PSU Student Feature: Nikki James
Artistic Innovation in Our Midst

Headshot of Nikki James
Headshot of Nikki James

Nikki James is a student at Portland State University and an incredible artist. Their passions range from illustration to poetry to painting. They are also an entrepreneur, having started the clothing brand D3viants in the Summer of 2021. I was fortunate enough to sit down with Nikki and talk to them about their artistic inspirations and aspirations. During our conversation I was blown away by their varied artistic expertise, and especially the stories that they tell through their art.

Nikki James: When I graduated high school I was accepted into the Art University. I was going to originally be a graphic design major. I really like to draw and I’ve always had a thing for art. I ended up not going to art school. I looked into it a lot, and I did a lot of research, and I figured out that if you’re gonna be a graphic designer in California you either have to have really good connections to get really good positions, or start your own company and hope that it launches out. Otherwise, you’re generally doing a lot of freelance work, and they just, they just don’t make a lot of money. It’s something that I love, and I know that sometimes turning something that you love into a career kind of complicates things between those, and eventually you might not love what you’re doing anymore.
So now I’m a psych major! I’ve been looking at going pre-PA or pre-med. I’ve always liked helping people and doing things for people. And so I ended up volunteering at this hospital. It’s called CHOC, Children’s Hospital of Orange County, and I worked in the neurology department. So I got to hang out with all the kids that have neurological disorders: from seizures to cerebral palsy, all of it. I hung out with all of them, and it was really fun. Then I got moved up to the CVICU, which is the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit. I went to another ward, I was in the cancer ward for a little while, and that was another hard one. But a lot of the kids there are really happy.

My mom is friends with one of the secretaries that works for a school district, and she said that she would help me get a job there. I was essentially running, like, a daycare at the elementary school. I had a lot of fun, but the administration that I had to deal with I didn’t like, and I ended up finding another job that was for the same school district that I got hired at. They hired me to care for a little boy who had cerebral palsy, and he was also deaf. All the kids in the classroom were deaf or hard of hearing. I just kind of bonded with him, because we were just always together. The kids didn’t even know my name. They just always said that I was him. Like we’d ask what my name was, and they’re like “yeah that’s Camden.” And I was like, “Apparently we’re one. You are me, I am you. There we go.” That’s where the clothing line came from actually.

CB: How did your experience inspire the clothing line?

NJ: So, in June they had this thing called “ESY” which is “Extended School Year” but for the special education students. My classroom, they like to theme each classroom, our room was the leopards. Jokingly, one of my coworkers was like “We should be the Deaf Leppards. Because get it, because all the kids in our classroom are deaf,” So what happened is, I ended up drawing a leopard, side view of it, and I put a cochlear on it. I put it on the shirts, and I designed the whole logo with the same lettering as Def Leppard, and I put Deaf Leppard. I just gave them out first, and then people wanted to buy them from me that worked there, so then I started selling them and making them at home. So I was tie dying shirts, and ironing on logos, and cutting them out. It was just, it was a lot, because I started getting a lot of people to purchase everything. I was also having to spend money to buy products. But the problem was I didn’t want people thinking that I was overcharging them. So I was undercharging, severely undercharging, and it didn’t line up with what I was spending. So I was actually losing money, not gaining money. The thing was, it wasn’t for me. I was actually raising money for the DHH program at that school.

CB: DHH?

