Making a Political Statement in His Paintings

After studying at the University of Pennsylvania for two years, Nicolas Tomlinson (BFA ’19) is back in his studio at PAFA.

He’s taking the knowledge he gained at the Ivy League University through the PAFA-Penn program and turning it into art.

“Penn helped me develop a greater understanding of the socio-economic things that have gone into the struggle and plight of the black man,” he said. “It’s definitely had an impact and influence on my work and the messages I want my work to show.”

Tomlinson came to PAFA from Virginia, where art had always been a solace but not always a priority in high school. He became more serious about pursuing art as a career and fell in love with PAFA after walking through Cast Hall.

“I thought this is where I want to hone my craft.”


  • Nicolas Tomlinson '19 in the studio.
    Nicolas Tomlinson '19 in the studio.
  • Works in progress by Nicolas Tomlinson '19.
    Works in progress by Nicolas Tomlinson '19.

Tomlinson originally focused on pastel drawings but has since taken up oil painting while studying at PAFA.

“I draw and paint so much differently than when I first got here,” he said. “I gained a lot of knowledge both artistically, educationally I’ve learned a ton and it’s definitely helped me.”

His work is often narrative and explores the African American experience. He said he doesn’t see many artists or works that reflect his experience and he hopes to change that for young, African American artists who come after him.

“As a black dude, a straight black man, the arts kind of seem like a foreign concept to most in my demographic,” Tomlinson said. “Being who I am is important and I need to talk about it and discuss my culture.”

He looks to historical figures in the black community and music for inspiration and a way to better express himself. Lately he’s been reading about Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther party, and is incorporating Newton’s ideas into his own artwork.

His current project, an untitled and still-in-progress pseudo self-portrait features a masked Tomlinson sitting on a Rattan throne, the chair in which Newton was often photographed.

“Huey was a fighter for justice and equality, just like what’s happening now. Black lives matter: it's not like we’re saying any other don’t lives matter, just that we do and don’t look at us like we don’t matter,” Tomlinson said. “I’m looking at guys who created an environment of power amongst the black community and showed people you could be fierce and it’s okay to be fierce, it’s okay to be angry.”

Tomlinson is the masked figure in the work but it’s not meant to represent a singular person.

“I’m wearing a mask on purpose, this trope of media and identity of black men being violent and cruel and terrorists and gangster and murderers and rapists. It paints us in a light of anonymity while also still having a target on our back,” he said. “It’s as if we don't have our own individuality anymore, and we’ll never break from the stereotype.”

He’s hoping his art can start a conversation like the ideas and writings of his heroes have done for himself and others.

“I really want to paint a better picture, at least have people see my work and think ‘Woah,’” he said. “They have to take a second to absorb all of the information I’m trying to put forth.”