Nichole Epps on making Akron arts more inclusive

by Jamie Keaton

Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

When you think about what an artist is, what do you think: A storyteller, painter, poet? When you think of an advocate, what do you think: leader, compassionate, driven? What if I told you there was an artist in the city of Akron that embodies these traits and more — someone who uses her art not only to tell stories, but also to highlight and center the marginalized communities?

This is Nichole Epps. This artist spotlight is a well-deserved and long overdue tribute to give credit where credit is due, and to showcase an artist who has been in the background making moves.

The passion for art came to Nichole when she was a child, when it starts for most. When she became old enough to hold a pen, she learned to express herself in ways that she didn’t have the vocabulary for. Painting let her express emotions that needed to be explored. Once she finished each piece, she felt better. Art was the key that unlocked the emotions within her story. 

“Art was a vehicle where I could express things that I didn’t have a vocabulary for,” Nichole says. “I always kept an art diary as a kid [that] my family didn’t even know about. But I would have these feelings, these things I would need to get out, and I would go and draw. It would always represent exactly what I was feeling internally, and it felt better once the piece was done. When I realized that art had the ability to do that for me, I was hooked. I didn’t share my work with the world for many, many years because it was always a personal healing tool for me.” 

Nichole informed me that in her process she never knows what the piece is going to look like until she starts. She doesn’t sketch. Her story comes when she is in the space and she is feeling something. Those feelings translate directly from the pen to the canvas. For the audience, she doesn’t give words to her pieces, but she leaves them open for resonance and interpretation. Making you feel something through the piece to spark conversation, and very well “leaving you with passion for something that you didn’t think you had,” she says.

Nichole also advocates for people of color, pushing us to the forefront and giving us the same platforms as our counterparts. She advocates for artists of color to be able to create and thrive on a professional level, helping to lead us through creating contracts, pricing our work and getting us into the rooms that we as artists of color need to be connected to. 

One of her many strengths is being vocal — specifically, being vocal on the lack of access that artists of color have, pushing organizations to recognize the talents that people of color have and calling accountability to the inequalities that exist in these spaces. For example, Nichole was at the forefront of calling out the creators of the Lock 3 Sojourner Truth mural for failing to include artists of color in the creative process. 

Nichole told The Devil Strip in 2018, “You can’t decide last minute you want to include someone. This event [speaking about the photo retake on May 31]  was organized in less than 24 hours and we’re here. There are many outlets and avenues where you can get the information you need. It’s not that hard. And include me. Not just in things that reflect people that look like me. But in general.”

In general, Nichole doesn’t see herself as an advocate, but rather as someone doing the right thing so that everyone can win.

Nichole addresses the reality that Akron’s arts institutions haven’t acknowledged the expressed need by artists of color to be recognized for their artwork, creativity and beauty.

“Not just black, not just white — I want to see everyone win, and I don’t think the city or those that control these spaces necessarily even recognize that there was a need or a void,” Nichole says. “These have been feelings of angst within the creative community, the Black creative community, in Akron. There are certain conversations that, up until a certain point, have only been had within our immediate circles out of a fear of being left out of opportunities.” 

But the amazing reality is that Nichole steps out there anyway to make institutions listen, make them see, make them understand that we have just as much to offer in talent, beauty and stories that, given the opportunity, we can tell.

This is the artist Nichole Epps: Painter, advocate, activist, but also someone who has a heart for the community and a unique ability to craft story and expression through her art and lived experience. If you don’t know Nichole Epps, then you should really get to know her. You may have seen her mural at the Bounce Innovation Hub and the mural outside of Mason Elementary School — but have you seen her?

“My momma used to say, if you can’t find something to live for, you best find something to die for” – Tupac Shakur. Jamie is a spoken word poet, activist, musician and actor, among many others.