From a young age, Nichole Westfall decorated her bedroom walls with colorful imagery, adding her own mark to plain surfaces. Now she’s just as comfortable painting from an aerial lift 20 feet in the air as she is in front of her easel, and her art is on the side of buildings, hanging in galleries, and adorning interior walls.
Combining large blocks of vibrant colors and childlike imagery, Westfall—who works at Base Camp Print Co., a letterpress shop in her hometown of Charleston, W.Va.—creates intricate and layered paintings that explore fantastical worlds and identity-driven narratives. Her intention is to use art to examine ways people navigate society. “It gives us a moment of self-reflection, to find something shared in one experience, through two different people,” she said. “As a practice, it’s a language that feels more natural than trying to have a conversation.”
Across her large murals and smaller works, Westfall maintains a similar style, a mix of realistic and illustrative elements. But when creating a piece for public consumption, she’s mindful about how others will interact with the piece physically and mentally. As she describes it, her murals are typically putting her happiest foot forward while her smaller works are more introspective, diving into darker themes. “I suppose the murals are the extroverted part of my personality, while the smaller works are the more introverted part,” Westfall said.
Those themes have evolved over time, changing as she moves through various stages of life. At times when she was feeling angry or unapologetic or influenced by others, her art has reflected those internal and external influences.
Westfall, describing herself as a “Defender of the Decorative Arts,” values the intersection of form, function, and aesthetic principles. “I’m inspired by objects and our connection to them—they can store memories and ghosts for us,” she said. “I just happen to find it more interesting when there’s intention of beauty put into the form of said object.”
Westfall’s process starts with a conversation—usually with herself. “Some ideas stick around for a few days, maybe even a few weeks, and the ones that won’t leave me alone are usually the ones that come to fruition,” she said. With an image or concept in her mind, she’ll write down any word that she associates with it.
From there, the piece starts to take shape as she sketches out her design in red, often straight onto the wall if it’s a mural. “This will sometimes make people uneasy—my sketches are very rough,” Westfall said. “That’s the fun of public art though. Everyone can see it unfold. Everyone sees it somehow come together, and it’s no longer just you feeling the magic.” Taking a two-dimensional piece and expanding it into a giant mural can make the experience of viewing the art feel more immersive. Plus, there’s the added bonus of livening up the scene while walking around town.
With each mural she creates, Westfall is always refining her techniques. “After years of practicing, I still feel confused by the process and question whether I know what I’m doing,” she said. “If I start to feel like I do, I try something else.” She is looking forward to brightening up more walls in the coming warmer months, when she gets to paint outside, and wants to try a ceiling before the year is over.
The Power of Place
Westfall incorporates elements of the natural world into her playful scenes, from towering floral arrangements to animated birds. While she usually carries a notebook and pens as she ruminates on projects during hikes, there’s something about a simple walk along a well-kept trail that lets her mind wander. “Your path is paved for you, and that’s pretty incredible,” Westfall said. Getting outside helps to take some of the pressure off her work. “The chipmunks aren’t going to make me feel guilty for not drawing,” she said. “The mushrooms aren’t going to shame me for not going through my supply receipts.”
One of her favorite places to visit in Appalachia is Cathedral Falls just off the New River in West Virginia. Across the river, a collection of massive rocks beckons visitors to stop for a moment. “They’re flat on the top, almost as if a giant had them in their pocket and polished the top by mindlessly rubbing their thumb across it all day,” Westfall said. “In the summer, it’s warm—heated by the sun beating down on them with no cover in sight.”
It’s here she channels nature’s inspiration for the scenes she depicts in her work. “This place feels like it could be on a different planet—the lichens mixed with the smooth stone, mixed with the occasional plant that seems so displaced, mixed with the river looking like it’s creeping up to scare you,” she said. “The water slaps the sides of the rock, giving you a rhythm to dance to.”
Cover photo: Westfall paints a mural in Milton, W.Va.