It started with an ape’s face.
Nelson artist Joe Nillo was about to embark on his first large-scale mural at the Shambhala Music Festival, looking at a giant empty wall, when he started to feel the creative flow. The simian visage that appeared from his airbrush was soon joined by other psychedelic elements.
“This big monkey head was spitting out a mushroom, then that mushroom was spitting out a mushroom and it was mushrooms everywhere,” Nillo told the Star.
“I started creating and letting whatever came through me just keep coming.”
But he was still grappling with self-doubt.
“I’d been painting the kiosks, around the stages, just painting anything I could, but I wasn’t satisfied with the work. Then everyone was starting to pour in and this party bro was like ‘dude, did you do that? It’s sick! Bros look!’”
Nillo laughs at the memory, but thinks it was an important moment.
“Everyone was pouring in and loving everything I did, and that broke me out of that chronic need to be a perfectionist and left me free to create.”
Since then Nillo has taken on the role of curator for the Grove Stage, one of the venues at the annual music festival, where he live-paints every summer. He has also brought his work to Bloom Nightclub, and recently he opened a gallery and performance space at 116A Vernon St. called The Bridge, where he hosted the most recent Art Party.
“Generally the Grove just feels like an enchanted forest home to me, and I don’t want to leave. I’m in there live-painting from the beginning of the festival right to the end.”
He’s at home there.
“When I walked in there for the first time, at that point my perception of festival culture was that it wasn’t my cup of tea, it seemed like you just go rave and party.”
Not so at the Grove.
Artists were building ambitious hammocks and rope ladders that dangled down from the foliage. He loved the way the artwork took inspiration from the music, and vice versa.
“These large-scale art installations went with the natural beauty surrounding it, so they weren’t building in front of it, they were adding to it. The art was phenomenal and it had a soft vibe, it didn’t have that rave quality, so I just felt welcome there.”
And ever since he discovered it, Nillo’s been painting like crazy. Most of his career he’s spent as a tattoo artist, but now he’s focusing on more large-scale pieces. Earlier this year he had the chance to meet one of his heroes, metaphysical artist Alex Grey, when he toured through the Kootenays.
Nillo was thrilled to get the chance to live-paint alongside Grey.
“To see an icon like that grind it out, just like me, it was like watching God with a sore back watering some flowers,” he said.
“It was a Friday or Saturday night in the club and there he was, putting in the work. To see someone of that magnitude in his career making all those little adjustments, just working away, it was really inspiring and made me feel like one day I could have a skill set like that.”
And that’s the feeling he wants to inspire in others.
“It’s about having fun. It’s not about every detail being perfect, it’s about the art speaking to you and then to everybody else.”
Two of his most recent pieces feature a gold red-eyed tree frog and an electrified pink flamingo — many of his paintings are avian-themed. At the scale he’s working at, he feels like he can capture “the timeless knowing I see in a bird’s eye or the pattern of a sunflower’s bloom in a perfect geometric mandala.”
“That was the starting incentive. I didn’t want to make strong statements about religion or war, I just wanted to create beauty with an original spin. I wanted a grandmother to walk by and enjoy my painting, and a teenager and a child. I want to create beauty that resonates with as many facets of people as possible.”
Nillo hopes other people are inspired to embrace their creativity through engaging with his work.
“They say God made man in his image, it doesn’t mean he looks like us and wears T-shirts, it means he’s a creator and he wants us to create. I do this, in clubs or at Shambhala, because the impression it leaves is that if I can do it, maybe you can do it too.”