La Pintura Poderosa - In Conversation with Nico Amortegui

Published March 10th 2023
Interview by Jay Sanchez

Nico Amortegui is the extraordinary genius who has been infused in creativity from early beginnings. Born in Bogota, Colombia; he grew up in a family filled with all creative types. The architects, carpenters, designers, photographers, and artist have heavily inspired who he is this very day. Having experienced the rich culture of Cota, Colombia; he’s embraced many forms of creative expression intended to create greater conversations that are reflective of us all. His work is often full of color which easily becomes a product of his expressed energy.

His work now graces businesses, galleries, and even Charlotte’s Douglas International Airport in Gates B7 and B10. I had the absolute pleasure of conversating with the amazing Nico Amortegui in the warmth of his magical studio in Charlotte, North Carolina. We touched on early beginnings, politics, the move from Bogota to the U.S., his journey as an immigrant, and why he paints out of necessity. Nico was not only kind to open the doors of his home for NumberInc, but he also shared his delicious top shelf Mezcal with me. Take un minuto, sit back, and let the Mezcal flow as I chop it up with Nico.

Raw, Uncensored, Unapologetic

“Aller Anfang ist schwer”

Nico Amortegui

Jay Sanchez: “Es un gran honor el permitirme visitar tu estudio en tu hogar Nico.” Years have passed since I began following your work back in 2011, and one can easily say that I’ve become a grand admirer of what you’ve been doing over the years. Fast forward, I get the honor to engage in conversation with you surrounded by your powerful work. After many times of documenting such conversations, I’m still at awe with this absolute privilege.

Nico Amortegui: Thank you for wanting to document this conversation. You caught me at a good time and the holidays make things a little crazy, but here we are.

Jay Sanchez: I had to do it bro! Making this a possibility was at the top of my list regardless of the distance. So, if you’re ready let’s get to it hermano.

Nico Amortegui: Let’s do it man…

Jay Sanchez: Let’s begin in your homeland; the beautiful Colombia… Take the reader to those early days in Bogota, Colombia. What did life look like at that time?

Nico Amortegui: I wasn’t the person I am today for sure, a complete 180 of where I’m at today. I lived outside of Bogota; life made me grow up at a much quicker rate. My surroundings were a bit more rugged than they are today for sure. My beautiful country was in chaos! Don’t get me wrong Colombia has always been beautiful, but in the 80’s and 90’s the cartels were running everything. Almost everyone was financially connected to the cartel, the situation was a bit crazy. I luckily lived in a small town named Cota. This town is so freaking beautiful, almost like all the creatives in the world were living there at that time. The town was filled with a lot of beautiful art of all mediums, I also had a lot of family members who were involved in the arts in some way. My mother and I used to sale ceramics in the street when I was a kid, and she also did fabrics. My father is an architect as well.

Jay Sanchez: With all the influence around you, were you involved or creating art in that time?

Nico Amortegui: Not really man. I was taking my shot at painting, but my work was bad at that time. I would enter contest, but nothing was really happening. I personally was not in the dimension where my work was reflective of my life, I hadn’t experience much yet. Then life got crazy. Colombia was in chaos after the death of Pablo Escobar, the economy got really messed up. My parents lost their business, so they quickly applied for visas to enter the United States. They literally sold everything just to afford plane tickets that would fly them into Miami, Florida. We uprooted and gave up our life for greater opportunities here in the states. My parents came over first and my sisters and I soon followed.

Jay Sanchez: Colombia wasn’t a safe place in those years hermano, you all were fortunate to leave during that time. Once you arrived in the U.S., did family come to your aid upon arrival?

Nico Amortegui: Not at all man, my parents only had $500 dollars in their pocket. They were lost and had no idea what to do next. My parents quickly found out that a friend from Cota was living in the area. So, this friend picks them up and allows them to stay in their home for a couple of days while they found a place to rent. Once we all arrived, we quickly found what many would consider a duplex. It was a one-bedroom garage, $600 a month for a modest place. Our landlord was extremely mean and treated us like third class citizens. My mother finally decided to reach out to a relative who was not only a doctor, but also happened to live in Florida. Our relative came to visit us about two months later, and right away he had us gather our belongings and on we went. He moved us in to his home in Jupiter, Florida.

Jay Sanchez: The life of an immigrant can be difficult in the very beginning Nico; I can easily relate to that based on the experiences of those before me in my family. Now, how was the change in environments affecting who you were as you transition from Colombia to Florida?

Nico Amortegui: When I arrived in Jupiter, I knew no English whatsoever. I was the only person who spoke Spanish in the school. For an entire year I literally spoke to nobody at the school, it was the loneliest year of my life man. The surfers then started attending Jupiter High, these guys were the most welcoming and loving individuals I had yet met. Not only did they allow me to be a part of their crew, but they also helped me learn English a lot quicker.

