Studio visit with Nicholas Bohac: inspiring the sense of wonder

Nicholas Bohac is a painter & printmaker based in San Francisco, CA. He was born & raised in Ralston, Nebraska, a suburb of Omaha. In his late teens & early twenties, he played bass in the band Caught in the Fall. He and friend Kevin Kowal also ran a small label, Wristwatch Records, releasing a few records between 2004 & 2006. In 2006 he moved to San Francisco, California with his wife, Kim. They currently reside in the Outer Sunset neighborhood, where he also maintains a studio.

Nicholas explains that his aim is to question the universe and where, exactly, people fit into it.  Specifically, he is interested in the way we interact with and interpret what’s around us, and how that adds meaning to who we are. Bohac’s paintings explore space & time, adventure, introspection, repeating patterns & the big picture. Through juxtaposing the abstract and surreal with the human condition, he hopes to inspire a sense of wonder.

We were delighted to have an opportunity to ask Nicholas a few questions about his studio practice and inspiration for his art.

“More Shoegazers”

AMM: Hi Nicholas! Could you tell us more about how you made your way into the art world and how your music experiences affected your life and your paintings?

NB: I turned 35 a couple of months ago and I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing or wanting to draw. Drawing was something that I knew I loved and people always seemed impressed with what I was making. My parents were and continue to be incredible, and they encouraged me from the beginning to make art. Birthdays, Christmas…any time that presents were given, I always got art supplies. So I drew a lot. I carried sketch books with me and covered my homework & notes in doodles and sketches.

So as I got older, I continued working on art and decided that, despite not really understanding what a contemporary artist is, that that is what I wanted to do. I grew up in a suburb of Omaha, Nebraska called Ralston. It’s this old town that Omaha eventually grew around and absorbed. We had this benefit of having a smaller school district than the much bigger Omaha district, and our high school had some especially good programs. There were a couple of art teachers at the high school, and I took just about all of their classes. Over the four years I became really good friends with one of my high school art teachers, Bob Benzel. He really pushed me and encouraged me in what I was making in his classes. I spent most of my free time in his classroom even when I wasn’t taking his class. There were a few of us that were all into a lot of the same music and art, and some of my friends were already in bands. I got out of high school and went to a smaller private university that wasn’t known for it’s art program, but the guy running the program was really tapped into the local art scene. His name is Les Bruning, and in my first year in college, he and a few other artists bought this old warehouse in downtown Omaha, back before that whole area became rejuvenated. They put a few galleries in, a whole bunch of artists studios and built four anchor studios called The Hot Shops that specialized in welding, casting, tile work & a glass blowing studio. So I started talking to Les a lot, and he & the other instructors were pushing me in what I was making. Some friends asked me to play bass in their punk band, so I started doing that, too. I’m a terrible musician, but I could learn songs and play along decently enough, I suppose. We were really bare bones and DIY, so I learned how to silkscreen and I started designing merch for our band and we started going out on these small tours around the midwest and eventually toward the east coast. Around this time, I met my now wife, & I started working for my old high school teacher Bob Benzel who had left teaching and had a bunch of properties he had bought back in the 70’s & 80’s. His retirement plan. He was renovating all of these places and I had done a little construction and was kind of eager to learn more.

This was a for a few years in the early 2000’s. We were making music and doing some small tours here and there and I was getting to see a lot of the US and a little of Canada. Back in Omaha, I was doing construction with my old art teacher, and we talked a lot about art and what I wanted to do. In school, I had this professor who was tapped in and I showed a few times at the galleries in his warehouse. Eventually, the band fell apart and I moved to San Francisco in 2006, where I went to grad school at SFAI and I’ve been here since.


Dude, I Think This All-Seeing Cat is All-Seeing Right Through Me

AMM: We absolutely love the themes you explore in your work – ‘space & time, adventure, introspection, repeating patterns & the big picture’. It all sounds very magical! How was your interest developing in this field?

NB: In 2006 when I moved out here to San Francisco, I was in the printmaking department at SFAI. My first semester, I was just kind of playing around with different print methods and trying to figure out where I wanted my work to go. The stuff I was showing in Omaha had mostly been ink drawings, so I hadn’t been painting much up to this point. I started making a wide array of prints in all different types of media and then cutting those prints up and reassembling those into large scale collages that I was calling paintings. The graduate program was two years and I was quickly approaching that and realizing that I was going to lose access to all of these presses and exposure units I had grown accustomed to while in the print department. So I started changing and getting more into painting. A lot of this included painting on sheets of paper and ripping that up to collage into these paintings. It got me really accustomed to this way of making, where I was essentially looking at my paintings as flattened dioramas. Most of this work was landscape oriented and had a lot to do with environmental concerns and how people affect the environment.

