Artist Nicki Burton looks to what’s next

The founder and creative director of Kincs by Nicki on her dream-fueled process and the importance of exploring the full range of the Black experience

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Nicki Burton

Art has always been there for Nicki Burton. Beginning at age 5, she would draw on the walls of her childhood bedroom, embracing the sprawling canvas as a space to sketch Black figures that she referred to as “afro people,” since most included the hairstyle popular to the time. “The girls either had two puffs or a big afro with a bow,” Burton said. “And the boys just had big afros.”

After she covered most of the available space, including the closet and bedroom doors, her parents helped her transform the room into an art studio, complete with a rollaway desk and a Crayola art caddy, to which she would add at every Christmas and birthday, acquiring all of the available accessories. Burton described this long-held passion as one entwined within her DNA. In addition to growing up with a musician and artist father (Burton recalled the two having frequent drawing contests), she pointed to an uncle, a brother and a grandfather who either worked in the arts or created regularly with their hands.

For her company, Kincs by Nicki, Burton took additional familial inspiration from her grandmother, whose work in retail informed the artist’s love of fashion, creating and selling wearable art pieces that extend her childhood love of painting on every available surface to T-shirts, sweatshirts, handbags and more.

Burton said she started painting on clothes around the age of 25 after growing frustrated with T-shirts she purchased at festivals, whose images would degrade after a couple of washes. “I was like, ‘There has to be a way for the image to stay on there,’” said Burton, who will lead a Creative Mindfulness session via the Columbus Museum of Art and Streetlight Guild on Thursday, March 11, during which she intends to use a series of written prompts to help virtual attendees tap into their own creativity as a means of relieving stress. 

For Burton, the creative process often begins in the dream state, which is why she keeps a notebook and pen next to her bed, so she can more readily capture those moments when they jolt her awake at night, sketching whole images or even just writing down a few words or phrases. “Sometimes I would wake up from a dream and not write it down and then I’d be kicking myself, like, ‘What was it? What was it?’” Burton said, and laughed. “And then I was writing them down on index cards, pieces of a napkin, whatever was near. But I’m getting better at keeping them all in a collective place, so that it’s accessible right at my fingertips.”

From there, these dream-scrawls can take any number of forms, appearing drawn on a T-shirts, shaped into earrings or even painted onto a more traditional canvas. Generally, no matter what form the work takes, Burton produces it in limited numbers, the artist favoring one-off clothing items or limited runs. She traced this to a desire to have each piece feel unique (“I like the individual being able to put something on and other people say, ‘I don’t have that’”), as well as a creative restlessness that constantly has her ready to move on to the next thing. “In February, I challenged myself to create a different piece of art every single day,” Burton said. “I don’t think people understand that, as an artist, you don’t want to paint the same thing over and over again.”

For this reason, Burton’s work has gone through a continual evolution, reflecting her growth as an artist, in addition to the new ways in which she interacts with the world. So while a majority of her pieces are still centered on Black figures, which she ascribed in part to the ease with which one can go to the store and purchase a shirt featuring Marilyn Monroe but not Dorothy Dandridge, the inspirations can be wildly different, springing from moments of tragedy and joy that arise as the artist continues to process her surroundings.

Beginning in 2016, for example, following the greater attention given to police shootings of Black citizens, Burton said her pieces started to reflect a building anger, incorporating raised fists and American flags painted over with Black silhouettes. For one painting, which displayed for a time at 400 West Rich, the artist initially wanted a friend to shoot the canvas after she completed the image, leaving the work pockmarked with bullet holes. When their schedules failed to align, Burton instead glued spent casings to the piece.

“Some Black people are like, ‘Why do we always have to create angry art to get the message out? We should be able to paint ourselves in a positive light.’ But I feel like I do both,” Burton said. “Creating art when I’m angry about what’s happening in the world is my way of releasing that anger, and I feel like it’s necessary. But then I’m also trying to change the narrative. When the Black lives matter movement started ... I wanted to change the narrative from ‘I can’t breathe’ to ‘I can breathe.’ Instead of saying you can’t breathe, what comes next? What’s the next thing? What are you going to do when you’re here?”