Last week I had a chance to catch up with pingg designer Nicole Alesi for the inaugural pingg Designer Interview. Read on to find out where this multi-talented, multi-disciplinary artist gets her creative juice.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up not far from Manhattan, in Malverne. My mom is Italian, my dad African-American, and my step-dad Irish. So I had an Italian-African-Irish upbringing.
What was that like?
I think that helped me understand different cultures from a variety of perspectives. And growing up just outside of the city was great; I had exposure to museums and shows and all kinds of art at an early age.
What role did art have in your home as a child?
My mom was a single-mom in the 80s, and she left me with a few different babysitters when she had to work, including my grandmother. Well, my grandmother watched soaps while she babysat me and she would give me scrap paper from her office job for me to doodle on. I was an only child with not much else to do, so I started drawing. One of the first things I drew was Mickey Mouse‚ the early Steamboat Willy version. My mom saw it and recognized it was Mickey. She told me it was good and was very supportive and encouraging. Drawing was always a part of me, it came to me easily. Math, however, did not. Most of my classes in high school were art classes, which made senior year very awesome. I wanted to be an animator. My mom would take us to Disneyworld and that, as an aspiring animator, was great. Then I took an animation course and I learned that, as an animator, you don’t necessarily have as much creative control as you would like, as much as I would want. I wound up not doing it. Instead, I had the opportunity to attend FIT (New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology); people think it’s only for fashion, but it’s not. I was counseled to go into advertising and design. That was great, because I picked up my computer skills, but I still wanted to physically draw and do what I wanted to do.
What happened at FIT?
At FIT I was taking stuffy advertising classes and that sort of thing; then 9/11 happened. I remember coming back to school about a week after 9/11, and the city was so depressing. And I think that made me think about what I was doing there at FIT. I always wanted to act as well–and that desire would inform my art later–but I was always singing and dancing. About my art, though, I was always pretty private. So there I was in FIT, and I decided to transfer to the American Musical Dramatic Academy to pursue a career in musical theater. And my art got better. I was sitting there watching these artists, actors, and instead of taking notes I would sit there and draw them. Actors, not surprisingly, have a lot of flare; I had one class that seemed to have a lot of divas. There was this one actor who was really catty, a real diva, so I drew him. A friend of mine showed him the drawing, and he laughed. He thought it was great. Then all of my classmates started asking me to draw them. I ended up drawing the whole class, and this broke down a lot of barriers. At the same time I started building a career in musical theater, and I ended up drawing a lot in my down time. I wasn’t making money at it. I would draw anything at the time, but I wasn’t thinking about that as a career. I was an actor, I was gonna be on Broadway! It was a visual diary, but I always like to put some flair on it, a sense of humor. I try to find the funny in any situation, so my art starting getting cute and funny. Some people take their art to an emotional place, but I was already doing that on stage. This was the only place I could go to as a relief from stress in my life. Although I loved theater, I found that world was also very stressful for me at times.
Your designs exude happiness & fun–how do you achieve that?
First of all, I love love love things from the 50s and 60s–pop-art. advertisements, TV, whatever. Everyone is always smiling, but you know not everything is okay. That image of the Hollywood smile, keeping up appearances. As an actor, I know what it’s like behind the smile, behind the scenes. I try to capture those elements of 50s and 60s retro, but I wouldn’t call it vintage. Take the design of the girl on a Vespa, the one I call Rome. Yes, there are vintage elements, but I think she’s a modern woman. I also love Fellini films. Italian women in the 50s and 60s–what can I say, they nailed it.
So, the people smiling in your designs–are they actually happy?
At that moment they’re happy; a moment before or a moment after, maybe not. To go back to the girl on the Vespa, maybe she just ran away from her boyfriend. Maybe she caught him in bed with another women, and she put on her best scarf and drove away.
What do you do when you get stuck, creatively?
When I get stuck, I get out of the house. I have a dog, Rocco, who forces me to go outside. Living in New York city is a gift, creatively; seeing all the stores, tourists, even just looking out into my backyard, I see a lot of happiness, and that’s great. I recently moved to the upper east side, and it’s nice that I can walk to the park. I have museums here – Moma is my favorite. I also get inspired by my friends. I’m part of an all-girl improv team, called BFF; it’s like my bowling team. The things that come out of their mouths‚ that’s a huge inspiration for me. Like my friend Betsy. Don’t be fooled by the name–she’s a kick-ass girl from Staten Island and is always so creative; she produces and writes comedy, and our minds just clicked when we met. You’ll see a lot of friends in my designs.
Any advice for aspiring creative-types?
Do what you love, but make sure you live your life. Life is short, and beautiful, and the little things in life are much more rewarding than you might think. Make sure that you’re happy and be yourself. For me, I like being my own boss. I think that’s the American dream, more than making money; being your own boss and having control of what you do. You can work every day, thinking you’ll get your pension, and then one day you’re laid off. Well, as an actor, I got laid off all the time, so I got used to that, but not everybody does. You have to be prepared for that.
Describe your perfect party.
Lots of food – I love food – good music, outside with friends. And a dance-off, of course.
To see more of Nicole’s fabulous work on pingg, click here. You can read more about Nicole and find more of her artwork on her website at www.alesiartist.com and her Etsy store at http://www.etsy.com/shop/nicolealesi.