At the top of her game

At the top of her game

Nicole Chesney in her Pawtucket art studio at the Hope Artiste Village on Main Street, where some of her artwork can be seen in the background. (Breeze photo by Ethan Shorey)
Pawtucket is home to elite painter Nicole Chesney

PAWTUCKET – Every day she’s arrived to work at the Hope Artiste Village on Main Street over the past five years, Nicole Chesney feels like she hit the lottery.

Chesney is one of Pawtucket’s best-kept secrets, a famous artist with an increasing number of paintings in museums and a reputation earning her a living she never dreamed possible.

The Providence resident said she’s “ridiculously proud” of the space she’s created with the help of the Pawtucket mill’s owners, and couldn’t be more excited about the direction the city is heading.

The artist is currently wrapping up a piece for a private home in Pennsylvania, a six-month commission that will cost the homeowner upward of $175,000, only a percentage of which will come back to Chesney.

Chesney’s paintings aren’t for the average person with a 9-5 job. Of the 10 to 15 pieces she does per year, the smallest commission she’ll do is about 24 inches by 24 inches, coming with a price tag of about $12,000.

“I can’t afford my art,” she says, laughing during an interview in her Sky / Water Studio Inc., 1005 Main St.

Chesney is a New Jersey native, spending time in California before coming to Rhode Island 15 years ago. Her studio isn’t open to the public, but she’ll invite clients from all over the world during busy times at the Hope Artiste Village, wanting them to see the diversity and busyness of this vibrant mill complex. Visits are a big deal, she said, and she’s proud to show people the place where her art pieces come to life, offering them food and drink produced locally.

Chesney said she briefly considered opening a studio in New York, where artists are traditionally supposed to go, but had no desire to work out of a tiny space for the status of working in the Big Apple.

Commissioned paintings represent about one-third of the work she does. She’s best known for her mirrored glass paintings and large-scale architectural pieces.

Her paintings appear in several museums, including the Toledo Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institute, as well as the Rhode Island School of Design, 7 World Trade Center and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, among others.

“I’ve wanted to be an artist since I was a toddler, long before I could articulate what was involved,” she said.

Talent is perhaps the smallest factor in being a successful artist, with desire, focus, tenacity and drive all playing significant roles.

“I want this like a junkie wants heroin,” she said. “I still can’t believe I get to do this.”

Artists must be willing to hear “no” for a living, said Chesney. They must also be ready for a large volume of paperwork.

“I have every rejection letter I’ve ever received,” she said. “I get at least five a year to add to the stack.”

She always punches above her weight, she said, knowing that a 100 percent success rate would mean she’s doing something wrong. If she ever achieves the perfect piece, it means she’s out of a job the next day.

In keeping with the name of her studio, Chesney’s pieces are inspired by the water and sky – sitting to watch a sunset meet the water on the horizon never gets old – though her work is anything but literal.

Her paintings, which use layer upon layer of color, are intended to prompt a visceral reaction to make observers feel something. She never wants to predict a response.

She chooses deliberately vague names for her paintings, often selecting Latin root words such as “Somnio” (dream) to allude to the theme of her work. Her art relies heavily on others, including the fabricators who produce the industrial colored glass base for her work, Lucid Glass of East Providence.

Chesney creates time-lapse videos to learn how the look of her paintings change based on the light in the room, one of her trademark skills.

The paint she uses is “old school oil paint,” put on in many layers. Adding complexity is how long the paint takes to dry in nonporous sheer layers.

Visit for more on Chesney and her work.