Dragon Girl: Finding Peace and Fostering Community through Art

Nicole Vanston has developmental disabilities, she lives below the poverty line, and she takes care of her mother who has multiple sclerosis. “She doesn’t come out that much, and she has a hard time standing up,” Nicole says of her mother. Damon McLeese, the executive director of the VSA arts of Colorado/ Access Gallery (VSAC) in Denver, Colorado, calls it “a tough situation.” But Nicole has not let these difficulties define her. Her ambitions as an artist and her incessant need to create art have reinforced her reputation among her peers at the VSAC as “The Dragon Girl.”

Nicole works on a new piece during her weekly class at The VSA Access Gallery

Nicole works on a new piece during her weekly class at VSAC Access Gallery

At a young age, Nicole was inspired to create art by her grandmother, a painter. She died many years ago, but a part of her lives on in artwork she left behind. “We have some of her paintings at my house; a man making pottery, a farmhouse, a truck sitting in front of a house.” These pieces mean a great deal to Nicole, urging her to continue her journey into the world of art.

Not surprisingly, the Dragon Girl loves to paint dragons. Her unique style, her obsessive passion to create, and her immersion in fantasy qualify Nicole as an outsider artist. She lives and works outside the mainstream both in the art world and in society. Yet her paintings allow her to share the shapes and colors and characters she creates with a larger world. Nicole explains, “I want to create something that people will look at and say, ‘wow that’s really cool!’”

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Nicole has no formal education in art. She started coming to VSAC in high school and has learned new techniques from practice and working with her peers. VSAC, an affiliate of the John F. Kennedy Center for the performing arts. VSAC is an international organization dedicated to educating and empowering the disabled through art. The Access Gallery, located in Denver’s prolific Santa Fe Arts District, gives the disabled community access to art supplies and education. An important part of VSAC’s mission is to give students transitioning out of high school the tools they need to pursue their artistic dreams into adulthood.

Patrons and community members are invited to VSAC to witness and participate in this mission. Nicole has been here for “a really long time.” In addition to working on her own projects, she has found opportunities to help other promising young people make the transition out of high school. VSAC affords her the chance to make money through corporate commissions and other projects sponsored by patrons of VSAC and the community at large. Nicole works as an assistant at some of VSAC’s grade school workshops, but she is happiest when she immerses herself in her own work. She brings an imaginary universe into reality using nothing more than pen and paints.

In her portraits, she illustrates an elaborate fantasy world. She even creates written narratives to accompany some of her paintings. “We have so much of her work, we don’t know what to do with it,” says Cris Ciani, the associate director for VSAC. There are paintings stacked on top of bookshelves, lining the walls, and falling out of drawers. Among the paintings are elaborately stitched designs and sculptures. Nicole’s works of art are immediately recognizable by their distinct style and, of course, all of the dragons. Sometimes, Nicole can finish an entire painting in a single day, but she never allows herself to get sloppy. Looking at a prominent piece on the wall, Damon Mcleese tells me, “She didn’t like the way this one turned out, so she painted the whole thing over from scratch.” Nicole is a perfectionist, holding herself to the highest standard possible, her own.

After looking through some of her recent work, I ask her why she enjoys painting dragons. She says that she saw dragons in a movie once and they looked really cool. “It’s all in my head,” she says, “I think hmm. Maybe I should put that on canvas, and then I do.” She has even taught herself how to embroider, and now she stitches dragons as well as drawing and painting them. It is amazing to me how docile and serene these dragons are. None are blowing fire, destroying towns, or wreaking havoc on an unfortunate populace. Nicole’s dragons are calm, usually sitting and smiling. Their quiet power gives peace to a thing normally associated with violence and misfortune. Their creator has a way of turning those things into hope.

Nicole tells me that her decision to use striking colors comes from her mother: “My mom told me to use bright colors, so that my paintings will show out.” These bright colors are captivating and together with the dragons they create a modern mystical idea that connects a beautiful imagined medieval world with our own place and time. The paintings emit grace, power, and beauty set in an original and personal dimension.

Cris Ciani poses with some of Nicole’s artwork

Cris Ciani poses with some of Nicole’s artwork

Other than Dragons, Nicole paints pet portraits for private clients in order to make money. Most of the artists at the Access Gallery participate in projects like these. It is a great way for them to make some money doing what they love to do. “We are trying to make Access a more self-sustaining place,” comments Cris Ciani. Commissioned pet portraits are one strategy that the gallery has developed to support itself and its artists.

A pet portrait by Nicole

A pet portrait by Nicole

VSAC is always looking for new ways to brighten the community with art and further their mission of providing people with disabilities access to art supplies, economic opportunities, and education. Nicole talks to me about one of the projects she has been involved in during her time at the gallery. The project sits inside the gallery today and is an original art dispensing idea. It is called the art-o-matic. The art-o-matic gives the general public an opportunity to collect a small piece of art and support the mission of the gallery. The device is a converted cigarette vending machine that dispenses small art pieces created by VSAC artists instead of cigarette packs, art-o-matic for the people. Nicole tells me that the art pieces cost five dollars-a-piece.

I ask Nicole what makes her want to keep coming back? Why, in the face of all the obstacles she faces, does she keep on painting? “Something inside me wants to come out and make some art,” Nicole explains. “It helps me calm down.” I can see Nicole losing herself in her work. Art helps her to cope with her mother’s illness and her grandmother’s absence. It helps her to move beyond her own disability into a space where she draws the lines. She creates what she wants to create and fills her creatures with bright colors. Nicole herself is a bright light. She exudes joy in the midst of hardship. VSAC has given her a safe place to excite passions for art that rest in her blood, and to share herself with others in a way that words cannot express.