Jane Nicolo | Minneapolis College of Art and Design

Jane Nicolo

Jane Nicolo in front of a dog painting


BS in Entrepreneurial Studies
Current Career
Founder, Creative Director, Fine Artist; Jane Nicolo Fine Art and Nicolo Studio
South St. Paul, Minnesota

Where are you originally from and how did you hear about MCAD?

I am originally from the Twin Cities. My mom attended MCAD, and although she never graduated, she always spoke of it fondly. As a high school senior, I never really considered MCAD. When I was a freshman at Macalester College, I took a few studio art classes. When I expressed interest in possibly becoming an art major, my professor, Gabrielle Ellertson, encouraged me to check out MCAD and consider applying and transferring. So I did.

How do you feel about the Twin Cities?

I feel like the area is a great place to call home. We have amazing museums, galleries, restaurants, theaters, musical venues, parks, and so much more. Although I have been a lifelong resident of the Twin Cities, I feel like there are things I have yet to discover. I also appreciate that there are so many people in the Twin Cities that share a commitment to our community and a passion for positive change.

Why did you choose the bachelor of science program?

I had left MCAD for several years to raise a family and work. When I felt my kids were old enough to not need me as much, I started thinking about going back to school to finish what I had started. Because it had been several years since I attended MCAD, I had to reapply. Knowing that I had professional creative experience under my belt, [Director of Admissions] Mary Kazura introduced me to and encouraged me to apply to the entrepreneurial studies program. She felt it would be a great fit, so I chose the program because it just made sense and seemed to be a natural extension of what I was already doing.

Briefly describe your internship.

Due to my past work experience, I was only required to do one internship. I worked with a home loan company, creating a client database and designing marketing campaigns for them. It was kind of dry work, but I learned about soft-sell marketing and the value of staying in touch with clients on a regular basis. 

Name your biggest takeaway from the program.

Even though I had already had the designer-client experience, the team projects I was involved in helped me and created an awareness and dedication to the idea of developing sustainable solutions for my clients. It was also great practice in working with a team since I am often a solo act. Working with different personalities, from different walks of life and life experiences, helped me to realize that I do not live in a vacuum and that we all have our own approaches to problem-solving (and that my way is not always the right way).

Best thing you ever got/saw on the free shelf?

I have never taken anything from the free shelf, but I would say that I have contributed some pretty cool things to it, including some purple suede winter boots.

Did MCAD prepare you for life after graduation? In what way?

Yes and no. I think that if I had been a younger, more-traditional student, I would have definitely tapped into Career Services more, however, I do feel that the Advanced Seminar class definitely helped me to polish my branding for my business. It also made me more aware of goal-setting and has helped me hold myself accountable to a schedule and my goals.

What advice do you have for current MCAD students?

  • GIVE IT ALL YOU’VE GOT! You are paying a hefty sum of money for your education, so make your experience worth it.
  • Receive feedback with an open mind and don’t take it personally. You will probably never be in a position again to gather so much valuable feedback from your work, from so many respected faculty members and peers, all in one place, at one time.
  • Give feedback. You are in school not only to learn, but to teach others. We all have something worthwhile to share.
  • Have fun and take chances in your work. Once you are in the working world, you will have projects that will have constraints and will impose limitations on your creativity. Now is the time to really get crazy.
  • Lastly, hang in there! Cut yourself some slack, take a break once in a while, and trust that those all-nighters will pay off someday.

Describe what you do for work and how you feel about it.

Right now I practice design and fine art and I also do some things that, in my mind, exist in both camps. Variety is such an important ingredient for me, so I really enjoy all my work, which has evolved over the course of many years. The mix of art and design fluctuates periodically, For the past few months, it has been about 50/50, which is kind of strange. In recent years, it’s been about 75% fine art and 25% design. Typically, most of the fine art I do is commissioned work—mostly abstracts and portraits that are realistic, and not much in between those two categories. The rest are paintings that I make for art fairs, some juried art shows, and other events. I would consider my approach to be experimental, always dabbling in different styles and techniques. I am most intrigued and inspired by the work that lies at the intersection of representational and abstract.

All of my other work has consisted of an eclectic mix over the years: window display, business and product branding, design consulting for small businesses, wedding invitation design, event branding and design, book design, narrative illustration, ad and packaging design, greeting card design, a bit of editorial illustration, hand lettering, mural painting, and even some interior layout and color consulting. 

How did you get your job?

My job is ever-evolving. Except for a very brief stint for a large banking institution, in a non-creative position, I have always been self-employed. I can honestly say that I have written my own job description since day one. 

