They say, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But for artist Nick Backes, being the creator of great works of art sometimes makes it difficult to find the beauty. “I’ve never liked my work,” Backes said. “I don’t think it’s good. I prefer other artists, and like different styles than what I do.” Despite Backes’ personal opinion, for decades the 58-year-old Oklahoma City native has made a career out of creating art for those who see his work in a much different light.
Though his love for art began as far back as he can remember, Backes had his first real taste of making a career out of his passion while attending high school at Capitol Hill. “I would draw pictures of some of my girlfriends, and their parents started paying me for them,” Backes recalled. “That’s when I knew I could make a living out of it.” Raised in a sheltered family background with rigid rules and conservative values, Backes used his passion for art as an outlet for coming into his own.
“There came a time in high school when I just had a complete turnaround,” Backes said. “I knew what I wanted to do, and as the last child to move out, my mother turned into a free thinker. I think in a sense she, too, was liberated.”
Receiving a full scholarship to attend Central State College, now the University of Central Oklahoma, Backes studied art as his major, while minoring in theater. It was several years after moving out from his strict childhood home and only a couple of years after graduating from college when Backes truly found himself in the midst of a successful profession. With a confident mindset, Backes moved to San Francisco to launch what would become a whirlwind career. “I thought I may be famous,” Backes said. Within a week of job hunting and a quick skim through the phone book, Backes had an artist agent and a job with Levi Strauss.
“Everything just escalated from there, and I got to do a lot of really fun things,” Backes said. This included working on book illustrations, creating scene sets for plays, illustrating fashion for advertising inserts for Polo, Gap and Banana Republic, creating drawings of the American Girls collection, mastering original drawings and oil paintings, and working with designer Valentino in Italy on his menswear collection for three consecutive seasons – to name a few.
Backes’ eyes still twinkle when thinking back to working in Italy with the famed designer. “It was thrilling to be in the Couture House with Audrey Hepburn in the next room, and to touch and feel Brooke Shields’ dress,” Backes said. “It was a whole new world; I was so innocent and had never traveled that far. But I got used to it pretty fast!”
For the next several years, Backes could typically be found sprawled out on his apartment floor, surrounded by pencils, paint and creativity. “For a while I worked non-stop,” he said. Though Backes later moved into a new apartment complete with an art studio, he continued to remain where he felt most at ease, in close view of his art lying on the floor. But he always knew his art could become his own worst enemy in terms of forming relationships and friendships in the largely populated city.
“It’s very hard to meet people in a big city,” he said. “Being a freelance artist, you work at home and you’re by yourself. I learned quickly in San Francisco that I had to get out every day no matter what.”
Getting out led him to theaters, where he met outgoing, unconventional friends and acted, sang, danced and directed right alongside them. While dabbling in various art forms kept him busy, Backes realized after eleven years spent living in San Francisco that he needed to make a change. Experiencing first-hand the damage and distress caused by the 1989 earthquake, Backes reevaluated his living conditions and decided to move back to his childhood home of Oklahoma City. “It was a traumatic experience,” Backes recollected, thinking back to the earthquake. “It’s odd to not be able to cross a bridge, or to fear going up to the 20th floor to see a dentist. I had a first aid kit and a suitcase by my bed – that’s crazy.”
Moving back to Oklahoma, Backes found himself closer to family and friends, and comfortable in the familiar setting. The opportunity to continue working in theater gave Backes the ability to hone his acting skills while designing and painting sets for Carpenter Theatre. But as the years passed and new technology developed, Backes realized he must reevaluate his career as well if he wanted any kind of future in the business.
“The advent of the computer has almost erased all jobs,” Backes said. “It was an era that kind of went away.” Always ready to try something new, Backes looked at this as an opportunity to jumpstart his career and to delve into art in which he had little experience. While computers have made finding work much more difficult, Backes remains optimistic, and has turned to new challenges, including oil painting and murals.
“I can only do now what is dictated to me with the climate of the world out there,
with the trends out there,” Backes said. “The only future I have is one that’s going to be offered to me.” Though Backes has absolutely no intention to back out of a career he has spent his entire life building, he has seen people he spent years working with do just that.
“Two of my agents quit the business, because there was no business,” Backes said. “You just do what you have to do, with business cards and a Web site. You have to just get out on your own and try to find the business.”
Though work may be slower these days, Backes does not plan to add technology to his current successful duo of pencil and/or paints and old-fashioned creative ability.
“I don’t like computer art at all,” he said. “Machines and technology, I just don’t have a sense for them. I’ve worked my whole life to get where I am now, and it’s very hard to try to start a new career.”
While Backes looks for new clients, he spends his spare time painting for art shows, a rare occasion when he can create whatever art he wants. For Backes’ latest art show, oil paintings dotted the walls, breaking away from the customary drawings that have always driven forward his career. “I liked doing oil paintings because I never do it,” Backes said. “It takes techniques I’m not used to, and it’s freer and less restricted.”
The future of Backes’ art may be uncertain, but one thing is clear – he will always be ready for a new challenge, and is almost undeniably going to conquer it. “I love what I do because I can do some things that a lot of people can’t do,” Backes said. “It’s very nice to be born with something that can make you a living, and I feel very lucky.”