Nile Livingston’s presence is calming.
We’re seated at the back corner table in Green Line Café on Baltimore Avenue. Livingston is sitting across from me, every once in a while dodging the sunlight coming through the window. As she answers my questions about her art, she’s composed and soft-spoken—her responses brief, but with a relaxed kindness.
Which is completely opposite of her work. As West Philly Local wrote about nearly two years ago, Livingston is the visual artist behind the “Baltimore Avenue Series,” which chronicles life on the corridor through colorful line drawings. (The series was displayed in Gold Standard Café’s dining room in 2012.) For the series, Livingston took scenes of everyday Baltimore Avenue life and put them down on stark white paper, first creating contour lines and then adding vibrant dabs and streaks of color Sharpie paint markers to bring them to life.
The “Baltimore Avenue Series” was inspired by “the day-to-day pedestrian archetype” she’d often see after moving back to West Philly following her graduation from Kutztown University, where she earned a B.F.A in large metal fabrication and sculpture. As she notes on her website, the series “captures the fleeting moods” of the community as “it’s transformed by the influx of growing businesses, new residents, petty crimes, and trope characters.”
And all of the characters that compose the new West Philly are there: the jogger, the coffee shop writer, the dog walker, the artist, the neighborhood kids, and the parents with their children. Her favorite image from the series, titled “The Museum of Momma Art: Affordable Gifts for Mother,” is of a woman pushing a stroller down the street.
The final images, she said, are based both on observation and imagination.
“I tried to take these archetypes and leave it open to a story,” said Livingston, 26, who also designed the Cecil B. Moore playground mural at 22nd Street and Lehigh Avenue. “I don’t know what their lives are about, so I draw people that are kind of similar to them. These aren’t people I know necessarily. These are all strangers.”
Well, strangers until recently. Livingston tells me that, through her Instagram account, she’s recently connected with the subjects of her piece, “Friends: The Art of Connecting”, after mutual recognition, and they’re now social media pals. “We haven’t met in person, but I like their style,” she said.
But “Friends” and other series characters are more than observations on a page. They’re also the heartbeat of the neighborhood, and to truly get that message across, Livingston put together a Google Earth video that maps how these people (and a cat) fit into West Philly life.
The video, “Baltimore Avenue Tour,” is featured in the current Yell Gallery (2111 east Susquehanna Avenue) exhibit, “Inclusion/Exclusion: The Poetics of Cartography,” which opened on Friday, March 7th. Two of Livingston’s series drawings, “Vibrant Illustration of An Old Lady Shopping” and “Finding Inspiration at the Local Market: Grocery Shopping,” are also featured in the exhibition.
Much like Baltimore Avenue, Livingston’s series, which was the subject of a recent Philly.com article, is one of a kind. Since she grew up around the area, the series was “personal to her,” a unique experiment not to be duplicated.
The technique she developed for the series is long lasting, though. While Livingston is a multifaceted artist, she was new to the contour lines-meets-marker splashes that define “Baltimore Avenue Series” and much of her illustration work today.
One day, she said, she picked up a friend’s Sharpie and “really loved how vibrant it was so I bought my own. I realized that they jam and dry up really easily, so I would tap them on my paper to get the ink down the tube into the sponge part and it starts to splatter and drip and I love that…I kept going with it.”
“This [technique] is the core that’s inspiring for future works and works that I’ve done afterwards,” Livingston added.
Her latest project to use the marker method, “Future Kids,” is as striking as it is bittersweet. Featuring images of well-known Black and Latino figures when they were children, the series, Livingston said, represents the people youth victims of violence would want to be if they were still alive today.
Among the people featured are Franklin Chang Diaz, a Costa Rican-American mechanical engineer, physicist and former NASA astronaut; late artist Jean Michel Basquiat; actress Lucy Liu; West Philly’s own actor and rapper Will Smith; singer, poet, and actress Jill Scott, who’s from North Philly; and a rare image of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor as a young girl.
The “Future Kids” series was inspired by a commission with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts program for a mural in North Philly (the people she choose to feature represent the demographic of the neighborhood). The project, however, is on hiatus and the future of it is unknown, Livingston said.
Of course, this technique doesn’t define Livingston as a visual artist. As an independent artist, she also produces paintings, sculptures, mosaics, collages, prints, and computer graphics, which are all available for sale through her self-designed website (prices range from $18 to $1,300). Currently, Livingston is working on two paintings of prominent figures: one featuring a vulnerable First Lady Michelle Obama with fireworks in her eyes, and the other featuring a scowling Chris Christie with Hurricane Sandy waves as the pattern of his blazer.
As for her future goals, Livingston said she’s “still trying to work that out,” but would like to work on more community projects and large scale works.
Ultimately, though, the message behind her art is still the same: “To encourage other people to figure out how they feel about things and not just wait for someone else to say it and say, ‘Oh I can relate to that,’” Livingston said.
She continued, “I want to inspire people to rely on themselves to figure out how they feel and what they want to say.”