I began my professional creative career as a sign painter, hand-letterer, and muralist, back in the analog age, when I was first in college. I gained my clients by cold-calling and knocking on doors. I would hit the phone book and get busy making calls. My goal: to set up a face-to-face meeting with the decision-maker in the business (usually a manager or business owner), so that I could show my portfolio of hand-lettered menus, flyers, and murals and tell them the ways I could help their business. This method earned me many steady accounts, including popular restaurants around the Twin Cities as well as The Electric Fetus, a shop that had three locations at that time. 

After several years of that, and the dawn of the digital age, I began contracting with ad firms as a freelance art director. During that time, I primarily worked with a few local medium-sized firms on ad campaigns, product ideation, and layout for annual catalogs, while I also went to MCAD part-time, chipping away at a graphic design degree, sometimes just taking one class at a time.

My self-employment has gone through many iterations, including a partnership of three years with a friend I met while we were both at MCAD. Our studio worked on design and illustration projects that fostered considerable professional growth. 

When we parted ways, I was just starting a family and my partner wanted to paint full time. It was during the early years with children that my focus turned to portraiture, starting with the portrait of my daughter, as a toddler which, in turn, flowered into doing children’s portraits as the primary focus of my professional work. That led to other representational paintings and drawing commissions and eventually led me to abstract painting commissions. And, although my professional life started in design, much of my work now resides in the fine arts.

I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. The vision for my life has always been one of working for myself, or in actuality, working for my clients. Now, that is not to say I haven’t struggled. There are many pitfalls, as well as benefits, to being self-employed.

Favorite project you worked on for a client?

Although I am a fairly recent grad, I am considerably more seasoned than the average grad. And, since my work is so diverse, I have had so many fulfilling projects over the years. I don’t think I can pick one favorite. For me, the likability of any project greatly depends on the interactions that take place and the rapport that develops with my clients.

One of the highlights of my design and illustration practice occurred when I was working with my business partner. She and I were involved in planning, designing, and illustrating a series of patient-education books for Fairveiw-University of Minnesota Hospitals. It was a project that resulted in tremendous professional growth for both of us. And our clients were so open-minded, respectful, and appreciative of the expertise that we brought to the process. That felt really good!

Working on commissioned art is also highly gratifying. I think it has something to do with my design background and creating something to client specifications. But it also relies on serendipity, which is the magical ingredient in each piece of art I create. 

Currently, I am also designing display windows for a retail store. This is something that gives me great satisfaction because it involves developing a theme, writing a slogan, working with the client’s brand, and designing and creating in three dimensions.

How do you network yourself and your art?

Diversifying my networking approach has proven to be the secret recipe. I have been trying to put myself “out there” more than I used to. I am getting better at it, but I know there is still much room for improvement. For my fine art, I used to, almost exclusively, do commissions. In recent years, I have tried to push myself into participating in more events, such as art crawls, art fairs, and juried gallery shows–things that lend themselves to gaining exposure. I was a Made Here Artist in 2017, which has played a pivotal role in gaining confidence and visibility. It proved to me that the world really does respond when we put our fears aside and make our presence known.

As a small business owner, it is necessary to stay active on social media and I also do email marketing to subscribers on a fairly regular basis, but I try to email more personal notes to my longterm and repeat clients, to check in with them occasionally. Additionally, there is nothing that can take the place of good, old-fashioned, face-to-face interactions. So I have coffee, lunch, or dinner with some clients regularly to keep those relationships alive (and I always treat). It feels effortless because I would consider most of my clients to be my friends. It is one way to show my appreciation for their loyalty and patronage, but there is also a possibility that lunch with a client might turn into a conversation about a new project or a new-client referral. 

I really feel that the success of my networking relies on my ability to be prepared to talk about my business–my art and creative services–anywhere, with anyone I might encounter.

What inspires you/your work?

My inspiration comes from my life experiences, my three children, music, nature, my emotional state, and politics.

Current obsession? 

ALWAYS MUSIC! It has been a lifelong obsession. I am always cranking the tunes while I am in the studio, driving my car, or making a meal. I am also crazy about live music (which, unfortunately, is almost non-existent these days, due to the pandemic). I love almost every style and genre and I always have my ears open to new acts. You should see my music collection—I have well over a thousand albums. Too many good ones to name!

What are some recent experiences/highlights you’d like to share?

I was recently selected, as one of thirty artists, by Hennepin Theatre Trust, for their Art Connects Us initiative. For this, Minnesota artists created art for billboards expressing gratitude for COVID-19 frontline workers and also participates in a conversation on dismantling systemic racism. Ten different artists’ work will be featured each month on roughly a dozen billboards throughout the Twin Cities. 

Work by Jane Nicolo

Work by Jane Nicolo

Work by Jane Nicolo

Work by Jane Nicolo

Work by Jane Nicolo

Work by Jane Nicolo

Work by Jane Nicolo