When her abstract painting “Beautiful Days” was accepted to appear in the world’s largest public art festival, the Cube Art Fair, in 2021, San Francisco–based artist Nikki Vismara knew it would end up on a New York billboard.
But it was just a few weeks before the show that she learned the digitized canvas, oceanic blues evaporating into soft layers of pastel, would be an ethereal 12,000 square foot presence over Times Square.
For a lifelong artist who’d begun devoting herself full-time to her craft just five years before, it was a poetic validation of a decision she still feels was kind of an accident.
"Beautiful Days" on display in Times Square during New York's 2021 Cube Art Fair.(Courtesy of @cubeartfair/@cash_vizzi)
Vismara has had skills in the art department since her chubby toddler fingers could hold a pencil. One of her earliest memories is of coloring with her artist grandmother; even before that, Vismara’s mom kept her busy in her highchair with paper and crayons. By nine, she was taking painting lessons. By 11, she was painting alongside students 10 years her senior at Sacramento City College. Her senior year of high school, she focused solely on her art.
But despite her talent, Vismara could never envision turning painting into a career.
“I think I was really scared to do my art full time,” she says. Instead, after earning a degree at the Art Institute of Chicago, she moved to France and completed a masters that focused on the female form in Paleolithic art.
“I loved it because there’s no answer about why, over 50,000 years ago, there are similar statuettes and types of art that are found thousands of years apart and thousands of miles away by very, very different cultures,” she recalls. “It changed the way I think a lot about color and about time.”
Vismara stayed in France for almost a decade teaching art history and English before returning to the States and settling in San Francisco. By day, she worked as a personal assistant. By night, she painted alone in her bedroom. She was feeling burnt out, wondering what her next move would be, when an unexpected commission at the end of 2015 changed her life.
Most of Vismara’s work at the time was representational—people, landscapes, and the like. But when a collector requested that she paint a larger version of a small abstract piece she’d previously sold, something clicked. All at once she fell in love, smitten with painting large, with the conceptual and emotional aspects of painting abstracts, and with the physicality of building massive canvases for her work. She began to devise methods that would allow her to work fast enough to be able to pay the bills.
Paintings by Nikki Vismara, aka Nikki SF.(Courtesy of @cash_vizzi)
“In the beginning I would do, and still do, a lot of thin layers in water,” she explains. “I have a space heater and a cool air humidifier and I try to get it as hot as possible so the paint dries as quickly as possible.”
More recently, she’s moved to building thick textured peaks and valleys of paint right on the canvas using a palette knife and brush. Sometimes she spends the entire day just mixing up colors into muffin tins or plastic boxes so they’ll be ready when she needs them.
It takes Vismara about a month to finish a large work, which can stretch up to eight feet in length. Her senior dog Coco joins her in the studio, where she arrives nearly every day wearing a pair of gold sneakers. It’s kind of her signature.
“I had wanted a pair of gold high tops for the longest time and they were just really hard to find...‘I gotta get these,’" Vismara laughs. “I would say 90 percent of the sneakers I have are gold. Maybe like 9.5 percent are pink. I just really love sneakers.”
Less than a decade after pivoting to art full time, Vismara’s visibility is at an all time high. Her work has been featured at Miami’s Art Basel, the de Young Museum, and at independent galleries around the U.S. and Europe. The future looks bright enough to keep the sneakers flowing.
She currently has around 30 pairs—but there’s always room for more.
Vismara will be showing her work alongside more than 125 other artists during this fall's Hunters Point Shipyard Open Studios, the free semi-annual showing of the country’s largest artist community. Meet the artists, check out the new Shipyard Gallery, and take part in a number of activities including a silent auction, art classes, talks, and performances.
Nikki SF's sneaker collection.(Courtesy of @cash_vizzi)