If I die in my studio
Like a mouse in my cage
Will the neighbors smell my corpse
Before the rats eat my face
The writing on the wall of Nils Westergard’s Museum District studio, while somewhat morbid, pokes fun at the compulsive working tendencies that have resulted in his expansive, cohesive body of work, despite the ingenious artist being only three years out of school.
Originally printed in RVA #30 FALL 2017, you can check out the issue HERE or pick it up around Richmond now.
Since graduating from VCU with a film degree in 2014, the Belgian-American Richmonder has amassed a prolific portfolio of around 60 murals in both the United States and Europe, and has also exhibited his paintings and smaller hand-cut stencil works in galleries on both sides of the Atlantic. RVA Magazine has followed his career since he appeared on the scene in 2015 as the first local artist (and one of the youngest artists) to participate in the Richmond Mural project. Most notable here in town for his introspective, usually monochrome mural-scale portraiture, his hand-cut city map works were also picked up by popular press in Amsterdam and London, as well as the front page of Reddit on a few occasions.
While preparing for the upcoming Richmond Street Art Festival, Nils, alongside his feathered friend Paco, answered a few of our questions, giving us some rare insight into the artist’s captivating & conscientious work.
What has been your experience as a working artist in Richmond?
Taking forever to get a wall here. For every 30 walls I hit up, maybe one goes through, so I’m always bitching about trying to get a wall. In some ways I wish it was easier to do, but as a result I’ve ended up painting overseas so much. I would like to exhibit in Richmond. I sometimes feel like I don’t get a lot of love from Richmond, and more so, I don’t think people realize I’m from here. People will ask when I’m in town, or, “Hey dude when do you go back home?” and I’m like, “I’m from here! I’ve lived here seven years! I’m from Richmond!” I like to be from Richmond, but people think I’m just here for the mural project or other events, when I’m really here full time.
I was walking by one of the local galleries getting some coffee, and I notice their show up called “RVA Street Art,” and my reaction was a little “WTF?” I walked in and it was Ed Trask, Mickael Broth, Matt Lively, and, I mean, those guys are great and I really love what they’re doing, but how did I not even hear about this? How did I not hear this was going on when I have three murals outside of their back door? How am I so disconnected from the Richmond “Street Art Community” that I didn’t even know the show was on? That kind of shit gets me. I’d love to do more in Richmond, but instead I end up showing everything in Scandinavia, London, Amsterdam, and such. I’m proud to be from here. I’d like to do stuff here. I don’t know if the community is a little older than me, or my stuff is a little darker, or what. I think the biggest thing is that my stuff is not the most colorful or uplifting, cardinals and shit. Maybe not as easy to digest. And I get it. It just doesn’t fly, and I don’t want to bend for it.
You had a thoughtful response to Times-Dispatch writer Mark Holmberg’s rant that the Richmond Mural Project and others like it “send an ugly message.” Any further comments you’d like to share?
Get fuckin’ real, man! There are places I have been where I think, “This is too much.” Places like Wynwood [Walls, Miami] jump to mind, where everything is just covered. But we are so far from that here. You know, we could easily have two or three times more walls than we do now and I still don’t think it’d feel suffocated. Go to Philadelphia. They have one of the longest-running, most successful mural programs in the country, and it’s excellent. They’re proud of it. It’s all over the city. But it’s ridiculous that this would be considered too many [in Richmond]. There’s definitely a point where there’s too many, but we are very, very far from it. Plus, I see it as a way to combat ads. Driving down Broad [Street], I see maybe five murals and about 500 signs for fast food, or billboards.
What role has new media or social media had in your career thus far?
I was doing a bunch of graffiti in middle school, and started learning to make stencils around that time from a website out of Australia, a small forum called Stencil Revolution. I learned all the basics of what I do now from that. It was cool to be privy to this little group of people that were doing that. A lot of the artists that are larger now were definitely posting on there, and I guess in a sense that was an earlier form of social media. So now when I travel, I see and meet up with artists that I knew from the forum, like ELK when I was in Australia a couple years ago, who is a larger artist now. I had known him since I was 12 thanks to this website.
