Nick Sweetman On His Favourite Places To Paint And His Pull Toward Public Art And Murals
Nick Sweetman is a multi-disciplinary artist from Toronto, with a soft spot for nature and a joyful attitude about his work. Developing his artistic skills throughout his entire life, Nick has played with multiple mediums, although murals are where he spends that majority of his time.
Nick has painted murals all around Toronto, as well as Montreal, Puerto Rico, Melbourne, Sydney, and California, where he was invited to participate in the Eureka international street art festival. He has won awards for his murals, given speeches at ribbon-cutting events for his murals, and exhibited in galleries.
He’s an extremely accomplished artist. But what makes Nick Sweetman such a cool person is that the achievements he holds most dear are the messages he receives from people who have enjoyed experiencing his work and taken something out of it.
Humble and extremely entertaining, Nick joined us on Street Art Unearthed to chat about how he was drawn to public art, where his connection to nature came from, and he shares some great stories about his favourite painting experiences.
Check out the podcast for Nick below, or read on for excerpts from our conversation.
Life on Lockdown
I feel like I’m living a comparatively comfortable life. I have good friends who are in healthcare, who are in hell. I’m glad that the people I love are safe.
I live by myself, so there is nobody here for me to fight with. I’ve really been pretty productive getting canvas commissions done in my place and then kind of sneaking out every so often to get out and paint at a safe distance.
There has been a couple of murals in Toronto thanking the healthcare workers and promoting masks, and I feel like that’s a way better way of building a team mindset in people. We’re all in this together. It’s cheesy, but I can’t think of a better expression.
Compelled to Paint on the Street
I did my masters at OCAD. My feeling after that was that I’m not into the model of making work locked away in my studio all of the time, cut off from society in some ways. And then after doing all that work, doing the running around and trying to present it and also having to make a case for getting paid for it. I really, really hate the aspect of my job that involves selling myself. That’s the thing I avoid the most.
The mural work, the model… It wasn’t a conscious transition. I just started gravitating towards working in public art, for two reasons: The model. With murals you decide on a price, you get the money and do the work. It’s not this negotiation.
The second reason… I love going to galleries, I love going to museums, I am super inspired by the last few shows I have gone to, and it’s made me reconsider this position, but it felt like working in public I could have a bigger effect on people’s day to day life. The messages I want to put out there are not just for people who would take the day to go to the gallery. But there are a million people that have to pass this corner.
I started getting a more rewarding experience working in public because I was accessing that fraction of the population that doesn’t consider themselves as art literate. They just respond to it on a gut level. That’s what I’m trying to do — paint something that you don’t need a little plaque to experience it.
If you read a lot of interviews with different artists who work in public, you’re going to hear a lot of the same sentences in different ways where people are just trying to have a connection with others. And contribute something. A message, or to make you wonder, inspire some feeling of awe. I do think there is so much potential to speak to people on that level.
One With Nature
I’ve always been obsessed with animals from a young age. My shelves were full of different books. That has always been a background passion or something that I’ve cared about. It’s the root of my call to environmentalism. Reading about biodiversity loss and species disappearing, that was the first feeling of that sad almost shared guilt of humanity as a kid. So animals have always been a home for me artistically, psychologically maybe, as they are for many people.
I always had pets — tonnes of weird ones. One of my first pets was a fire belly newt. His name was Spike. We had hamsters that were repeatedly suicidal. They would climb out of their cage and jump to their death again and again and again. Dogs. We had a rabbit for a while that was my sisters that ran amuck in the basement.
I wasn’t doing a tonne of animal art, really. I was painting in high school, and when I was learning to paint with oils on canvas, I was doing a lot of monsters. Tentacle creatures with lots of teeth. Bulky muscular characters.
I was reading a lot of coming books at the time, and I was really interested in the characters that were mutants, like animals combined with people to create this monstrous thing. I was really into greek mythology, like the Minotaur and animals which were combinations with other animals. Hellboy was a huge influence on my early art. And spawn.
I went to an art high school, which was one quarter visual art. They hone your life drawing and still life and all those kinds of skills. As frustrating as that is when you’re in high school, and you just want to draw monsters and stuff.
I think I started to feel like “oh, I got this. This realistic stuff, I’ve figured this out. Now I’m onto bigger and better things, and I’m just going to paint out of my imagination”. It took me a long time to come back to studying from observation.
I got really into graffiti, that’s when I really started using spray cans and being inspired more by graphic elements and letterforms and the kind of flow or style of graffiti lettering.
The Joy of Painting Animals
The way I came back to animals was sort of roundabout. I had been working in public art for about a year. I had done a couple of projects with youth groups. We were beautifying the neighbourhood in little ways.
I did this course with an organisation called Mural Routes. It’s a non-profit that pairs artists with people looking for murals. Finds funding for mural projects and makes them happen.
It’s the kind of thing that there is small training available. I did this training course that was sort of dipping your toe into the beginnings of every aspect of a mural. From community engagement to budgeting, to setting up a contract… Assessing the wall material and preparing the wall for the mural. All sorts of safety about ladders and equipment. It was a good primer of how to work large scale. That combined with the skills I’ve been building small scale and then learning to use the spray can, that all came together at the same time.
This project I was working on, I was project managing a big mural on the East side of Toronto. So I’m project managing a project for another artist. I was helping paint this design by another artist. Some of them were volunteers, and some of them were like not up to the level that you would want to see as a finished work. So I ended up taking over this rabbit, and I was like “man, that felt really good” to study this picture, and using the methods to get this on the wall really large scale it was a really good feeling.
