Nicole Killian: teacher-designer-artist

Photo by Brian Vliet
Photo by Brian Vliet

Graphic designer, published essayist and VCUarts professor Nicole Killian has dedicated her career to exploring the intersections between identity, feminist theory, community building and graphic design.

Through creating pieces that blur the line between the online world and reality, Killian’s designs invite viewers to explore the layered significance behind the content they share online.

“I went to school for graphic design but going into undergrad I didn’t have that much of an understanding about what I wanted to do,” Killian said. “I knew that I liked art and that I liked computers but I hadn’t really put the two together yet.”

For Killian, online communities were more than a place to waste time or escape from reality. Instead of acting as a distraction, she said they enabled her to explore outside of her immediate surroundings and make authentic connections with users going through similar life experiences.

“Specifically in my experience, technology and content sharing allowed me to find community,” Killian said. “Like in the ‘90s as a closeted lesbian, I went to the internet to find other teens sharing similar experiences.”

As an essayist, Killian has worked to further explore the dynamics of female-centered communities both online and in the real world.

“I did a series of short pieces under the umbrella title Girls That Run in Packs. I was basically looking at different ways that women throughout history, media and contemporary life have banded together to create communities.”

In the online world, these communities are formed and connected through the sharing and reposting of web content like gifs, digital images and video clips.

“Nicole isn’t just our professor,” said VCUarts student Katerina Check. “She is our friend.”

In her essay “Tumblr Girls,” Killian explores and intertwines the concepts of social justice, sailor moon, and glitter-text.

“She’s so willing to invest her time in students and nurture their individual growth,” said VCUarts student Katie Pelikan. “Nicole’s energy in the classroom paired with a gentleness that most art students forget after AFO (Art Foundations) is a winning combination.”

Killian’s art also works to breakdown the negative assumptions that are often associated with content that appears “overtly feminine.”

“Something I’m constantly thinking about is that there are specific signifiers that we’re taught that teach us to associate certain things with being ‘weak’ or ‘stupid,’” Killian said.  “Its interesting to have conversations with people specifically about glitter text because when you look at glitter text, it doesn’t even matter what it says. It could say critical theory but the fact that it’s pink and glittery makes it illegitimate.”

Killian, who has lectured at North Carolina State University, ATypi Dublin, Rochester Institute of Technology, Maryland Institute College of the Arts, Pratt Institute and Minneapolis College of Art + Design (MCAD), said that the act of teaching itself works as positive feedback loop for her art.

“I feel like it’s important that I am active as a maker, an artist, and a designer so that my students can see how I put into practice what I am talking about.” Killian said. “I don’t want to teach unless I am also practicing.”

Killian’s current exhibit, “My Friend’s Cat Is Cute,” is on display at Sediment Art Gallery through Dec. 11.

According to Killian, the exhibition is focused around the idea of “the self as a folder” and was inspired by mobility, pixilation, and “my identity being manifest through the language I use on the Internet and the images I collect on my desktop.”

“I try to use very understood structures to talk about deeper concepts,” Killian said. “I want you to be put in a certain place and then realize that things either aren’t as they seem or that there is more that you should be paying attention to.”


Lia Tabackman, Contributing Writer

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