BABE #140: NICOLE HOLDERBAUM, Artist, Founder & Director @ Jax Kids’ Mural Project
If you live in the Jacksonville, FL area, you’ve probably seen (and gawked over) this Babe’s distinguished work. The insanely eye-catching murals she designs and paints can be spotted around town and all across the Sunshine State. Not only is her work incredible, but most of the time, it’s also focused on a greater good. Between exposing underprivileged students to the wonder of creating art and serving on boards for arts and education, Nico is an artist with a heart for change, and her work truly makes the world a better, more beautiful place. Thanks for chatting with us, babe!
Babe you admire and why?
I admire and am inspired by many babes, particularly my friends. Currently, that's Valeria Rios. She is a student at Douglas Anderson and an incredible photographer. We've been working together for a few months now, and I am more and more inspired by her every day. I also have to mention Michelle Calloway, founder of Space 42. She and her husband have done an amazing job turning Space 42 into one of the coolest arts and culture spaces in Jacksonville. She is also incredibly talented and creative, and has been focusing more on personal work lately. I get so excited seeing her new posts. She’s so good.
How do you spend your free time?
I don’t have much free time at all, but when I do, I love going to the springs, spending time with my family and friends, adventures and exploring, sleeping, playing with my dog, cooking and experimenting with other creative projects. Most recently, I spent three days canoeing with my dad down the Suwannee River. It was one of the best adventures of my life.
Favorite fictional female character?
Go-to adult beverage?
What would you eat for your very last meal?
Sushi—like a lot of it.
Three things we can always find in your fridge?
Vegan butter, Amy’s frozen burritos (non-dairy/gluten free), carrots
Favorite social media account to follow?
James Aspey. He’s a passionate animal rights activist who has inspired me a lot to be a more compassionate and loving person. The way he speaks about veganism is super admirable, and done in a way that makes everyone feel welcome versus judged. He gives people room to think for themselves and come to their own realizations about eating vegan, and I really respect that.
If you could have coffee with anyone in the world, who would it be?
Rihanna. FENTY X PUMA is my favorite brand collab right now.
If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would it be?
Pavones, Costa Rica. I spent a lot of my time there growing up. I would go every summer. It is pure magic.
Tell us about your hustle:
I am, first and foremost, an artist. I’m the founder of the Jax Kids’ Mural Project, where we visit Title I schools here in Jacksonville to plan and paint murals with students. The process of conceptualizing and planning out the mural lets students know their opinions are valued, and the production of the mural shows students they are capable of much more than they thought. We also have a big annual fundraiser event called Color Me Kona, which we hosted for the first time last November at Kona Skatepark. It was a huge success, and we're already working on plans for this year. I’m also the curator for Burrito Gallery in Downtown Jacksonville, where I manage all of the art selection, installation, deinstallation, etc. I'm also very proud to have joined the board of directors for the Phoenix Art District and JFSOTA (Jacksonville, FL School of the Arts), so I will be working closely with the team this year. Other than that, I work on various random stuff like art shows, events, fundraisers, etc.
What does your typical workday look like?
Up until now, it was absolutely chaotic. I was running around all the time, working on murals, transporting artwork, attending meetings, etc. I’m currently adjusting my routine and lifestyle to be less crazy, but equally productive. Lately I’ve been taking it a bit easy: sleeping until 9 a.m., making really awesome breakfast with my boyfriend and getting some work done on the computer. I usually have to run around a little bit each day, and work late at home. I just recently got a new studio downtown that is absolutely amazing, so I’ll be working down there a lot, too.
When did you first start painting, and how has your art progressed since?
I started painting when I was really young. My parents sent me to art camp every summer at the Armory Art Center in West Palm Beach, which had a huge impact on my life. I went to art school for both middle and high school, but was never really passionate about it, and in high school I lost interest completely. My teachers really dissuaded me, and all I ever heard outside of school was that there was no money in art. I went to the University of North Florida to study to become a physical therapist, (or something? I don’t know what I was thinking.) I never finished my degree, but I fell in love with Jacksonville, and it was through the surf community that I met Jason Rodriguez from Strata Clothing. He saw some of my artwork once, and we ended up working together on a few t-shirt designs. I eventually moved back home but started visiting Jacksonville a lot, and realized I wanted to move back - so I did - and hustled as a waitress while building my art career.
How would you describe your style of painting?
It’s technically “street art" or something. It’s just turning chaos into something beautiful, kind of like life. I’m super inspired by a lot of different artists, photographers, fashion designers, and just creative people in general. I love browsing the interweb; I like to call it “research.” My Pinterest has, like, 1,000 pins; a lot of images to draw inspiration from. It all lives inside my subconscious and spits itself out onto the wall or canvas in a unique combination that makes up a style I’m proud to call my own.
When did you decide to focus your work on murals? Does your art take other forms?
I painted my first mural in 2012 at the Strata warehouse in Mayport. I was just like, Yeah, I want to paint on walls now. It grew from there. I became friends with some graffiti writers, and while they taught me a lot, I realized I just wasn’t very good at it, so I focused on more characters and portraits. I do also really love photography, and have been incorporating it into my work for the past year or so. I’ve been taking photos of the models I use as reference for my paintings, and I’ve been actually printing out some of the photos for mixed media projects. I’ve been thinking about having an exhibition sometime soon with all of my film photography over the past few years.
