Who are your influences?

I have been influenced by a never-ending stream of people. I am a third-generation artist—my grandfather was an architect and abstract painter, my mother is an art teacher, and most of my other relatives have pursued creative careers of one kind or another. I feel very blessed to have had their examples and support in pursuing an artistic life.

As far as influences outside my family, I have sketchbooks full of words and ideas from inspirational people. A few people that I constantly come back to are John Singer Sargent, for his incredible mastery of painting that somehow manages to reflect both the mystery and the humanity of his subjects, plus all the existentialist philosophers who tried so hard to get at the big "Other" through the particulars of their own small selves.

How do you think being a woman shapes your vision as an artist?

The truth is that I don't really know how being a woman affects my art any more than being an introvert, an oldest child, or an early riser. I'm sure that it does, and that there is a very good answer to the question. But to paraphrase Tina Fey, if I attempted to answer it, you would leave me halfway through for the cheese plate!

Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?

Definitely find a studio space. A professional artist gave me that advice in my undergraduate painting class, which has not failed. I remember looking for a place, wondering if I should pay for a separate space with extra rent, but I went for it. I have absolutely not regretted it. Having it forces you to get up, get out, and make art. Do it even if you don’t think of yourself as an “established artist."

And remember that making art is a process. You will make a lot of bad pieces along the way before you get to a really great one. Never let yourself become discouraged. Just keep making art.