By Mark C. Peyko | Metro Monthly Editor
Although it started as a feature on Facebook, a project by Youngstown photographer Tony Nicholas is rapidly becoming an important chronicle of the creative culture of the Mahoning Valley.
Nicholas, who earned his master’s degree from Rochester Institute of Technology in 2005, didn’t plan on staying in the Mahoning Valley after graduation. He said he returned temporarily to teach part-time, but “one thing led to another.”
“The more I was here, the more I got involved with the local arts scene, the more I wanted to stay,” Nicholas recalled. “And now I feel like I’m so entrenched, and I feel all these good things going on, and things evolving in a good way. And, you know, I just want to be a person here, pushing that along. Just try to help that.”
The Metro Monthly recently spoke with Nicholas about his ongoing project. The interview appears below.
Metro Monthly: Tell me a little about how the project started.
Tony Nicholas: . . . I actually woke up one morning, at about 4:30 in the morning, and I had a couple of other projects that were ongoing and this thing just hit me. I was working with all these other local artists, getting ready for these local festivals at the B&O Station and so forth. And it’s always overwhelming to me how many talented artists there are in the area. A lot of them are friends of mine, and they’re struggling to gain a bigger audience. That was one aspect, just trying to put a face with a lot of these people’s work and create something of it to draw attention to the area about the talent that’s here in the arts. And the other aspect is that photography is my education. I have a master’s degree . . . , but it was just a document for historical reference of the people who are here working in the arts at this period in time. I had seen photos and done studies in school of . . . artists in their workspace and it always intrigued me to see people in their own environment, comfortable working in their own environment, and I thought it was something that had to be done. And I’m surprised it hasn’t been done before. . . . I just thought this was needed and something that had to be done just as a record.
Metro Monthly: Are the portraits only available on Facebook or do you have a Web site where people can see them, too?
Nicholas: I actually do a blog sometimes, but I haven’t posted anything about this. I haven’t actually posted anything in a couple of months. I was going to put them there. The only place there is right now is Facebook and it’s really an edited-down version of just a couple shots of the ones that I’ve done so far. If I would photograph somebody, I’ll probably post four or five from that session and that’s about it. But, at this point, that’s about it. There is no other place to see them at this point.
Metro Monthly: Who is your intended audience for this? Facebook is really friend-to-friend. Are you getting some people who might not be familiar with some of these artists who are linked peripherally to other people who are seeing this?
Nicholas: Somewhat, but to me it’s not enough. Part of the motivation for me was to draw a bigger audience, to show people all these artists right here from the Mahoning Valley, and to try to bring attention to them because I do a lot of these art festivals in the area. . . . A lot of times you’re in the same crowd of people and you talk to them about their struggle to draw people in and make people aware because a lot of people aren’t even aware of the talent that’s right here underneath them.
Metro Monthly: There’s a small group of people using “Rust Belt” as a brand. I was wondering what the thinking was behind that and are all these groups of people affiliated?
Nicholas: It’s an identifiable term that can be used to group a lot of different things together. . . . I’ve worked on shows with Daniel Horne. He’s a local sculptor and he started Artists of the Rust Belt Festivals at the B&O Station. . . . It’s a marketable term that people can relate to. This is where we’re from and this is who we are.
Metro Monthly: The thing that’s interesting about it is that you’re taking [and using] something that has been – for about 25 or so years – a pejorative way to describe the region. Everyone knows what Rust Belt means, but your group has redefined it in a way where you’re using the recognition that Rust Belt has but really creating a new identity for it.
Nicholas: Absolutely. That’s part of it. That’s part of the motivation – to show people that we are, in a sense, the Rust Belt. We are from here. This is who we are. But, at the same time, we’re trying to change people’s perceptions, their attitudes about the area that has evolved so much, and is always evolving to a more positive light. To show people. . . . You don’t know what you’re missing if you don’t come to these [art] shows and see what’s going on. I’m trying to use this as a tool to show people that this is not just what you read 20 years ago. Youngstown is a different place. There’s a group of people here that choose to be here and they live their lives in a really interesting way and they make art that speaks about the area in more ways than I can even explain.
Metro Monthly: One thing I found interesting about the [photography] profiles is [that] you’re seeing the artists. With a lot of these people, you’re usually only seeing their art. And so you’re really giving identities to a lot of the art that’s out there. The people who created the art.
