How’d They Get That Job: Artist, Architect, Author and Activist Nikkolas Smith

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Nikkolas Smith is an artist whose work includes (but is not limited to!) amusement park attractions, digital paintings and children’s books. Let’s look at Nikkolas’s journey and ask they question “How’d he get that job?”.


Nikkolas Smith grew up in Houston Texas. From an early age he was always drawing and doodling and making art. He cites his older brother as an inspiration “My big brother taught me how to draw”.

And though he took numerous art classes and regularly created posters and other works for school functions, Nikkolas never really considered a career as an artist. When determining what to study in college he looked at his strengths. “Well I’m pretty good at math.” he thought to himself “And I’m good at art. So I’ll try architecture.”

Nikkolas would go on to attend Hampton University, a historically black college in Hampton Virginia, where he would earn a Master’s Degree in Architecture.

The Happiest Place On Earth…Burbank

While studying at Hampton University Nikkolas joined a team to submit an entry to Walt Disney Imagineering’s ImagiNations contest. For the contest teams of college students submit designs for attractions, installations and other features appropriate for the Walt Disney Company’s worldwide theme parks and resorts. The Hampton team’s entry was chosen as a finalist which brought the whole groups to Burbank California for a week of tours, design talks and other Disney fun.

After the competition Nikkolas and his team returned to Hampton to complete their final year. Following graduation he returned to California to join Walt Disney Imagineering first as an intern and then a full-time Architectural Design Imagineer. His job first involved mainly the 3D modelling of buildings as well as architectural renderings, though his role and responsibilities evolved over time.

And though he joined Disney in an architectural capacity, he immediately took advantage of free courses offered by Imagineering in digital art. It was in these courses that Nikkolas first started mastering digital painting and the Adobe Creative Suite.

Art as an Outlet

Art isn’t just a hobby for Nikkolas. For Nikkolas his art is a way to express his thoughts and feelings about what is happening to him and what is happening the world. He describes a time from five years ago when he was having a difficult time personally. “It was a really really low point in my life” he confided. He felt so low that considered moving home to Texas, but ultimately stayed in Los Angeles.

“I realized that art is my passion” he explained “So I’m going to use my passion to pull myself out of a low point.” From this low point came his now popular Sunday Sketch series in which Nikkolas creates a new original digital art piece every Sunday.

As a self-described “art-ivist” (that’s a combination of an artist and an activist), Nikkolas believes that artists have an important role to play in society. He draws inspiration from the Nina Simone quote “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times”. He went on to explain “If I’m going to be a true artist, I basically need to hold up a mirror to ourselves, as a society. And say ‘This is us. This is what we look like. Is this what we want to be?’”

Soon after starting the Sunday Sketch series, Nikkolas created a piece in response to George Zimmerman being found innocent of murdering Travyon Martin. The piece featured Martin Luther King Jr in a hoodie, which echoed an image of Trayvon Martin in the same attire. The image was retweeted by commentator Van Jones and from there it went viral being shared millions of times. Nikkolas’s pieces became so widespread that he was invited to speak on CNN and talk with Martin Luther King Jr’s niece regarding his work.

Since the MLK Jr piece, Smith has continued to use the Sunday Sketch series as an opportunity to hold that mirror up to society. His works show an impressive stylistic range from the playful (showing the Obama family as The Incredibles) to the serious (the horrors of war in Aleppo Syria) to injustice in our own country.

His work has garnered a massive social media following on both Twitter and Instagram.

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MLK Hoodie by Nikkolas Smith

One Thing Leads to Another

During the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Nikkolas created a series of art pieces honoring American athletes such as Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, Michelle Carter, and Simone Manuel. “I made it in the style of a children’s book, because I’d always wanted to do a children’s book.” he explained.

As with many of his pieces, the sketches went viral. But unlike other sketches this one lead to something new.

Nikkolas was approached with the opportunity to expand upon this series of sketches into a full-length children’s book. Nikkolas was thrilled at the opportunity, but less thrilled with the timeline — he was given three weeks to write and create the whole book.

Three weeks later Nikkolas submitted his book The Golden Girls of Rio for publication.

Nikkolas would go on to write another book My Hair is Poofy and That’s Okay.

And thus Nikkolas added “Author” to his already impressive resume of architect, artist and Imagineer.

So How’d He Get That Job?

He Kept Learning

While interviewing Nikkolas for this piece I was stunned to find out that he had only started to learn digital painting after completing graduate school. With his level of skill and polish, I had assumed these were talents he had been honing for years.

But this serves as a great reminder of the value of continued learning and personal development.

Nikkolas had a talent, but he didn’t rest on his talent alone. He learned. He worked hard. And he put that hard work out into the world for critique.

The results speak for themselves.

He Uses Social Media In a Healthy Way

With social media attention often comes social media trolls. It’s an unfortunate part of our digital world.

When he I asked Nikkolas how he deals with trolls and attacks, he shared that he largely ignores them. “Social media: it’s a tool.” he explains “you can fight with the worst people in the world or you can use it to be a family in a sense.” Nikkolas went on to say that the positive support means a great deal to him: “There are a ton of people who are really supportive. And it’s almost like I’m going on a journey with all of these people. And so, I feel like I’m not doing this by myself.”

He Was Bold

Nikkolas emphasized that social media gave him opportunities that would have otherwise been unavailable to him. “I did the movie poster for Dear White People, which was really just fan-art. Then I sent it to Justin Simien, who was the director, through Facebook Inbox. And he liked it. And he showed it to Lion’s Gate and they liked it. So suddenly I’m doing movie poster art!”

And while Nikkolas chuckled as he told this genuinely funny story, I think it is important to note that he did something quite daring. He sent art, unsolicited, to someone he admired. That is bold. But that boldness paid off.

If you want to learn more about Nikkolas Smith you can find that information HERE.

If you’d like more information on me, you can find that HERE.

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Designer, Technologist, People-Person

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