NJ: Deaf and Hard of Hearing. And eventually I told my mom, I said, “Do you know what, it’s kind of stupid I’m spending all this money and people are waiting, like 2 weeks to get their shirt! What if I just found a website where I can just put it on there and people can go on there and they can purchase the shirts themselves? That way I know for a fact, 100% of the money that is being earned is gonna go right to them.” In the end when I was finally done with all of it, I raised about $1,100. But the problem is I spent a good amount of money on products, so in the end really they made about $400.
Another shirt that’s on there is a dinosaur, it’s called Mighty Dino. It’s a mom dinosaur with the baby dinosaur in a wheelchair. I made it for the little boy that I worked with. He has cerebral palsy and the mom dino that’s pushing him has a green ribbon around its neck, and cerebral palsy’s ribbon color is green. So it was both cerebral palsy awareness and like, a cute way to kind of bring my love for that little guy with me. And I was using it as another way to raise money for like, APA approved equipment for him. APA is, I don’t know exactly how to define APA, but pretty much it’s equipment that he can use on the playground that is properly built for the fact that he’s in a wheelchair. Because the kid loves going on the slides, and he likes playing on the swings, but the school doesn’t have equipment that’s built specifically for that fact. I’ve requested it, I’ve requested that when they build their garden that they make it to where he can actually go inside of it with his wheelchair. But they said that it would cost too much money to make it wheelchair approved. So I made the shirt. This year. Yeah so, June and July of this year is when I started all of it. The money from the shirt I was using because my mom has a friend who builds stuff so I was gonna have him build a raised garden bed. Because Camden’s like, super duper tactile, which means he really likes to touch a lot. He learns a lot from touch. So I requested for a garden bed, like, a square thing, but the edges would be rounded. But you could scoot him into it and he could essentially just kind of lean down and touch everything. I thought he would’ve enjoyed it! As well as I wanted to buy him a swing but like….

CB: Are you still working on funding those projects?

NJ: Yeah, I just have them on my site, but I have like, zero time, so I haven’t been able to promote it. Things like that. So it’s just kind of been sitting there.

CB: What kinds of art do you make?

NJ: I did like, pencil drawings when I was younger. When I was in high school I did a lot of pencil drawings, as like, my way to tell people I like them. So there was this guy and to ask him to the Sadie Hawkins dance I ended up drawing, because he was super into music, so I drew a guitar. I drew the top of a guitar and it had a couple roses around it and I put “Will you go to the Sadie Hawkins dance?” He said no because somebody else had already just asked him. There was a girl that I liked, and I drew Batman because she was super into Batman. I was super proud of it too.
I like painting. I kind of like random paintings. I don’t really have specifics that I paint. Right before the shirt thing my Instagram page was actually for paintings. I kind of put my art, my painting and my drawings and stuff on there. And then I deleted all of that and I put the clothing brand onto it. That was mainly just for drawing and stuff. I would sell those too. Like, I have a bunch more at home. I haven’t done it in a minute. Just because it’s very time consuming. Painting and drawing.

CB: What materials do you use for your paintings?

NJ: Canvas, acrylics. I use paint markers, I use the Sharpie acrylic markers, and I’ll use them in different sizes.

CB: Can you describe your creative process for painting?

NJ: In all honesty, I’ve always been jealous of people that can think of something and draw it because it’s not how I can work. I can have an idea and it just, I can’t bring it to fruition. But with digital art it’s made it a lot easier. Especially like, because there’s no pictures of a leopard with a cochlear implant on it. That’s also, like, an issue in the DHH community is cochlear’s, they don’t like them very much. So I have been talked to, and I know a lot of things about it before I put it onto my stuff. But anyways, so, the digital art is where it’s a lot easier for me to bring those ideas that I have and draw them up. When people ask for paintings I’ll ask them, “Well, what do you like?” Then they’ll kind of throw some things at me. One of them liked comic style paintings. Where they have those really big dark black lines around really vibrant reds and blues. So I made him one. It’s the side view of a girl, and she’s looking up, and she has this teardrop falling down. It’s bright black around the tear, and white. Then the whole background is red. She’s like, a tan color with bright red lipstick and a bright blue shirt. It looks freaking sick! I was so happy with it! I did another one where it was all black and I made a white line and I drew like, these weird teardrop looking things, and when I colored it in, it was a face!

CB: How would you describe your digital art style?