Nicholas: Right, right. And that’s exactly it. There’s a lot of times where I’ve seen a lot of these people’s work. Some of them, a few that I’ve already photographed – I never really knew them personally, other than to see them socially here and there. You might chit-chat for a second but the time spent photographing them might be a couple hours here or there. You sit and get comfortable with them. . . . It’s just a valuable tool to put a face with this work. I’m hoping to evolve it into some type of book form where I can have the photo, a portrait, and maybe an example of their work, and maybe some type of bio. I’m not really sure at this point. It’s [at] such an early stage, but I’d love to see a book that could be marketed to a much broader audience – to introduce people to who these people are to shed light on this area in a positive manner.
Metro Monthly: The portraits are very striking. They seem to capture what the people are about. Like you said, they’re in their environment. There are examples of their work, in some cases, or they’re in very casual settings. I’m just wondering if there’s a common thread that runs through the profiles. What are you trying to convey, I guess, with each person?
Nicholas: I guess I’m just trying to show them in their more comfortable environment and show them that they’re just people like anyone else, but at the same time they convey their creativity in such a way. It’s hard to explain. When I come to photograph them I tell them, “Don’t dress up; just be yourself and show people who and what you are.” I always try to start photographing them with their art in the space where we’re photographing, but it seems like the best photos end up being the photos of them where we almost seem to be having a conversation more about what it is. Just giving them the opportunity to relax because some of them don’t know me that well. Some do, but that interaction is really key to getting them to relax and kind of just sit there or whatever and capture them as they really are. A lot of times when you’re photographed, you put up a shield. You put on your best look and your best shirt. My only stipulation was to not dress up and don’t clean up your space. Don’t clean your studio; just leave it as if it’s another day at the office.
Metro Monthly: You mentioned Daniel Horne as a subject, but could you name other artists you’ve photographed and the art that they create?
Nicholas: Mary Farragher Evans. She does paintings and she also helps organize a lot of shows in the area. In fact, she just had a show at the Old North Church in Canfield. Fascinating work. Fred Shepherd is a guy who has a studio in the Ward Bakery Building and he does it all. He makes these beautiful Christmas bulbs. They are all unique to themselves. He does photography. He did one of the “Goddess of Speed” statues a year or two ago in Trumbull County. Multi-talented guy. Marcie Applegate is a jewelry maker. She’s been at this for a long time and she’s one of the driving forces behind the Artists of the Rust Belt movement. Her and Daniel Horne, as well. And Daniel is a sculptor. He’s not traditionally-trained. It was something he wanted to do and he did it. His style is his own. It is really intriguing. Jenn Cole is an artist. I just met her last Saturday. I’ve seen her before a few times and she does this multi-media collage work that are basically one-of-a-kind originals that are just something else. She’s well-traveled; she gets around to shows throughout the summer. She’s one of those who are really out there making it happen. There’s just so many. And every one I meet, [leads to] getting introduced to five other ones.
Metro Monthly: The impression I have – because this area has an industrial heritage and a blue-collar heritage – is that you see that blue-collar work ethic being infused into the work and the creativity of the people.
Nicholas: Yeah, absolutely, especially some of the sculptors. Those guys like Charles Hughes. He’s basically a blacksmith. He and Daniel Horne, and even some of the painters and photographers. It’s the way they carry themselves, how they put themselves to work. It’s real working class. They put hours upon hours into it. It’s not, from what I gather, it’s not about the glitzy art shows. It’s more about, you know, the creativity to make these works and put it out there. Hopefully, people find it interesting. There are not a whole lot of big egos in the people I’ve met. It’s more down-to-earth, toiling away. Some people won’t even admit to some degree of being an artist. It’s just what they do, what they are. To me, there’s a real working class grit to it. In fact, [after] the first few that I photographed – some of the feedback I got back from others on Facebook was “how come no one’s smiling?” And that wasn’t something [I did]. I never directed anybody to smile. They only thing I told anybody was to look at me now and then. But I think that said something about their mentality. They were serious about their work. But at the same time, it brought joy to them because you can see that in their interaction. You’ll see a couple of photos where they’ll start to relax and show themselves a bit of a smile. But it’s a real workmen’s kind of mentality that pushes them.
Metro Monthly: You said that you wanted people to be comfortable in their own environment and really try to capture them in a very relaxed state. How long is a session and how long does it take to get people to that place of being comfortable?