Maybe about five years ago I started thinking more about what I would consider the “bigger picture”. How things are all interconnected. I was reading a bunch of stuff about fractals and looking at imagery that represented these types of really complex and abstract concepts. Over time, I started to develop some different motifs and elements that I wanted to use to represent some of this stuff. My wife Kim & I started to travel a little more and see places that we hadn’t before. A lot of what I’m interested in are these micro-environments that develop on islands. We’ve gone to a few of the Hawaiian islands & Iceland. These trips, being out in environments that feel very surreal having grown up in flat Nebraska, it started to really find its way into my work.

AMM: What is your creative process like and how has it developed as you’ve matured as a person and as an artist?

NB: Some of this I think I started to answer in the previous question, but I’ll expand on that. Like I said, I came out to San Francisco not having a whole lot of painting experience. Most of what I was making back in Omaha was being done with India ink. Either drawings or paintings made up of transparent ink washes. When SFAI first gave me my studio assignment and I sat down in my space and started to think about where I wanted to go with my work, I just knew I wanted to do something new. I wanted to take advantage of having all of this printmaking equipment and learn the techniques I didn’t have a lot of experience with. But I also knew I didn’t want to be a printmaker and only a printmaker. In my studio, I was making some oil paintings while back in the print department, I spent that first semester experimenting with printmaking. Over time it developed into those collaged paintings made up of cut up prints, and that developed into the torn sheets of painted paper on panels that I was also painting into.

Eventually I hit this point where I just wasn’t doing as much collage and things developed more into painted. In 2011, I showed some work at the Bemis Underground, which was a space in the downstairs of the Bemis Center in Omaha where they used to give local and locally produced artists shows. I made all of this work and was really happy with it. All of this work was done on canvas. After getting back to San Francisco, I started a new body of work, but I wanted to try working on rigid panels again. I started to build these panels that had a rigid sheet of PVC laminated on the front and then I would paint directly on this. The paintings themselves started to get brighter because the initial surface I was painting on was so bright white. Trying to build larger versions of these panels was difficult to do though, and they started to weigh too much, so I switched back to canvas & paper. These last few years I’m incorporating collage where it’s necessary, but also using a lot of stenciling and masking a lot of areas off in paintings to create the illusion of collage. I like to experiment with different materials like color shift spray paints. For the last few years, I’ve been using a lot of holographic films in my work, both raw and painted on. I have a current painting that has a figure that’s painted with these small glass beads called “retroreflective beads”. This is the same material that street painters add to paint to make it reflective on the road. It makes the figure really stick out and glow under the right light.

This painting is on my south wall and is currently in progress, but is being worked on less than the previous painting.

AMM: Are the scenes in your paintings derived from your own mind’s eye or do you use photographs and any other sources of inspiration, perhaps your own music? Also, where do you get ideas on how to name your paintings?

NB: First of all, I’ll say that I’m not making music at all anymore. My bass guitar has been down to three out of its four strings for a few years now and just sits in my entryway.

As for the imagery itself, it’s kind of a mixture of things. Sometimes the paintings are based off of a photo. The last painting I finished was based off of a series of photos I took from a grove of trees near my house in Golden Gate Park. But it’s just a loose idea of that photo. Everything is stylized and changed, but if you went to that spot in the park and looked at this painting, you’d see some similarity. I like to walk around the city a lot and clear my head, and I typically run 5-6 miles a day in the park. A lot of this time is spent looking at the world around me. I read a lot, watch a healthy amount of tv and spend a lot of time on the internet. There are thousands of weird photos I have saved across various devices. Stuff I find on Reddit, Twitter…just the internet in general. A lot of this stuff gets mined and used in various ways in my paintings and drawings. This changes across different bodies of work, but I will say that I do feel like I’m always working and thinking about this stuff.

Names come from all different places. Sometimes it’s something I read in a book, maybe not a verbatim quote, but sometimes an approximation. Song lyrics sometimes get used, and sometimes they get cut up and reassembled in a way that works better as a title. I’m using a lot of very subtle 8 & 16-bit videogame motifs in some of this work, and some of the titles reflect titles from that period. Currently I have a couple of paintings in the sketchbook phase that are tentatively titled after Omaha band song titles. Stuff that maybe some people will see but it isn’t necessary to “get” the meaning of the painting. I’m not a writer and sometimes it feels more comfortable letting others who are do the naming for me.

