“I’m following this tradition of painting that’s been around for centuries,” he says. “How am I adding to the conversation?”
Combining the digital art of modern times with classical watercolor painting was the answer. By finding a different way to apply digital drawing to traditional techniques, Peña could smash the past and present together. This combination is what drives the work of Peña, an associate professor at Christian Brothers University. Just take a look at any of the pieces from his series, Crosscut, for example. Peña places decorative Sintra PVC board overlay, designed digitally in Adobe Illustrator and manufactured by a CNC router, over a traditional watercolor painting. “There’s no official name for this yet,” he says.
Peña, 38, grew up in Illinois during the height of Chicago Bulls madness. His earliest dream was to become a professional basketball player before becoming engrossed in art during his high school years.
“I was really fascinated that my older brother could draw Fred Flintstone off the top of his head,” he says. “So I got really into drawing. And what I picked up from sports was this: you have to continuously work at something to be good at it. You can give the illusion that you’re good at something in different moments, but really it’s an ongoing dedication.”
Now 38 and 5’10, Peña has long outgrown the struggle to balance sports and art.
“I’m glad I got it all out of my system when I was younger,” he says. “More time to paint, less time for fantasy football and things like that.”
The oil paintings in Peña’s series, The American Condition, further his theme of merging distant worlds with the familiar, to eerie effect. These works depict a dystopian past, shaped by the individual impact of Reagan-era policies on the average American family represented by a beat-up old station wagon (the quintessential family vehicle of the ‘80s) in various locales.
Peña’s work can currently be seen as the official poster design for the 2017 Memphis in May International Festival. The honored country for this year’s festival is Colombia. When Peña was contacted by a committee to design the annual poster, he briefly grappled with how to pay tribute to a country he’s never visited.
“The history of the country is always filled with great achievements and turmoil,” he says. “I did a ton of research figuring out how to pay tribute and the country’s flag and its representative elements really stood out to me. What you find is that all of the symbolism in that flag is present in the country. The resilience and richness of yellow, the struggle of red, and blue: the water, the lifeblood of the country. All of those elements are present.”
In a word: Inspirational
“How am I contributing to the art world at large?”
For a while, this question dominated the mind of Nick Peña.