NJ: I like a lot of vibrant colors. Like, if you look at the shirts that I have, like, all of them are really bright colors. Generally that like, neon lime green that I really lean towards. But I always use really vibrant colors. I always put my signature onto it, which for the shirts is the D3viants signature. I do like cross hatching shading though. It mainly comes up in more like, pencil drawing, because I prefer it with pencil drawings. With digital art I mainly will do bright colors. With those things I don’t like any openings for like the background to pop through. I like it to be completely solid and I’m a very big stickler for straight lines and curves. Like with the first drawing of the Deaf Leppard thing, the lines were kind of messy. None of my drawings have ever taken me more than, like, two days. When I start it, it has to be finished. If I stop, I’m not gonna’ do it anymore. Because now my brain’s like, “Well, we’re done with that!” No, I have to finish it that day.

CB: Which of your art pieces are you most proud of?

NJ: I really love the Deaf Leppard one. Just because of the meaning with it, and the little dino one. Like I love all of my drawings that are on there, but like the Deaf Leppard one has the most meaning because it was the first one I made. That’s what kind of started a lot of the things, because I had always wanted my own clothing brand. Two of the designs on there, one of them is a skull. It says “D3viants” on the top part of its head. That was my first idea when I was in middle school and I drew it up. But the clothing brand that I thought of was called Blissful Roses. I was like, “I don’t know about that title. That’s a long title!” I really like shopping at Zumiez and a lot of the brand names on there are shorter. They’re creative, there’s something that’s kind of mentally catchy for people. But you have 40s and Shorties, you have Empire, Obey, I like Salem 7. I just like their colors. Anyone that has crazy vibrant colors probably more than likely are the brands I like to purchase from. The other one that I have on there is a mermaid with a wave crashing up behind her. She’s not facing you, she’s facing away, and the wave is on the side. Her hand is actually holding like, a cigarette. When I first did it, it was a blunt. It’s called High Tide. That was the other idea that I came up with for a name brand. Because I wanted to appeal to stoners. I ended up with D3viants.

CB: How did you end up with the name D3viants?

NJ: I was trying to think of, like, names that like, older people would yell at kids that were running around skateboarding and smoking weed, and like staying out late. Just like doing your typical teenagery young adult thing. And then I was like, What would the adult women, like, gossiping, What would they call them? Deviants. “Goddamn deviants!”

CB: What themes show up in your art?

NJ: With my paintings and my drawings it’s more of, I go out and I ask friends and family for ideas and I do them. When it comes to the poetry thing that’s completely different.

CB: How so?

NJ: I kind of messed around with poetry a little bit when I was in high school but it never really went anywhere. Then I started using it as a way to express my feelings. That’s where it kind of started. All of it is about loving somebody, breaking up with somebody, liking someone. I have a thing for rhyming the words. It’ll be like, This word rhymes with the third word, and then the second one rhymes with the fourth line.

CB: What do you write poetry about?

NJ: So, in one of them I wrote for an ex, it was when we started to become friends again, and I was talking about how they’re aging like fine wine. The words that rhyme with that was “eau de vie.” Eau de vie is a French word for the youthful waters, and so it rhymed! But the thing was it connected. Well, it was that word, and then it was “aging like fine wine.” But I know that with certain words people are gonna have zero clue what that means. So I try to give context in other parts of the poem, or prior to that portion, and so I’ll try to try and make it to where you wouldn’t have to Google what that word means. You could figure it out while you’re reading it.

CB: Can you tell me about your photography? What do you take photos of?