AMM: Would you consider yourself as a surrealist?

NB: To a degree, sure, why not? My work has a dreamlike feel to it, and that’s on purpose. My aim is definitely to “paint stuff that looks like stuff”, but I like using this framework that I have where I can represent stuff photorealistically while also presenting it next to stuff that feels a lot more abstract. At this point, I’m looking at a lot of this work almost like how we could eventually see the world through things like virtual reality or augmented reality. Like the idea of seeing the world the way we often do in our dreams.

This is a large diptych I’m currently working on. It’s about 60″x100″, two 60″x50″ canvases butted next to one another. The current title on this is “Kaizō Keflavik”.

AMM: Can you explain your process and a typical day in the studio? Does music play a big part for you in the studio? How important is it for you to have a consistent physical space to work in?

NB: San Francisco is a ridiculously expensive city, and I don’t think this is too big of a secret for anybody. We moved into our apartment that we’re in while I was still in graduate school. Really, we got lucky. A few friends of ours were moving out of their place and going back to the midwest, so we took their place when they left. This was over a decade ago and before the financial crash in 2008. We lived here for my second year at SFAI and while I still had a studio with them, but in the summer of 2008 I had to get out. When this happened, I moved everything into our apartment and started to make some small paintings in our living room, but it didn’t feel like a space I could get messy in and if we’re being honest, I’m a fairly messy person in the studio. Our apartment is in a detached two floor house near the beach, and there’s a full unfinished basement under our floor. That first summer I was out of school I had a lot of time to myself and I noticed the back corner of our basement was mostly empty, so I talked to our landlord Diana. She lives in the top floor and has a small room in the basement for her sewing and she was cool with me using this back corner to paint in. It’s not a giant space and the ceilings are only about 7 feet, but I’ve made some fairly big work here and it allows me to get a lot done.

Most days I spend in both my studio and our apartment. A lot of days I’ll start out doing some smaller things in the studio. If something needs to be sprayed, I’ll do that in the morning so I can get out of there for a few hours and not have to breath in fumes. At midday I might go for a run and then I spend most of the afternoon and into the evening working. Because this space is right downstairs from where I live, I will often come down later in the evening or work overnight if something needs to be done. Having this space is a big part of why I’m able to do what I do. This space is messy and my own, and it allows me the flexibility that I think is paramount to being able to make large paintings like I’m doing now.

In the studio I listen to music, podcasts or watch something on the TV. Lately it feels like all I ever watch is the news in the studio, which is kind of getting draining.

I finished this the first week or two of January. I don’t have a final photo of it, yet, but this is color corrected. It’s mixed media on paper. I think this will be mounted to panels and framed eventually. It’s fairly large, I think about 60″ high by around 85″ wide, close to that. The title is “Noise Forest of Illussion”, which is a reference to Super Mario World for the SNES or Super Famicom.

AMM: Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?

NB: My honest answer is that I’m not exactly sure where all of this fits in. At least not yet. The world got really small really fast with the internet, and with things like social media, I feel like we can see just about anything at any one moment. I haven’t read anybody’s manifesto or anything like that that has me saying that I fit into ‘such and such’ movement or whatever.

Being in San Francisco, I definitely feel like my work exists in a post-Mission School wake. That movement had a huge impact on this region and I see it not just in my work but in a lot of others. On the internet, I’m looking at a lot of digitally based glitch work. A lot of this is just kids playing around in hex-editors with photos, changing some variables and just seeing how screwed up they can make a .jpeg look. I’ve been collecting glitched images for years. I’d say a lot of this has to do with growing up playing stuff like the NES and SNES. There would occasionally be these glitches that would occur in those games, especially if we were playing around with something like the Game Genie. So I’m looking at a lot of glitched images online and looking at ways to represent that in paintings.

As for artists my work might talk with, I’d have to first mention my buddy Adam Friedman. Adam & I showed up at SFAI at the same time and had studios right next to each other. He was also working in the print department and we were both using printmaking to make these larger paintings. People got us confused for a period in school because there was some definite cross pollination. He’s up in Portland now and his work has grown in such a way. Outside of some color choices, you wouldn’t get our work confused at this point. He just had a solo show down in LA of these paintings of mountains that have this sort of vapor wave aesthetic to them, where the mountains are made up of offset psuedo-3D renderings of the same range. There are some sorts of moire effects he’s using that are really killer.

