DU QUOIN — Nicholas Tate might be the biggest artist in Southern Illinois who has never had a professional gallery exhibition.
He doesn’t sell at craft fairs or pitch to museums. He isn’t locally known. When he’s not painting, he works overnight as a caregiver at an assisted living home.
And in the past 10 months, the Du Quoin resident has sold at least $10,000 worth of paintings via social media, he said — comprising dozens of works priced between $100 and $200.
Tate, 27, was a graphic design major in college. But he found his passion for painting in his last six months of school, during his senior art thesis.
Then, last summer, he made a Facebook post on a whim.
“I was just sitting up and late and I put up a status, ‘Hey would you guys be interested in art of your families?’” he remembers. “Right away, people responded back and I had my first customer.”
That was Ariel Harvey, who went to high school with Tate in Bolingbrook, and still followed him on Facebook.
She had planned on getting a large photo printed of herself, her boyfriend and her son, to decorate her home.
But when Nick posted offering portraits, she thought: even better.
“I like the idea of having someone’s art in my house and especially someone I know and I know they do good work,” she said. “Anyone can print out a photo, but this is personal.”
His first clients were people close to him, he said, family and friends from high school, like Harvey.
As those early customers shared photos of their portraits on social media, interest radiated out through their networks, to people he’d never met, in ever increasing degrees of separation.
“I’m starting to see now. It’ll never stop coming,” Tate said. “I’m learning you don’t have to work for money, money chases you.”
Now, most of Tate’s customers contact him through his Instagram, @call__me__crazy, sending him their favorite photographs to reproduce or embellish upon.
Often, he’s asked to combine images, he said, suspending reality to reunite clients with their deceased loved ones.
The reaction shots he posts to his Instagram might be his best advertisement: couples smiling next to their portraits, parents hugging their children and moms and grandmas crying.
“I think we all want artwork,” Tate said. “A photo you can’t really decorate your house with, but you can have a painting of you and your grandfather who passed away, and it can be so much more.”
Tate started selling 3-foot-by-2-foot portraits, which he can complete in a few hours to a few days, for $100.
Then, he began to experiment with pricing and demand.
“I said I want to get 25 sales and then, OK, can I raise it $25? And then I tried to get 25 more sales,” he said.
Even as demand has allowed Tate to increase by a few more $25 increments, he remains sensitive to what drives his customers, he said, many of whom have never bought a painting before him.
“I’m learning how to get around roadblocks. When sales slow down, drop the prices. Or release a series,” he said, offering a temporary discount for portraits of customers in a relationship, or little kids and babies, or grandparents. “Figuring out pricing, how not to undercut yourself, factoring in delivery and supply costs, it has been a major journey.”
Tate has also stirred up interest with his custom pop-culture paintings, from portraits of anime and comic book characters, to comedians, rappers and R&B singers, often done in glow-in-the-dark paint.
He has received online recognition from celebrity subjects like the singers Ledisi, Big Freedia and Alessia Cara, and saw a major spike in traffic when his portrait of an actor from the Netflix miniseries “When They See Us” was reposted by the actor’s mother.
In some ways Tate considers most of this quick, uncomplicated portraiture to be practice, not so different from the hundreds of studies he did in college, learning to better blend colors, and more realistically capture lighting, depth, distance, texture and contour.
The work he’s passionate about, to the point of spending months on a painting, is his series on police brutality, he said, which began with that senior thesis at Clarke University.
The project was open-ended, he said, stipulating only that he tackle the subject: “decay.”
He did so with five paintings, including an embellished self-portrait showing his bloodied body slumped in the corner of a bathroom, left for dead.
“Everyone in class thought, ‘oh I get it, decay, it’s a body rotting,’ but I was like, ‘no that’s not what I mean,’” Tate remembers.
The decay he sought to show was moral: his vision of a society where, often, nobody seems to care how black people are treated.
As a young, black man, Tate has seen and faced discrimination, though in smaller ways than his battered, bloody subjects.
He has been racially profiled. He has received suspicion from police, at times when he didn’t do anything wrong.
Educated at a predominantly white university in the era of Trayvon Martin’s killing, he felt frustration as he sought to make classmates understand the inequality that he saw everywhere.
His police brutality works bring that inner pain out. The subjects, some of them self-portraits, bleed from the face, the knuckles. The blood runs down the contours of their features, over expressions that range from defiant to serene.
“I was inspired by the stations of the cross with Jesus and the wounds on his body, so when I paint about police brutality, I try to amplify the wounds,” Tate said. “The meaning is for it to look dramatic, because to you it may not look like a big deal but to me it is worse than it looks. That’s what I’m displaying.”
The paintings aren’t directed at white people, he said. They’re about raising awareness for all, even his 14-year-old brother, sheltered from race unrest by his upbringing in Du Quoin.
Still, Tate felt his heart swell when a white woman inquired about a painting in the series, recently.
“I’m not sure, cuz I’m not white, but I imagine having that in your house and having guests over and they see like, ‘Girl you got this hanging up in your house?’ You have to care about it,” he said, to be willing to display such a strong image. “That was deep for me.”
Tate counts several modern masters among his principal influences — Hebru Brantley, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kehinde Wiley— as well as the artist Jon Moody, who he follows on Instagram.
Still, he feels he hasn’t yet honed his skills, or found his own painting style.
His former art school classmate, Grace Thompson, sees things differently.
“If you lined up his paintings next to each other, you would definitely know that’s who made them,” she said, from the bold colors, to the aggressive lines, to the strong variations of shadow and light and the balance of abstractness, modernism and realism.
“That art style helps him sell well, because people know it’s his and they know a little bit what to expect,” she added. “It’s going to be dramatic and it’s going to be expressive.”
Thompson works in graphic design full-time. Like Tate, she uses social media to promote her art projects on the side, including custom Christmas ornaments.
“I think [the art industry] is changing for sure. Before facebook and Instagram, for a lot of people the only way to market was to sell your work in galleries,” she said. “Now it’s cheaper and easier for people to sell their work, so it’s a broader community.”
For now, Tate has little interest in gallery space or “real world” recognition. When he sees success, it’s through an Instagram filter.
“I want to get to a point where I can post something and thousands of people are like, ‘What is he thinking, what is going on in his head?’” Tate said.
He expects he’ll move on from Southern Illinois within a year or two. But he credits the area’s low cost of living for jumpstarting his painting career.
“Now I understand that if something was to go bad, I can paint a picture,” he said. “I will always have that opportunity.”
At the same time, the work has revealed opportunities beyond art.
“I can do so much more. It takes just as much effort to advertise, market, run the business and finances, as it does to paint,” he said. “I don’t even know if this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, to be honest. I just know I have a talent in it and if it’s making people feel some type of way, I should keep doing it.”
Like many of Tate’s customers, Ariel Harvey’s first-ever painting purchase wouldn’t be her last.
For Mother’s Day, she bought her mom a Nick Tate portrait, giving the artist full creative control, to embellish as he saw fit.
He came up with a close-crop of her face that accentuated her nose, lips and cheeks with colorful geometric patterns.
It captured something deeper than a purely realistic work could have, Harvey’s mother wrote in a message to Tate, on Instagram.
“It reminds me of the warrior I am! And with GOD how fearless I can conquer anything!” she wrote. “Thank you soo much for your inspiration.”
Harvey is on the brink of multiple life transitions. She’s soon to move into a new house that will need decorating, and she’s pregnant with her second child.
Both have her thinking about ordering another painting.
Suddenly, she laughs, she’s becoming a collector.