How has the experience of leading and creating with students influenced other aspects of your career?
Through the Jax Kid’s Mural Project, I work with groups of 20-70 kids at a time, typically starting with a group conversation on a topic that focuses on general life issues. We then discuss ways to overcome those issues or expand on ideas. I’m so impressed and amazed by the creativity and intelligence of kids; I don’t think they’re given enough credit for it. It has been a lot of work, and sometimes really frustrating, upsetting, and difficult, but looking back on it makes me feel some really intense (good) feels. I definitely think this work has fueled the growth of the activist within me. Experiencing the public education system firsthand as an outsider has been really eye-opening. I’m not sure if I have enough experience to speak on the matter, but I do believe our education system needs to be restructured to better serve both the students and staff.
Why is working with underprivileged students important to you?
I believe it’s a crucial element in the fight for justice and equality and an important step in changing the future for the better. It's something I’m passionate about and good at, and I think it’s the best way for me to give back to my community. I think it is important for all people to find a way to give back to their communities in a way that suits their passions and interests. It’s super empowering to know that you - just you, one person - can influence others and inspire change.
How do you stay organized and on top of your work?
It is so hard. I have a calendar and to-do list I update every day, and even then I still mess up. I’m working on it.
How often do you feel satisfied in your work? Do you feel a sense of purpose in your day-to-day work?
The past couple years have been pretty rough, and I’ve felt a lot of defeat and frustration. I haven’t felt very satisfied in my personal work, as I was very unsure of myself and my identity as an artist until recently. Every time I work with kids or those in need, I'm reminded of how much more needs to be done to help. Sometimes it feels like it will never be enough, but I do my best to remind myself that I'm inspiring a lot of people, and that those people will follow their dreams and inspire others, and the cycle will continue, making the world a better place—slowly but surely.
What’s your biggest career milestone and why?
I’m pretty proud of the amount of work I produced during Art Basel last year. I painted three large murals and contributed to a collaborative mural production in just two weeks. One of those murals was my favorite mural of all time, and probably the first mural I feel represents my vision and identity as an artist. Another one of those murals is something new I wanted to try for a while, and I’m pretty proud of the end product. Besides that, Color Me Kona was a big milestone. More than 3,500 people came - it was a big success.
What is the gender ratio like in your industry? Do you see it evolving?
There are definitely more men than women, but in this industry today, I feel like people are mostly spoken for by their artwork and not the color of their skin or their gender. I know society has not supported or allowed for certain groups of people to thrive as much as others, but I think the modern art world is very inclusive, and definitely increasingly so. I admire those in our community who strive to provide a platform for female artists and artists of color. I’m also very proud to be a part of an all-female crew, Few and Far Women. The crew consists of female street artists and skateboarders and encourages women to pursue their dreams.
What are some of the everyday struggles with your job we might not see?
One of the biggest struggles is the lack of understanding the general public has about being an artist. For some reason, a lot of people underestimate the value of art as well as artists’ time. So many people offer me such great opportunities, but they don’t want to pay. I’ve learned to get the budget discussion out of the way as soon as possible, before I go out of my way for meetings or long phone conversations. I’ve done so much work for such little pay for so long. I did it all to build my career, and I definitely think it was worth it, but I’m absolutely exhausted. As far as day-to-day, I’ve come to realize the amount of “struggle” in my daily life is relative to my mindset. If I have a negative mindset, the struggles are endless. Every single step I make throughout the day is another thing to overcome or a problem to fix. My problem-solving skills have increased tremendously over the past couple of years. It's really hard sometimes, but a positive mindset is incredibly powerful in making my job super easy and super successful.
Who are some women in your field that you look to for inspiration?
All the amazing ladies in my crew, Few and Far Women. Adele Renault, Faith47, Hueman, and Tatiana Suarez are also huge inspirations for me. They are so, so hardworking, and so, so talented. Christy Frazier is a local legend who is also one of my biggest inspirations. I have so many creative female friends who always keep me inspired.
What advice would you give to a babe trying to break into your industry?
Research and learn. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Offer help, volunteer work, etc. to mentors in exchange for advice and guidance. Develop a style that is completely unique and your own. Produce, produce, produce. Fully immerse yourself in your artwork and your creative world of inspiration and wonder. Never, ever think for a second that you’re done learning, and always be open to learn more.
What does success look like to you?
Success looks like being approached by or receiving messages from people telling me I have had a sincere impact on their life, that I inspire and motivate them, or that I’ve genuinely changed their lives in some way. Success also looks like seeing things on my “dream board” become reality.
What are some notable experiences you’ve had on the job?
A few months ago, I witnessed a shooting in Riverside (Jacksonville.) I was the only one around, and was working on a mural. No one saw me, and that was probably to my advantage. This was only a short while after we witnessed the shooting during Art Walk. (We were at the location where it happened.) It was frightening, and shocking. It only strengthened my desire to impact change in our community, and work to bring the community together to build a brighter future for our city.
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
Believe in your got-damn self.