On a Paris–United States flight almost 10 years ago, hiphop lyricist Terence Nicholson, aka Sub-Z, had a sinking feeling. He should have been elated—the rapper, along with fellow rhymer and singer Carl “Kokayi” Walker, was touring the globe with jazz musician Steve Coleman as part of his “Metrics” project. But despite the major break, Nicholson felt somehow off-track.
“I felt like I should be painting,” Nicholson says of the moment.
Nicholson, a 35-year-old Washington native, is perhaps best known as a member of Opus Akoben, the hiphop group that emerged from Coleman’s hiphop/jazz-fusion experiment. But Nicholson is also a trained artist who attended the Corcoran College of Art and Design. In art school, Nicholson attacked rhyming and painting simultaneously and never felt that the pursuits were mutually exclusive. “I never saw much of a separation—I didn’t feel like I was wearing two hats,” he says.
But after he graduated from the Corcoran with a bachelor of fine arts in 1991, Nicholson’s musical success began to limit the amount of time he was able to spend wielding a brush. Upon deplaning from that 1995 flight, he headed back to the Corcoran to ask a few of his old teachers for guidance.
“I put it to them,” he says. “‘I’m touring, it’s great, but I feel like I should be in the studio making work.’ They were like, ‘You have an opportunity to tour the world and you’re not going to take it? It’s still being creative.’ That planted the seed.”
Nicholson says that those talks helped him to come to terms with his engagement in two separate forms of creative expression, enabling him to make room for his visual art—a mix of colorful, textural oil paintings rife with political and social messages, as well as large steel sculptures etched with symbols. But convincing the public proved trickier.
“When I’m painting, I’m serious. When I’m rhyming, I’m serious,” he explains. “It’s not , ‘Oh, Sub-Z paints!’ or ‘He’s a rapper, so this is his interpretation of painting.’ But I still am afraid of being a jack of all trades, master of none.”
He says when those doubts creep in he looks to the Egyptian multitasker Imhotep; his own dual dream doesn’t seem as lofty in comparison. “When I’m stuck in that place, I say, ‘Imhotep was building pyramids, making medicine—all I’m doing is making beats and welding some metal,’” he says.
Nicholson, who has shown his work at a variety of alternative spaces over the years but eschews “hoity-toity” art galleries, hopes to make his art accessible to all. A collection of his work will be on view at Columbia Heights Coffee on 11th Street NW for a month starting July 30. But the goal, he says, is creating—not to have his pieces in a show but to revel in the process itself. “It’s been about making work, not selling or showing work.”
He also cops to a compulsion to do things in the most difficult way possible. One piece, Liebe and WASA, a painting that tackles the D.C. lead crisis, features a large faucet dripping onto colorful row houses, and has a black, textured background pattern similar to that of a manhole cover.
“I saw that pattern, did a rubbing, transferred it to canvas, made a papier-mâché mixture…My buddies were like, ‘Go to Home Depot and buy something.’ But I don’t want to do that—it’s about the process.” —Sarah Godfrey