In a time of vacant office buildings and empty arts venues, artist Nigel Sussman is bringing style and color to spots all over Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco.
Sussman, who lives and works in Berkeley, creates murals that are vibrant, intricate, whimsical and likely to ignite a sense of curiosity. Since he moved to the city in 2014, Sussman’s art on walls, temporary construction hoardings and facades has given the community a sense of place and ease, especially during uncertain times.
“Doing murals, the public ones that affect the community, is something I really enjoy because of the way people react to it,” he said recently. “People walk past the murals and tell me, ‘This is my way to and from my home, and I smile when I see it. You are on my commute and it makes me happy.’”
Creativity is in Sussman’s blood. Originally from Maryland, he grew up with a musician father and a mother who was a D.I.Y enthusiast, which has informed his ability to improvise, his growth mindset and generative capacity.
“The D.I.Y spirit has been influential in my art practice. I always try to make something instead of buying it,” says Sussman. “Making murals is like creating something out of nothing which feels gratifying.”
Sussman started studying fine art at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, but he felt frustrated with the emphasis in traditional art education on concept over craft. In 2003, he drove across the country and transferred to the illustration program at the California Academy of Arts and Crafts, which was renamed the California Academy of Arts (CAA) that year. He found that being taught by working artists rather than academics was more effective for his artistic ambitions.
“It was a great school in the way that the teachers were working artists first and teachers second,” he said.
A Berkeley welcome
After graduating from CAA, Sussman worked in the art department for advertising firms in San Francisco, doing digital projects like web banners and flash animations. But he always pursued illustration on the side. By the time he moved to Berkeley, in 2014, while still working in advertising, he was jaded.
“I was sick of doing advertising full-time and only doing illustration on the side,” he said.
A combination of D.I.Y. hustle and serendipity led him to his first mural gig in Berkeley. He was browsing Craigslist for freelance jobs when he saw a post by the Telegraph Business Improvement District.
“They wanted a mural on a construction facade on Telegraph. They just paid for materials and that was my accidental first mural. I was just trying to be opportunistic,” said Sussman. The resulting horizontal mural, about a hundred feet long, depicts a series of objects — a book, slice of pizza, vinyl record, Cal mascot, skateboard, and a bowl of ramen — pierced by a row of utility poles.
Prior to the Telegraph Avenue project, the last time Sussman had painted a mural was in high school. While he used skills gleaned from his fine arts training paired with a can-do attitude, he had to jump over some mental hurdles to create his first professional mural.
“It’s a psychological game working at that kind of scale. It feels big, but it’s the same movements. You just exaggerate,” he says.
Painting the mural on Telegraph was Sussman’s official welcome into the Berkeley community. It introduced him to local business owners and helped him become the artist he is today.
“It was a community-facing mural and I spoke with people on the street when I was working on it. I met a lot of locals that way because I had just moved to the area,” he said. “Another business asked me to do one on their building. It was a domino effect. Now construction facades are a significant part of the work that I do, and I just happened to accidentally stumble into it.”
Sussman’s work runs the gamut from magazine illustrations to posters (including, pre-pandemic, for concerts at Berkeley’s UC Theatre). And he has done more work for the TBID, including a wraparound hoarding at the corner of Telegraph and Haste while new housing and a resurrected Mezzo restaurant were under construction, and a stunning tangle of colorful pipes to enhance the public lobby area of the Channing-Telegraph parking garage mall. But he said he especially enjoys painting the construction site murals because he believes they are beneficial to the community in two ways.
“Construction in the Bay Area can be ominous and apocalyptic in some places where they are developing big blocks of construction. Painting it more cheerfully in a way that relates to the community is a positive addition,” he said. “It also deters unwanted tagging which happens if it’s left blank.”
Painting through the pandemic
Like many other cities around the world, Berkeley has been hit hard by the pandemic. Businesses have shuttered and citizens have become uneasy and restless from social distancing for almost a year. Even though public activities have been prohibited or reduced in capacity, Sussman has managed to stay busy creating art for people to see. He is currently drawing illustrations for TechCrunch, collaborating on grant proposals to create public artworks in downtown Berkeley, and painting panels for the exterior of the Sand Bar in Oakland.
Even among the cancellations, new opportunities have emerged.
“I was doing things like conventions, live art, live events, live drawing, posters for concerts. All of that aspect of my work has disappeared,” he said. “But I have been painting murals in empty office spaces with optimism from companies that they will open up eventually.”
Painting in empty places, where employees haven’t entered for months, gives Sussman a sense of optimism. While he has always painted his murals with the intention of bringing positivity to the community, the coronavirus crisis has given his art a new purpose. He now paints for the promise of a renewed world.
“Working in office spaces that are under construction or remodeling feels quite hopeful,” he said. “It has the anticipation that people will return … I think that the change has highlighted that meeting places are important, and though we might not need to be in them as much, when we are, they should be inviting, inspiring, and beautiful. Murals are always a nice personal touch.”