I’m looking at a lot of artists online, people I’ve never met and who often live in places far from me. I’m really into Adam Lee’s paintings, as well as Kim Dorland’s work. I don’t think my work has anything to do with hers, but I really love the way that Jenny Morgan paints her figures so they’re realistic, but also are made up of these gradient fills. I look at stuff like that a lot when trying to think about how I’m representing stuff that’s informed by reality but doesn’t really need to look exactly like you’d see it. I mean, when you see it you’re going to figure it out.

AMM: Name one quote or piece of advice that stuck with you throughout your career.

NB: As I’ve stated previously and I really need to reiterate here, I’ve been very lucky in my life to be supported in what I’m doing by just about everybody around me. A lot of people over the years gave me advice and words of encouragement to just continue on the trajectory I was on and keep doing what I was doing. But if I’m being honest, I’d have to say that my years after high school spent working with my friend & former teacher Bob Benzel…that had a lot of impact on what I was going to do. One of the more important things he encouraged me to do was to get out of Omaha. We would work together almost every day, Monday through Friday. I think we started around 7:30 am and worked until 12 or 1 in the afternoon. We were renting a large apartment in a house that he owned, and it had an attic that I was using as a studio. He actually lived down the street from us, so he was coming over often enough to see stuff I was working on. And he was just a massive cheerleader for me when it came to this stuff. He’d spent a few decades teaching art and had always encouraged my work in high school, but he seemed genuinely impressed with the work I was making, the scale I was working at and just the general scope of what I wanted to make. I was still in undergrad at this time, but I basically was at the point where if I just finished a couple more classes, I’d be done. At this point, I decided I wanted to go to grad school and get away from the midwest where I had always lived. My wife’s best friend from college had just moved to the Bay Area to work at Google, so I applied to SFAI and got in. Moving out here changed the way I looked at work, thought about my own work and kind of changed my worldview, and I’m not 100% sure I would be here if it weren’t for the years of conversation Bob and I had. This was a conversation for me that began when I was fourteen and walked into his Introduction to Art class back in ninth grade and continues to today.

“Turn My Head Into Sound”

AMM: What are you working on right now? Do you have any upcoming events or exhibitions we should know about?

NB: Right now I’m working on a couple of larger paintings, but don’t really have any shows nailed down at the moment. I have a few spaces that I’m talking to, but again, nothing that I have to announce yet. When I first got out of grad school, I showed very consistently for a few years there. I’d finish a body of work for one show and then immediately start on something for another show. This went on until about 2012 or 2013, I think. Showing a lot can be great if you know what you want to do, but I no longer felt like I knew what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to think about things more than I was at this point. Maybe I’ve slowed down way too much at this point. The paintings in my studio are moving along much more slowly than in the past, but I don’t think this is a bad thing. On my north studio wall I have this large painting that’s about 60”x100”. It’s on two 60”x50” canvases that are butted up against each other. This painting was started in the summer of 2015 with a completely different painting in mind, but I put it aside for a bit to work on some smaller stuff that was going in a show. Then another painting got started. And another. And this one got put to the side while I worked out all this other stuff in other paintings and learned a whole lot about different materials and applications until I finally came back to this painting at the beginning of the year. I’m spending a lot of time sitting back in my studio, just looking at it, but it’s coming together in a way that I’m really happy with. The last few paintings have been like this. Eventually this will all start to ramp up and I’ll be showing more often and I’ll miss the moments spent just staring at and trying to figure out what to do next in the painting I’m working on.

AMM: If you were to meet one person/character/creature you could hang out with for a day, who/which would that be?

NB: This is a difficult question to answer. There are so many historical figures, fictional characters…just characters in general that I have no idea where to begin. If I could pick the day I get to hang out with this character, I’d pick the day that the guy from Jurassic Park tried to steal all of the dinosaur embryos and go back to that specific day and hang out with that specific dude. I would convince him to not infect that computer with the virus that causes Jurassic Park to shut down, and I would do this because I want to be able to visit Jurassic Park. That guy ruined it for everybody just so he could pay off some gambling debts or something? Rude. He deprived the planet of genetically engineered dinosaurs and I find that 100% unacceptable. So I’d have to go back and stop him, for all of us.

Find out more about the artist:


“The Voyager”

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