Nate Otto Is Constantly Inspired By The Architectural Surroundings of Chicago

Introduce yourself

I’m Nate Otto.  I’m an artist, illustrator, and muralist based out of Chicago.  

When did you first find your love for art?

As long as I can remember I have had a love for art.  When I was five I wanted to be an artist when I grew up.  I was always drawing, and I remember buying brushes and making paintings on my own when I was in grade school.  Cartooning was also one of my loves when I was a little kid.  I learned how to copy every cartoonist’s style in the comics page of the paper.  Around junior high age, I started to appreciate abstract and intuitive art.  That is when I discovered Paul Klee and Jean Dubuffet. I also loved designing shoes and I was really interested in industrial design.  I was always into creating stuff.  I wrote a novel when I was in high school and I’ve made a bunch of music that everyone hates.  Just being creative and making, that has always been my mode.  Art has been there from the start and it’s the thing I worked at the most and the realm in which I developed the most taste.

Throughout your artwork, we tend to see cityscapes, in which you say is inspired by Chicago. If you didn’t live in Chicago, do you think you’d still be incorporating these cityscapes into your artwork?

I’m certainly inspired by the architectural surroundings of Chicago, and I love to travel to cities all over the world and soak up the buildings.  The buildings have become the language that I use to express myself.  The styles are always evolving.  Before I started doing the highly detailed cityscapes, I was doing large abstract oil paintings that I thought of as landscapes, so I’ve long been doing imagined interpretations of places.  I’ve been in Chicago for a long time and I don’t anticipate leaving anytime soon.  I have no idea what I’d be doing in a different environment.  


Five years ago you decided to make the leap to being a full-time artist. At any point over these five years did you ever second-guess your decision?

I was in a job that I felt like I had outgrown, and I was frustrated.  I thought about going to grad school and picking up a marketable skill, but my heart wasn’t in it.  For my entire adult life, I had been avoiding doing art full time because I didn’t think it was possible.  I figured that the art world would ever embrace me.  I’ve never taken myself that seriously and that seemed to be a prerequisite for making it in the art world.  Art was always the main focus of my life and I worked jobs out of necessity.  I could be a competent employee but I never really excelled in the workplace because my focus was elsewhere.  It got to be sink or swim time, and being tired from work wasn’t going to work as an excuse anymore.  You only live once, right?  There have been some lean times, and it feels as though everything could just dry up one day, but every year my portfolio and my experience gets deeper.  My progress has accelerated immensely since I had to make my living making art.  I’ve had to learn how to work hard at it every day.  Now I get revenue from original art, work that galleries sell, illustration gigs, mural gigs, and I have a couple of things I get royalties from, so it is not really dependent on one thing. I also am married to my lovely wife Megan, and she makes money too, and our life is pretty cost controlled, so things seem pretty stable now, knock on wood.  I still haven’t been embraced by the art world, but now I really don’t care.  As long as I keep making stuff and doing my best, good things seem to happen, and I like not being dependent on a boss’s opinion of me or things that are beyond my control.

Within your artwork, I tend to see a lot of colored pieces and black and white pieces. How do you differentiate between color and b&w pieces?

I go in and out with color.  Sometimes I hate the colors I use, and other times I think I have it figured out.  I’m just all over the place.  I’m always working on a bunch of different things.  Black and white can be rad and so can color.  I try stuff.  There have been times when I think that I’m just going to work in black and white for a couple of months but then I start doing something in color the next day.  I can’t predict what I’m going to do tomorrow.  I’m just some sort of feral animal with a paintbrush.  I honestly don’t know what is going to happen next.

How was your recent show with Lauren Asta at Chicago Truborn?

It was cool.  I respect Lauren a lot and I was flattered that the gallery would want to put us together.  It was cool to get to know her better and learn from her.  It was also an opportunity to show what I’m doing right now.  That’s pretty much all I want — an opportunity to show off what I’m doing and to not have to have a job.  

If you could pick one Chicago artist to collab with, who would it be?

I have two big mentors in the Chicago art world in McArthur Binion, who took me under his wing when I was an older student at Columbia College, and Tony Fitzpatrick, who has long been a hero of mine, and is who has helped me considerably with advice and friendship in recent years.  I would love to collaborate with either of those guys because I respect them so much.