By Brooklyn Reader

December 22, 2015, 10:33 am


Nathaniel Mary Quinn

This story originally was published on The Brooklyn Reader December 16, 2014. It was chosen as one our readers’ favorites in 2014. So we are re-running it one year later to inspire all of us during this holiday season to never give up, live in the present and be free!


“This is where happiness truly lies,” said Bed-Stuy resident and Contemporary Fine Artist Nathaniel Mary Quinn. He was pointing at his chest. His lips quivered.

“It’s only when you begin listening to your heart, that you will discover your genuine self… And allowing your genuine self to be is not easy; it takes courage,” he added. “But the moment I finally let go of expectation and desire, I was set free. And now, I’m happy.”

Nearly 18 months ago, Quinn, 37, discovered his freedom, which then led to the birth of “Charles.” And there’s no doubt in Quinn’s mind that it was only after the birth of “Charles” that his career as a visual artist took flight. Since “Charles,” Quinn has gone from virtual obscurity, to become one of the most sought after artists in New York City, represented by one of the most reputable galleries in the world!

Robert Taylor Homes, Nathaniel Mary Quinn

Inside the Robert Taylor Homes

The story of his turnaround is remarkable— one that started in 1977, when Quinn was born and when “Charles,” the painting was still Charles, his brother.

Quinn grew up the youngest of five boys on the South Side of Chicago. He and his family lived in the Robert Taylor homes, the most notorious projects in the country at the time. (“We lived in what I would consider the purest form of poverty,” said Quinn). The environment was violent. Both of his parents were illiterate; they could not read or write. And all of his brothers were high school dropouts.

When he was entering the ninth grade, Quinn, a bright student with a clear talent for drawing, received an academic scholarship to attend Culver Academies, a boarding school in Indiana. After only one month away at school, he received word from his dad that his mom had passed away suddenly.

Nathaniel Mary Quinn, Robert Taylor Homes

An abandoned apartment in the Robert Taylor Homes, not an uncommon site.

The following month, he returned to Chicago to spend Thanksgiving with his family. But when he arrived home, the door was ajar, and his family was gone. There was no furniture, only a few items of clothing and papers scattered across the floor.

He has not seen nor heard from his family since. That was 22 years ago. He was 15 at the time.

Quinn’s entire world was turned upside down. Yet, somehow he managed to pick up the remaining pieces, graduate from high school and go on to Wabash College where he graduated in 2000 with a double major in art and psychology.He changed his name to Nathaniel Mary Quinn, adding his mother’s name, “Mary,” so that she would appear on all of his degrees, since she had never obtained one herself. In 2002, he attended New York University, where he earned a master’s degree in fine arts.

In 2003, he moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where he continued painting while working as a teacher for at-risk, court-involved youth. As an adult, he attended therapy in an effort to reflect on and understand the anger, sadness and pain of abandonment he was feeling beginning as a teen.

Nathaniel Mary Quinn

Nathaniel Mary Quinn

“What I came to understand—which is quite beautiful—is that, as it turned out, I wasn’t abandoned by my family,” said Quinn. “Instead, I was delivered from what would have been my destruction. Because the fact remains, my brothers were drug addicts and alcoholics. If they had been home upon my return for Thanksgiving break, there’s not much they could have done for me. But the 15-year-old me would have still accepted their embrace believing that something positive could have worked out. Now, I realize that may have not been possible.

“And for some reason, when I think about it today, I think that perhaps I was special enough— so much so— that God selected little ol’ me and saved me from what could have been the end of my life,” said Quinn.

“I still feel pain about the whole thing. The volume never goes off; you still hear the noise. It still permeates throughout your soul and your heart. But I have forgiven my family and realized that in many ways, I was given a second chance to do something great with my life and do something I love. And I firmly believe that my family would have wanted the same for me.”

Quinn came to terms with his circumstance, found love, married in 2010 and settled into a quiet life of teaching and painting from his tiny apartment in Bed-Stuy. Then, in May 2013, he was invited by the mother of one of his students to show for an art salon at her brownstone. He promised her five pieces. But on the day of the salon, he had only completed four. It was noon, the art salon started at 6:00pm, and he had five hours to come up with a fifth piece.

He had to think fast. He didn’t have time to make a preliminary sketch. So he did something entirely different; something he’d never done before: He let it all go.

"Charles," by Nathaniel Mary Quinn

“Charles,” by Nathaniel Mary Quinn

He began to paint a recent vision he had experienced, a fuzzy, disjointed memory of his past. With no clear intention, he worked entirely in the moment, hurling onto the canvas the truth of whatever expelled out of him in the moment. When he finished, he said he was “blown away.”

“I had never made a piece like that before in my life. Never. I stood back and looked at, and immediately recognized the mouth of my brother, Charles. So I named it ‘Charles.’”

He took his five pieces to the brownstone—one looking completely different than the four others– and everyone immediately gravitated toward “Charles.”

“They were up in arms about it, I’ll never forget it,” said Quinn, his eyes sparkling as he recalled the moment. “It was the first time in ten years I was truly excited about my studio practice.”

When Quinn’s friend, William Villalongo, a Yale Art Professor and well-known artist, with work in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum and represented by Susan-Inglett Gallery in Chelsea saw “Charles,” he went crazy, said Quinn. He had been mentoring Quinn for the last ten years. Yet this was the first time Quinn observed his friend and mentor react this way to his work. Soon afterward, the head of the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art in Brooklyn saw “Charles,” and in August 2013, agreed to display five more of Quinn’s Charles-like work in their museum’s windows. Villalongo soon included Quinn’s work in a group exhibition that he curated at Susan-Inglett Gallery.

"Claire Mae," Nathaniel Mary Quinn

“Claire Mae” by Nathaniel Mary Quinn

In January 2014, the New York Times art critic Holland Cotter wrote a positive review of Quinn’s work from that show. And it’s basically been fast-forward ever since: Group exhibitions that followed include “Corpus Americus” at Driscoll Babcock Gallery in Chelsea and “Species,” a one-person exhibition at Bunker 259 Gallery in Brooklyn…

The appeal of his paintings are in the heart-rousing stories, the artistic choices and also the special technique he employs to bring them each to life. He uses sketches from photographs as source material then creates charcoal drawings over gouache, an opaque watercolor-based paint on paper. There are no prints or image transfers or mechanical devices used; everything is drawn and painted by hand.

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