I was really new to Instagram, but that post I remember getting a lot of love for, and I started getting offered a lot of work to paint animals. So it was the direction I wanted to go, and I also got such a good reception and encouragement in that direction. I was getting offered more work. I was challenging myself with harder and harder animals and learning new techniques along the way that I was incorporating in.
Pushing the Boundaries
Now I feel again like I’ve arrived at the place where doing a realistic image is a piece of cake to me, and I’m interested in challenging myself further in different ways. So I’ve always pushed the colour pallet outside of what’s realistic.
Now I want to do different things that I’m seeing other artists in my field experiment with, like breaking the image up in different ways, having colour changes, like graffiti chunks in there, giving the animals little crowns and halos. I’m working on a piece right now that’s going to be a gorilla with a big gold chain that has my crew name in the middle. This is for my crew. It’s my friends birthday, and we’re doing this giant 11 man project. It needs one of these badass characters.
Landing New Walls
Like Toronto, everywhere has legal means of doing things, semi-legal ways of doing things and illegal ways of doing things. The first one would be applying to different opportunities, which I did. One of my really good friends got married in November outside of Sydney. It was my first time in the country, so I wanted to see a bit of the country, and I booked myself a nice long trip. My friend Kyle told me about this wall that was along Bondi Beach (Bondi Beach Graffiti Wall) that is always being repainted by different artists. So I looked into it, and there was a council, and they granted me a spot of the wall.
The second channel I mentioned, semi-legal. The way I prefer to do things, I always prefer to look for a local who knows the scene and who is going to isolate me from any trouble. Both the kind of trouble that involves police, and the kind of trouble that involves other people who are out painting and might not take kindly to my location, or the fact that I’m painting at all.
So the semi-legal way, I know a guy who I paint with here who is Australian. I messaged him and told him I would be in these places and asked if he knew anyone who would want to take me out and go painting. He put me in touch with a couple of guys in Melbourne, and I just reached out to people on Instagram. I reached out to Dose who is an artist in Melbourne. Great guy who is super connected in the art world there.
I bought all this paint to paint the piece on Bondi, and then I took my paint to Melbourne to paint there and then when I came back to Sydney I had connected to two OGs in the graffiti scene in Sydney: Phibs and Pudl. I had connected with Pudl, and he had invited Phibs, and they took me to this wall in Newtown in Sydney, which is where the bin chicken got done.
Elevating the Underappreciated
The very beginning of my career was started with wanting to paint the things that weren’t always in art. Not as traditionally attractive. Like wolves, lions or foxes. I like certain insects and snakes and certain fish and octopus. I like to put some on the other side of the scale. The weird, gross, maybe not the normal animals you see in artwork.
In the case of the bin chicken, that would be part of my new thing over the last few years where I try to paint the local wildlife of places that I go. I was just there, and the bin chicken was my favourite thing about Australia.
Career Highlight Locations
Off the top of my head, one of the most recent really, really cool experiences I had was going under the city of Melbourne with Dose and an artist called SAEM. Really great guys. I really appreciated them taking me to this spot.
It was about a 45-minute drive, and we ended up in this drain. We needed full-on headlamps. It would have been pitch black if Dose didn’t have these floor lamps and we all didn’t have these headlamps on. We would take our pictures with all the lights on one piece, and then all the lights on the other piece.
Being in that tunnel. Making do with what we had. The wall was soaking wet because we buffed it to put a colour on the wall, so the paint doesn’t soak into the raw concrete as easily. It was so moist in there and cold that the buff didn’t dry, so every time you would run a finger on the wall you would just yank a whole chunk of paint down. It was tough getting that piece done.
Am I 100% happy with it? Of course, I would always prefer to spend another hour or an hour and a half fixing little things. But at the end of the day, it’s those experiences of showing up, setting your paint down, painting your piece, taking your flick and getting out of there. As far as spots go, that’s for sure one of the favourites of my entire career.
Also painting in Puerto Rico was incredible. It’s like a graffiti paradise. I know some artists there who are big in the scene, and I travelled with other artists that are big in the North American scene. It’s just a really fun kind of week. You go for a week, and every day there is a different jam cause there is all of these abandoned structures from the hurricane and people are scouting all the time so you get the pin and you get in your car and drive out and hit the spot. And if there is time, you go to the next spot too and its all these abandoned structures that you’re painting with giant I-beams hanging in the wind.
It’s all dedicated to these two artists who passed away. One more recently, a Canadian artist called Scan, and a Puerto Rican artist called Pun18. The whole festival is called Style Discipline, and it’s put on by ADM crew who are the crew that Pun was in. Its sort of bridge-building between different crews in New York, Miami, Toronto, Montreal, Atlanta and then there is always some random ones. Dmote from Australia was in the one last year, and Twik from Germany was there last year.
I was actually scheduled to be there in March again for my third Style Discipline. But the day we were supposed to leave, Puerto Rico called a state of emergency, so we were like “let’s pull back, let’s not go on this trip and risk our next two weeks in quarantine somewhere”.
Quarantine Colouring Book
My friend Jeff Blackburn, who is an awesome artist from Toronto, put together this lineup of artists from all over the place who contributed black and white pages for people to colour. Some of my favourite artists are in there. It’s just a fun way to give adults and children something to do. There are all different kinds of art in there, so styles for all different tastes, and hopefully you can kill some of these hours that you have to spend indoors in a way that doesn’t make you go insane.
So much respect to everybody that is doing their job, putting themselves in danger because it’s making it so that the rest of us can hide, and just wait it out.
Written using excerpts from the latest podcast with Nick Sweetman.