Like a Dickens Novel
Nathaniel Mary Quinn
Nathaniel Mary Quinn’s life reads like a Dickens novel: the youngest of five boys, he was raised on Chicago’s South Side in public housing steeped in violence. But before he could even walk, he was creating art.
“As a baby, I’d scribble on our apartment walls,” Quinn recalls. His dad began giving him grocery bags to draw on—and pencils with no erasers. “He told me, ‘Never erase. Learn to draw with intention.’ ” Soon, people began noticing that he had a gift.
That talent protected the family from gangs, who clamored for his drawings, and as a teen, the prodigy won an academic scholarship to Culver Academies, an Indiana boarding school. Shortly after arriving, Quinn’s mother died. He went back to Chicago for her funeral but says that a month later, at Thanksgiving, “I returned to our apartment and found the door ajar; there was a half-loaf of bread in the refrigerator and no family. I had been abandoned.”
Quinn, who added his mom’s name to his, returned to Culver with renewed purpose. “School was my ticket out,” he says. “It wasn’t just about getting an education; it was about survival.” After getting a full ride to Wabash College, he moved to New York City in the early 2000s to earn his MFA at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. For Quinn, it was a dream. “It was like NYU was paying me to create art,” he says.
For 10 years afterward, Quinn supported himself by teaching at-risk youth—and every night, he’d paint. When the mother of a student offered to put together an exhibition of his work, he had to create a portrait in just five hours. “I focused,” Quinn recalls, “on just the eyes, nose, and mouth, using found images and images from memory.”
A star was born: Quinn’s collage-like, fragmented paintings quickly found an audience, and his first solo show was reviewed in the New Yorker. Today, married and living in Crown Heights, he sells worldwide, is in 17 museum collections, and has fans including Anderson Cooper and Elton John.
Though he never again saw his father and brothers, Quinn is immensely grateful. “Art is the only thing I love to do,” he says. “I thank God because I started with nothing and have come this far in life. For a long time, I carried myself around like a victim of abandonment. But then I realized maybe I wasn’t abandoned at all—maybe I was delivered from what could have been the demise of my life.”
(Portrait by Flo Ngala)
“School was my ticket out. It wasn’t just about getting an education; it was about survival.”