GET TO KNOW: Artist Nate Otto

Nate Otto’s artwork is steeped in his city. Often covered in buildings, it’s been described as “Chicago style.” Asked why, Otto skips the “no ketchup” jokes and suggests it might have to do with the buildings, or maybe it’s the accessibility. “I think my work doesn’t require a lot of explanation to be enjoyed and Chicago is a no-nonsense city,” he says. Whatever the reason, when it came time to select an artist to paint a mural at our Chicago Guideshop location, Otto was a natural choice. We sat down to learn more about all those little buildings and what inspires them.

Your mural at the I/D Guideshop location in Chicago is teeming with buildings, and cityscapes figure heavily across your work. What draws you to these themes?

I can say quite a bit within the scope of cityscapes—I’ve found all sorts of ways to experiment within the the scope of buildings and urban landscapes, and I’ve enjoyed that evolution. I remember doing a couple cityscapes in 2010, and people responded to them, so I started riffing on the idea and seeing how I could push it further. Even back in the early 2000s, I was doing abstract expressionist paintings, and I always thought of those as abstract landscapes, so putting in the buildings was a natural development.

How does your approach change when working on single panels versus full murals?

With the panels, since I’m doing them for myself instead of a client, I can experiment and try to find new directions. I estimate that I’ve done more than a hundred 12-foot-by-12-foot panels over the last five years, and I’ve tried lots of things. With the murals I have to do something that I know is going to work and that the client is going to like. There is less room for experimentation. Murals also have to be very clear and striking; they have to work from a distance as well as closer up. When I’m doing a mural it’s time to flex the muscles I’ve already built.

What are some of your proudest moments as an artist?

Just being able to work on art as my job every day makes me very proud. I’ve always been an artist, but up until about five years ago I worked jobs to make ends meet and did art on the side. At a certain point that wasn’t good enough anymore, and I started working harder on my art. Eventually I was able to take the leap.

A few years ago I had a bunch of banners in downtown Chicago, and that was the first time my work really reached the larger public. I’ve been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to have multiple solo shows in galleries, do illustrations for companies I really respect, work on some big murals, and to show my work all over the world.  

Tell us about the gifts (and challenges) of being a fulltime artist.

There is a big difference between doing something on the side and doing it as the main focus, and I think that applies to lots of things and not just making art. I didn’t fully understand the difference until I did it myself. It’s a hustle, and at times it has been very stressful, but at this point I can’t imagine having a boss again. I enjoy the luxury of pursuing whatever direction I want to go; I’m generally getting hired to do my own style and work that plays to my own strengths.

You previously worked as an art teacher to people with disabilities. How did your former students influence your work?

I worked with people with developmental disabilities for ten years. Part of the reason I gravitated to working with that population is that I had always loved their art. Sometimes my students would make things that blew my mind. I continue to be inspired by so called “outsider” and intuitive art, and there is something that can be lost when one becomes overeducated and stops doing what comes naturally. I have to remind myself to remain true to those raw impulses, and that is something I learned from my students.

Which trained artists have influenced you the most?

I have always liked art that seemed intuitive and unpretentious, and artists that did their own thing regardless of whether it was fashionable, or if the art establishment appreciated it. I was probably about ten years old when I started developing the taste that I can see evident in my attitudes today. Paul Klee and Jean Dubuffet were a couple of my heroes early on. Later I discovered Jean Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Then I discovered the mission school cool artists like Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, and Chris Johansen. At some point I fell in love with some of the abstract expressionists like Rothko, Guston, and Motherwell.

Aside from influences, how do you get inspired? Any practices or rituals?

I don’t have any rituals besides just getting to work. I’m not a believer in waiting for inspiration, and I think that there are very few professionals that wait for inspiration. Inspiration comes from buckling down and doing the work. I make a point of making art every day. It is not a choice.

Otto’s mural at Nike

Tell us about your dream projects.

I really want to do more murals. Interior Define was my first outdoor mural. I had done some indoor ones, at Facebook, Basecamp, and Nike, to name a few, but this one was the first large exterior mural. I want to do more, and bigger ones. Someone really needs to hire me to paint the side of a large building in Europe. That would be great. Other than that I just want to keep working and doing my thing.

For commissions and other inquiries, email Nate at ottonate@gmail.com.

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