Jay Sanchez: Where are you as a creative during time?

Nico Amortegui: After high school, I really got into photography. My parents gave me a camera as a graduation gift, I was really enjoying the idea of capturing moments in time. After a few years I started shooting for modeling agencies in Los Angeles, New York, and Miami. I was succeeding as a freelance photographer. This was paying some good money to a young immigrant kid from Colombia. A 20 something year old guy went from washing dishes to the life of a rock star; lots of money started coming in. Life was taking me in different directions at this time, my family even moved to Charlotte, NC.

Jay Sanchez: What’s does Charlotte, North Carolina mean to you?

NA: “This is home to me now; it’s the place I’ve lived in the longest.” I got married and started a family here, it’s also the furthest I ever lived from the ocean. Artistically speaking; this place gave me the inspiration to get going as the creative I am today. Back in the early to mid 2000’s this city really didn’t have much going on, there were only a few artists here and there was maybe a club or two. The art community was small, but it had a group of some cool people. This inspired me to start an arts publication alongside my sister. We called it “Sí Revista” which was circulating in Charlotte, Atlanta, London, and New York. We were bringing attention to all the cool stuff happening in those cities. This magazine was created to spotlight all these amazing creatives, but it also allowed me to fall back in love with art and the thought of painting again. One day I interviewed a friend of mine who was also a local artist in Charlotte just like you’re doing today. Leandro Manzo, an amazing artist from Argentina. I showed up to his studio/apartment and he’s serving wine, he’s making homemade pizza as I’m surrounded by his paintings. His place had plastic all over the floor, one table, two chairs, and a bed… I remember telling myself “This is the life for me” it just sparked something energetic within. Then, out of nowhere the economy crashes! Everything was trending in the right direction before the economy slowed down in 2008, 2009.

JS: How do you respond to this challenging time that affected many here in the United States? More so, finding inspiration to take on painting once again.

NA: I literally had to start from scratch, we lost everything. All the sudden I was back to doing the immigrant thing, I literally did every job possible. Whatever created revenue at that time I was doing it, except for HVAC. For some time, I was even hitting Chinatown just to get some bootleg bags for resale. I went from owning a business to the point where I was even hauling and scrapping metal. On top of that, I decide to pursue my career as an artist when everything was upside down so “I started painting out of necessity.”

JS: Take us to through that journey. Describe to the reader how you started painting out of necessity.

NA: I really started in Winston-Salem, NC. The markets were a big attraction for the community, so I began setting up shop every weekend with whatever paintings I was creating at that time. I started selling these paintings for $10-$15 bucks… The first weekend I made like $150 dollars, made almost $500 the third weekend. Everybody in that community was so kind and accepting of me. I’m almost bankrupt at this time, I really should’ve been looking for a job that created revenue consistently like at McDonald’s or even a bank. All the money I was making from my art was being reinvested into creating more art, also during this time my wife was teaching so that helped. I slowly started to pop up in the Charlotte art community, opportunities started to come from different places. I started doing murals, sculptures, commissions, and everything that came from inspiration. My work started to really gather attention from galleries, collectors, and businesses in the area and other cities. By 2015, I had gone from the flea markets to having exhibits showcasing my work.

JS: I admire your hustle Nico. Regardless of the circumstances, you figured out a way to provide for your family and pursue your passion at the same time. I noticed your work took me on a different path during that same period. What influenced the narrative during this time?

NA: Until that point in my journey, I was used to using dark colors in most of my work. The negativity in the world changed all of that for me. As a Latino, I found this type of energy to be heavy on me. As an artist, all this negativity in the air completely changed my palette as a painter. I went from dark colors to vibrant images that brought me a lot of happiness, my work started to become more reflective of those feelings. The news got turned off in my home, I stopped focusing on politics and started focusing on what connected us all rather than what divided us. Don’t get me wrong, I will always paint about what affects the people; The Black and Brown community, LGBTQ, Immigrant, and even the Native American community. The circumstances that I’ve experienced for the simple fact that I’m an immigrant or Latino will always be infused into my work. The conversation is always there, even if I’m painting a picture of my wife and daughters. The narrative may be inspired by everyday experiences that describe my life or even a school shooting. I will always be sure to create artwork that connects us all.

JS: Your work has always resonated with me, for that I thank you Nico. Artist like yourself continue to create conversations of empowerment for us all.

NA: “Thank you man, every beginning is difficult.” When I commit to creating a piece or a sculpture, I’m always like what did I just sign up for. Once I get going or get done the feeling is unlike anything else, my work is everything to me. I’m grateful to the idea of someone walking into the Airport, the local brewery, or even their living room and witnessing something I’ve created. Having the ability to empower others or inspire via my work is priceless.

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