Nickolas D’Annunzio has long been aware of a given craft’s ties to a certain gender. Blacksmithing, cabinetry, homebuilding: “for men.” Costume design, sewing, bedazzling: “for women.” Of course, the traditions of art forms are tied to the stifling traditions of gender—and what of artists who want to dabble in each medium, sometimes simultaneously?
Nickolas explored this gender identity—and his own queerness—in his recent show Hey Mama…, which ran June 4, 5, and 6 at 23A Apollo Street in Greenpoint. In preparation for the work, Nickolas examined his own history with art and the impact of labels. Balancing family history, Brooklyn drag, and personal identity, Nickolas crafted a powerful solo show that explodes the expectations of gender and the fruits of throwing them out the window.
Greenpointers: Before we get to the show, let’s learn more about you. What is your artistic background? Your queer background? (Or maybe those are the same thing in a way!)
Nickolas D’Annunzio: My artistic training came from my studies at SUNY Binghamton. I have a Fine Art degree in Sculpture with an emphasis in cast metals and a Technical Theatre degree with an emphasis in set and costume design. College was a time for me to be curious. As I explored materials I was also exploring my queerness. My first three years were dominated by sculpture and eventually I shifted towards theatre. As I came to terms with my queerness I became unafraid of playing with soft things. By the time I left college I was “masc” enough to weld and “femme” enough to sew with all knowledge of materials between those extremes, marking the deep duality of my queerness.
Your piece seems to be a deep dive into identity. What was the inspiration for your solo show HEY MAMA…?
The show Hey Mama… came from me envisioning how I would tell my grandmothers about the person I have become. I’m one of eight kids, three of my four sisters identify within the LGBTQ+ community. When my grandmothers passed, they were able to see my sisters come out but they didn’t get to see the true me. They only knew a version of me that was crammed into the mould my parents shoved me into. We called my Cuban grandmother “Mama” and three of my 11 self portraits were done on her fabric. When I received them from my mother, it was truly one of the first times I felt seen. So, when I spent eight months finding time to work on my first portrait I found myself talking with Mama and telling her about the queer person I have become.
Preparing for the show is one thing; sharing it with an audience is another. What did you learn — about your art, yourself — in sharing the piece recently?
I learned that the meaning of art can change over time. Ten years ago I wasn’t ready to share myself or my art. So, in this show I paired my cast iron and bronze work from college with my portraits. I see the similarities in my work from then and now. I was looking for the balance of masc vs femme. It was woefully apparent the major tone difference, one collection was heavy and dark and the other light and celebratory. It was truly amazing to see my internal transformation in the objects of self expression. I also learned that to honor myself and my work. I thought of the hours I spent creating and I realized I need to honor myself and felt confident in creating this show with pieces that are were all available to buy and work sold!
Who are your influences?
I could talk about the great masters like Frida Khalo, Georgia O’Keeffe, Vincent van Gogh, or contemporary artist like Kehinde Wiley and Nick Cave. But what allowed me to make more room for femininity was watching drag in Brooklyn. Things changed when I saw these performers and the crowd around me living their fantasies. Some of the most important performers I have seen like, Sasha Velour, Untitled Queen, Charline Incarnate, and Vander Von Odd, taught me that these fantasies we create don’t have to be something we take off that we can live to learn in them.
Do you have any upcoming projects you’re excited about?
Yes! I’m super excited to be taking a small portion of my solo show to Cherry Grove in Fire Island. I was there on June 12 for their Artist Tour to show these pieces to a fully queer audience. My next project will explore these same moments I had with myself but I will be focusing on honoring the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. I found myself through seeing my community express themselves.
Anything else you want to share?
Yeah I had an interesting experience as a newly public solo artist and I know I can’t be alone in it, and think we should make space to talk about what it’s like to put on a show without a gallery backing you.
After I created the body of work for Hey Mama… I was super excited to share the piece. I spent six months emailing and calling galleries to find a place for this show. After countless calls/emails I got one response that I’d be considered for the 2022 season. So, I decided I needed to make this opportunity for myself. I almost rented a space until my friend Kat got the idea to load her entire apt into a U-haul truck and give me her home to use as my gallery. I wish new artists had more opportunities to share and hope to see that more in the future!