Nieko McDaniel Walks a Fine Line Between Accessible and Experimental Art [Interview]

Nieko McDaniel Walks a Fine Line Between Accessible and Experimental Art [Interview] cover

Nieko McDaniel keeps a box of Raisin Bran in his studio. Not because the Tennessee artist snacks on his favorite breakfast cereal over the easel, but because “cereal boxes have nice, thin cardboard that you utilize for different reasons. It’s easy to paint and draw on.”

Nieko’s not the sort of painter who dusts his easel off much, anyway. Growing up in Southern California, the artist spent more time painting walls than canvases. “The first time art grabbed my attention was when I saw graffiti as a child,” he says. “Even then, part of what stood out to me was how accessible the graffiti was; it was an art form that was publicly available and free to view. It wasn’t long before my interest in graffiti was showing up throughout my life: I filled page after page with practice sketches for my own graffiti ideas, constantly writing my own imaginary tags in the air in front of me, practicing graffiti styles with friends, and sneaking out to paint actual graffiti myself.”

Using upcycled materials, mixed media artist Nieko McDaniel explores a life-long fascination with ‘lowbrow’ art forms like graffiti, comic books, and science fiction.
‘Flip Side’
‘Flip Side’ (detail)

As an adult, Nieko experiments with accessible, widely overlooked mediums and materials, including yarn, cardboard, and wine corks. In 2022, the artist created a suite of inventive sculptures during his residency at A-Z Wineworks, using aluminum labels, wine-stained yarn, and discarded corks to convey the time and skill required of craft-based labor. “I believe the colors displayed in the corks honor the hard work that was used to put into the wine,” Nieko says of “Flip Side” (above), a hanging sculpture crafted from metal, rope, wood, and wine. “They all have their individual history about how the wine they are stained with was made. They are a visual of a group of people’s labor.”

In Pane-Full Ruins, Nieko looks inward, inventing an imaginary city with its own rich history. Crafted from upcycled cardboard cartons, permanent marker, and dabs of paint, the series embraces comic book noir conventions and reflects the artist’s long-standing fascination with worldbuilding. “My artwork has been shaped by two primary ideas: how my own experiences influence me and my interest in pushing the boundaries,” he says. “[I create] pieces that explore the distinction between what an item was meant to be versus what it can become.”

In Today's Q+Art Interview…

Nieko McDaniel discusses the source of his main-character energy, what it’s like to live outside the cultural hubs of New York and Los Angeles, and how he learned to check his ego in grad school.

Using upcycled materials, mixed media artist Nieko McDaniel explores a life-long fascination with ‘lowbrow’ art forms like graffiti, comic books, and science fiction.
From ‘Pane-Full Ruins’
From ‘Pane-Full Ruins’

What is your current state of mind?

Nieko McDaniel: Optimistic, feeling a bit refreshed, as the start of “new” again.

What’s your favorite creative ritual?

NM: I don’t believe I really have a creative ritual before I enter the studio, but I do when it comes to creating an artwork.

Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?

NM: The whole Art in Theory book line. Yes, different authors and publishers will offer different passages, but I think this series encompasses a lot of time periods and conversations and documents thoughts in art from a broad timeline in which you can make the connections and see the changes.

Using upcycled materials, mixed media artist Nieko McDaniel explores a life-long fascination with ‘lowbrow’ art forms like graffiti, comic books, and science fiction.
From ‘Pane-Full Ruins’
From ‘Pane-Full Ruins’ (detail)

Is art school worth the money?

NM: I believe this answer depends on where you go for art school. There are many factors on what makes it worth the money. The location, when you attended, the faculty who teach you there, the access to resources. I went to art school, and I loved it. Also, did you get scholarships or grants to go also affects the answer and for how much. I feel like I really excelled and have gotten further because of my education. It was worth it to me, but I’m still about $80,000 in debt because of it. Other artists make amazing art careers without going to art school, though. Some become famous and rich way quicker than those who went to art school. The answer is up to each person to decide for themselves.

What do you wish you learned in art school but weren’t taught?

NM: Connecting to my last answer, different schools will teach you different things, different faculty will teach you different things and in different ways. Where and when I went to school, they did not focus on drawing and painting the figure. To be honest, I am not really interested in depicting the figure. But I feel that may be partially because I was also not taught how to depict it and do so correctly. Of course, I could learn on my own now, but again, I don’t really have an interest in the figure.

Cats or dogs?

NM: Both. But I feel more like I’m a cat.

Using upcycled materials, mixed media artist Nieko McDaniel explores a life-long fascination with ‘lowbrow’ art forms like graffiti, comic books, and science fiction.
‘Is Wealth Natural?’
‘Is Wealth Natural?’ (top view)

Who is your hero of fiction?

NM: SpongeBob SquarePants and Sonic the Hedgehog. I’m a main-character kind of person. But I very much like their personalities, I think. I even share the same birthday as SpongeBob, which is my favorite show. But if I have a hero of fiction for the content and context, it will have to be Benjamin Sisko from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I would love to be all three characters.

Is there a specific time you recall feeling marginalized by the art world?

NM: As a teenager who didn’t have much art experience and didn’t do much legal art, I felt like I was illegitimate. And at the beginning of college, I felt like I was illegitimate because I didn’t have a portfolio or any backlog of artwork to show to prove I was “worthy to be there.”

Another time I felt marginalized was in 2023 when I went to a Community College Art Conference in North Carolina. I was the only professor of color or at least Black professor for the conference, which represented a state of over 50 community colleges.

How does your geographical location affect your work and/or success?

NM: I have traveled and moved a lot for my occupation to rise up the ranks and get the position I really desire. This has made me not close to the largest art hubs, such as Los Angeles and New York City. In my field, you have to go where the job is. You can’t really pick and choose. I feel like I would get more notice in my art career if I were near or in those locations. But really, I know the most important thing is the quality of art I make and the outreach. Along the way, though, I have met great people and artists who I have maintained relationships with.

‘Que Hace Tiempo’

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

NM: I don’t… and I do. It ebbs and flows. I’m still learning. I have had good work/life balance before and bad. Taking care of your body is a big one, I would say. If you maintain and take care of your temple (body), it really does reflect and affect everything else you do in a positive way. To me, the body also includes mental health. Eating healthy, getting good sleep, and being active helps your mental health as well. They feed each other.

What does generosity mean to you as an artist?

NM: Instead of shutting down and shunning other artists, younger artists, promote them. If you see someone as a threat, make them a friend instead. Do something unexpected of yourself and compliment them and their art. Offer help. Assist a young artist and encourage them. That’s what I try to do with my students. I remember, as an art student in college/grad school, feeling not impressed by some of the members of my cohort. Instead of holding a stance of thinking I was better than them, I checked my ego and made friends out of them. I am glad I did and have never regretted it.

What role does the artist have in society?

NM: I think artists are a reflection of what is occurring in society and the environment. They express feelings and thoughts of resources, politics, mental health, emotions, etc. Artists also help determine the direction we should go in our future. I think artists should continue to focus on how to move forward towards the future but figure out how to guide people to make a better future for us all. We are speakers, storytellers, mentors, future-tellers.

Nieko McDaniel: Website | Instagram

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist(s).

Want to be featured on NOT REAL ART? Email with a short introduction and a link to your online portfolio or three images of your work.


cardboard, comic book, contemporary art, contemporary craft, graffiti, lowbrow art, science fiction, world building, worldbuilding

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