It’s hard to think about what it was like before social media. I was watching what was going down in Europe when I was in middle school, through tiny websites and blogs that were following it, and this was way before it blew the fuck up. And then once social media came along, it totally just blew work like this forward. Any kind of image sharing platform is naturally going to boost something like this forward. I actually really loathe smartphone culture. I’ve had this old phone for twelve years. I have no desire to have a smartphone. I do have one that I use as an iPod and to run my Instagram off of, so I recognize it as a necessary evil, because I do think 90% of the gigs I get are a result of people seeing my work online. I’ve also noticed this culture develop where artists are painting for the picture, and they’re like, “Am I done?” [Then] they take a picture on their phone and say, “That looks good enough.” It’s easy to fall into that because you know the majority of the audience that you care about probably are online, but the fact of the matter is by painting in a community you are changing a lot of people’s environments. They have to walk by this every day, so you really have to paint it with the knowledge that this is meant to be seen in person, not just on a two-inch screen.
What elements of your process would you say are shared between your more intricate, hand-cut stencil work and the larger murals?
I don’t think most people realize that I do the stencil work. I think most people know me for the walls because they are dramatic and big, and that’s what people see. I’ve only started doing the walls a couple years ago, and I’ve been doing the stencils for over a decade. When I think of myself, I consider myself more of a stencil guy over anything, because I’ve spent way more hours doing this than I’ll ever spend doing a wall. The walls go quick. I do a wall in like two days; even the large ones, I do in three days max. But the stencils take me forever, so I consider myself more about this. As for common process, I would use the exact same picture that I cut out of, break the image into layers, and draw the shades out. If I’m doing a wall, I’ll maybe sometimes project some outlines, but I more often just take that and go. If I’m doing the stencils, I just cut it out and break it down into cuts.
What drew you to doing the murals after all of this stencil work and a film degree?
I think it’s the graffiti mindset that I came up in as a kid — go big and go everywhere! And I just admire it. Big work like that has a large effect, and it’s a physical experience. But why did I originally get into it? I just saw work I liked, and I wanted to do it myself. The first year that the Richmond Mural Project came around, and brought these people that I’d followed online for a decade when they were just tiny people, I’d never really had a chance to see any of this stuff in person because it was overseas. So I was pretty excited to finally put faces to the work I had known. I skipped about a week of school and was just hanging out with them, and after spending some time with them, I realized that these were just normal people and watching them work made it feel less intimidating. So I ended up doing my first wall, and just kept going.
I also feel like the murals allow me to bypass any “velvet rope” mentality that galleries might create, where people who feel like, “Oh I’m not a gallery person, I don’t go to art shows,” wouldn’t get to see the work. A lot of people have never been to a gallery show. It’s just not a world that they’re a part of, and I get that. Also, considering how people might view the art world as an elitist place, I feel like you avoid a lot of that when you paint on the street. People can pass it and enjoy it in their own right and there’s no pretense to it.
You have a few distinct projects you’ve been working — the murals, these hand-cut stencil figure paintings, and also hand-cut layouts of city maps. How do you move from one project to the next?
I’m in a constant nebulous free-flow with the things I want to make. I’ve always gone by this: If you put yourself in a sink or swim situation, you’re going to swim. So if you’re going to come up with an idea, just jump into it all the way. For Wallflower [his senior thesis film], I just had to cut out a bird silhouette one night, and all because of a 15 second thought, I decided to dedicate the next year of my life to this project. Eight hours a day, every day. Go all the way in on it and see how it goes. That’s how it happened with the maps I’ve done too. I could think about why I’m doing it, or I could just do it. So I started doing the maps, and I’ve been doing this floral stuff recently. I’m not sure why I’m doing it, but I have a lot of time to figure out why while I am. I really just get an idea, feel good about it for six seconds, and then jump in.
For someone who has only been out of school for three years, your professional resume is quite impressive already. What advice would you have for college students and recent graduates?
Effort. Hours. I think 98% of people in art school are pretty lazy, and I know that’s hard to hear because you work really hard to bust out your school work. But then what? You make your A in painting, and no one really gives a shit. You have to make your own work on the side. If you’re trying to make a living off of your art, that’s crazy. You’re trying to tell the universe that you deserve to live off of painting pictures. There’s a degree of ego that’s insane, to think you deserve to pull that off, so you have to put in an ungodly amount of effort as payment. Just be careful not to lose your mind in the process.
Studio and main photos by Patrick Biedrycki