NJ: I’ve taken photography a couple of times, and I’ve used it as a way to kind of showcase different things. So, for one of them my teacher wanted us to use the photography to kind of create a story, or a perception of something. What I did was I made it like a progression, so the first photos, they were stacked on top of another photo. It was just pictures of people. I labeled it and I was like, “What are your perceptions of each of these people?” Because when you look at somebody that you don’t know you make an automatic judgment. So I let people do that with these different photos. Then, at the next part when we came back around to it I took all the top photos off, and I had the next set. The next set was kind of showing you who they are. It was my uncle, my grandma, one of my guy friends, and one of my girl friends. In the bottom part it gave descriptions and told you their names, and how old they were, and the thing that they struggle with. Because now that you’ve made your assumption, now you’re gonna know them. Understand who they actually are. So, in that first one it was my uncle, and the scar from his arm is because he struggled with heroin for most of his life. Then it’s my grandma. In the second photo it was her, like, crossing her eyes and looking all crazy. I made it blurry so that way it looked even more different. It said that she was, like, 70 years old and she struggles with Alzheimers. So that photo is essentially what her brain is like. She’s there, but it’s a blur. Some things are missing. The next one was my friend and he was struggling with his gender identity. So the first photo was literally just him standing looking like a normal guy. The next photo we put makeup on him. And then he put on a cute hat, he put on a dress and a cute little jacket, and I was like, “Pose for me!” And he posed. The thing, it said: struggling with severe social anxiety, gender identity, and sexuality. Because you wouldn’t have known that from the first photo. The next one, that’s the hard one. That’s the one I struggle with the most. Because they passed away, so it’s a little bit harder, and that was like the last time I ever saw them. She struggled with anxiety, severe depression, and a lot of self harm, and attempts. In the next photo it was her and she was standing, and she had her leg up and I was like, “Do you care if for this photo we showcase your scars? If you do, and it’s gonna trigger anything for you I would prefer to not.” And she said, “You know what, let’s fucking do it.” So in the photo I put more light to showcase her scars, but she actually had a tattoo. Her tattoo that she got was actually to show that beauty can grow in the darkest of places. And, the thing was, in the first photo she just looked happy, and excited. Then the next photo I made it to where you couldn’t really see her face, so I made it more of a darkness. But the light on her leg just kind of made it pop more. And it’s honestly one of my favorite photos. Just because, like, it’s of her, and I haven’t seen her. Now I do film a lot. I like to do a lot with my family, just because I’m always with them. I have all the trips that we’ve gone on, or trips that I’ve gone on with my friends. I shoot whatever kind of, whatever makes me happy. I take a lot with my phone now, which are of here. The rain and the nice trees. The orange leaves. Just kind of all of it.

CB: Have you published your poems?

NJ: I’ve thought about making a book. It’s gonna cost me like $2,000! Paper, publishing, you know like, getting out there. And I was like, “No.” In all honesty, I would love to like, share it. For people to read it. Like, my friends like the poems because it’s something that they connect with.

CB: Do you find overlapping ideas in your art?

NJ: Fairly cartoony. I don’t really do realism. My drawings have started out being really similar to Ed Hardy drawings, pictures and stuff. With really bold lines and colors. Now they’ve calmed down a lot and the lines have thinned out. But they’re very much cartoony and like, graphic arty.

CB: Who are your inspirations?

NJ: I’ve always really really really loved Picasso. Ever since I was little I’ve always loved his stuff. Van Gogh, I really like him. My mom’s favorite painting is called The Kiss. It’s by Gustav Klimt.

CB: How do your inspirations influence your art?

NJ: If you look at all the paintings that would be my favorite ones, they’re all cartoony. So more than likely it kind of flows through, because they’re not realistic paintings. Me liking Picasso and his artworks, Van Gogh, Gustav Klimt, and The Wave [The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai], all of them are more of non realistic cartoonish like, kind of imaginative and crazy paintings and drawings. [Nikki indicates a painting they’ve made that hangs on their wall.] I like things that you can almost look at and you’re like, “Hmm, is it a body with boobs? Is it cherries in a bag? I don’t know!” It’s up to your interpretation.

CB: What does your poetry writing process look like?

NJ: With the poetry I need to have an influx of emotion. So having a lot of feelings allows me to kind of hone in on what I want to talk about. What I’ll do is I’ll meditate for a minute and I kind of open that box. I let it just come out. I keep it and I just kind of put it into myself and hold it. I always finish my poems like, that night because ADHD means things kind of go away quickly. So, when it comes to the poems, because it takes up so much emotional energy and, like, time to get to, I have to write it then.

CB: Thank you so much for sharing! I really appreciate it! I enjoyed listening to you talk about your art, and I know that the folks reading are going to want to see your art for themselves, so where can we find your work?

NJ: I’m glad you enjoyed it! My clothing brand is @D3viants_clothing on Instagram, and my poetry is on Tumblr at baredhearts.

Image provided by Nikki James

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