Nicholas: Well, usually the sessions aren’t that long. It varies. I’ve had a couple where they’re an hour-and-a-half. I want to say that’s probably the average time and some others it’s two hours, three hours. Like Daniel Horne and I; we hit it off. I go a little bit and we start talking and you’re going on and on and on and as you’re doing that you’re just photographing. They key for me is just to get them to relax. And I want to say the first five or 10 shots are just kind of warmups. I can sense in their face that they’re uncomfortable. A lot of them don’t like to be photographed, and a lot of people are that way. They don’t want to show themselves too much. I think maybe it’s just my nature to talk to them. I want them to know that this is a painless effort. It’s something that’s going to be taken in a positive light. It’s not something where I’m trying to take advantage of them. It’s to show them at their best and get them to relax. I want to say I take five or 10 shots before I start to see that smile in their face. It’ll soften. The key is to get that genuine response.
Metro Monthly: You said that when you met someone it led to you meeting maybe five more people. I have a few questions. How many portraits do you plan on doing and what is the area that you’ll cover geographically? How far out do you consider the Rust Belt to be?
Nicholas: Well, I try not to be too limited because it can be a vast area. . . . But, at this point, it seems that most are in the Mahoning Valley, the Youngstown area. Jenn Cole lives in Liberty. That’s probably the furthest north I’ve gone, actually. But if you live from here to almost to Cleveland and to Pittsburgh – in-between that. To me, that’s the heart of the Rust Belt. It [the project] has become such a big thing already. . . . I don’t want to say I’ll limit how many I will shoot. It’s more who’s willing to let me photograph. . . . The more the merrier, is what I say. I had to turn away a few musicians who wanted to do it. I’m happy to photograph them, but this has got to be more or less the visual artists. I just had to narrow the focus. It’s just too vast already.
Metro Monthly: One thing I’ve been wondering. Are you considering doing a self-portrait? Are you considering including yourself in the series?
Nicholas: I’ve been asked by a few of the other people I’ve photographed and I guess so, yeah. . . . I probably will at some point. I don’t know if I’ll do it myself. . . . I haven’t really figured that out how I’ll do that. But I would because I feel I’m in tune. I feel, as humans, we always want to be included in some type of group or something like that. And a lot of artists feel that you never really fit in. To me, this is really a type of group where I really fit in.
Metro Monthly: O.K. Getting back to the Rust Belt thing. You have the Chamber and other business organizations and a lot of time they try to distance themselves from the past and they always look toward the future. Does the business community at large understand what the Rust Belt thing is? Are they embracing it at all? Do you see that in any way?
Nicholas: I want to say they’re starting to embrace it. I don’t see it on a wide scale by any means. But at the same point, it’s more, basically, this vision of Daniel Horne’s making this. He has an Artists of the Rust Belt community Web site and the shows he does – two or three a summer – the Blues Festival is all part of his vision – with a few other people involved, of course. I think the more you see that term, the Rust Belt, put on these kind of positive things, I think the business community will start to see that the past is where it is and we’re looking forward. Let’s try to make it a positive, an asset to our history. It’s part of our history. It’s who we are. At the same time, it can be shown in a new light – this is part of that light.
Metro Monthly: Just to give proper credit to the person or persons who came up with the Rust Belt name. Was it Daniel Horne or was it someone else? Or was it a group of people brainstorming? Do you know?
Nicholas: Not positive on that, but I want to say that Daniel Horne, Marcie Applegate, and probably a couple others came up with Artists of the Rust Belt and were instrumental in getting it started and having a venue like the B&O Station where they could regularly have shows as a group. But at the same time, they don’t exclude anybody. If you want to partake in one of the shows, they’re all for it. They send out invitations or applications to show samples of your work. What you do if you want to set up a booth. They don’t exclude anyone. They’re an inclusive kind of a group. But I want to say it was their origination, this Artists of the Rust Belt.
Metro Monthly: Ten years from now, when someone’s looking at these portraits, what do you hope they come away with? Or even five years or even in a couple years. What would you hope they come away with when they see your work?
Nicholas: Well, I would hope they would see that things are changing a lot in the area in a good way. And the arts are a big part of that – to help show the changes. I would hope that, in five years, people will look at those pictures and say, “These are some of the people who helped this move along and bring the arts to a higher level of attention and respect in the area.” And that’s all I can hope for. For myself, it’s just something I felt I needed to do. And, in the same manner, it helps me. It’s just a way for me to work and do what I love to do. I’m hoping people see it as a historical document and at the same time show the people who helped bring the arts to a higher level in the area, a higher level of respect.
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