Symbolic Surrealism

Illustration alumna and surrealist artist Anne Faith Nicholls celebrates successful solo show, Neosurreal


Academy of Art University alumna Anne Faith Nicholls with her oil on canvas painting, Three Layers of Consciousness, at her recent exhibition at the Martin Lawrence Gallery in San Francisco on December 6, 2014. Photo by Lindsey Davis.

Anne Faith Nicholls first began exhibiting her paintings in 2005, and has shown her rare brand of playful surrealism everywhere, from London to Laguna Beach. But last December she celebrated her exclusive representation by Martin Lawrence Galleries with a remarkably successful solo show in San Francisco titled Neosurreal.


Self-Preservation by Anne Faith Nicholls. Oil, acrylic and enamel on canvas. Photo by Lindsey Davis.

Although she divides her time between Venice Beach and Palm Springs, Nicholls developed her style here in San Francisco. She graduated from Academy of Art University in 2003 with a degree in illustration.

“I majored in illustration because I really wanted to apply it directly to a career,” she said. “I wanted to start doing illustrations for magazines, advertising, and in fact my first job out of the Academy was at an advertising agency. But then I stumbled upon getting into some shows.”

Growing up in the Seattle suburbs, Nicholls had always been obsessed with art. “I didn’t grow up with much but my mom made a point to take me to every museum she could,” she said. “As an only child, I had to do a lot of solitary activities. I really started making art out of just keeping myself occupied.” 

Her collegiate career started at Seattle Pacific University with a major in business, but Nicholls transferred to the Academy once she realized she would always want to create art full-time. “But I think the business helped in a lot of ways,” she said, “You have to be a business person as an artist.”

Her inspiration comes from masters like René Magritte, Salvador Dalí and Frida Kahlo. Nicholls said she particularly identifies with Kahlo because of the bus accident that resulted in numerous operations and entirely changed the course of Kahlo’s life. “I was born with my heart backwards and I’ve had three open-heart surgeries,” Nicholls said, “so I’ve really found that art, art expression and symbolism has really helped me in that sense.”

Nicholls’ paintings are packed with symbolism. They’re often compilations of scenes and symbols that intentionally set the stage for a particular message or idea. Women in red bathing suits wear octopi on their heads, and giant raindrops fall from golden skies. The octopi represent “soul suckers” or “cling-ons,” those in life who take more than they give. But here, the distraction or obstacle is worn by Nicholls’ heroines as a crown — a marker of what she has succeeded in spite of.

Another motif Nicholls developed is a planted flag, with an eye staring out from its center. “The flag says: ‘I saw it, I was here, and I’m going to keep surveying and looking out,’” she said. “It’s all about getting to that higher level of consciousness and really seeing things for what they are. And it’s also a little bit of a testament to the surveillance age right now… I kind of like the idea of an all-knowing eye.”

The entirety of Neosurreal is based on the Surrealist Manifesto, a booklet published by André Breton in the 1920s.  With influences from Freud and Dadaism, the manifesto emphasized the subconscious mind above the conscious state, highlighting the importance of dreams and automatism when it comes to uncovering truth.


A local patron of the arts views Tout est lie by Anne Faith Nicholls at Martin Lawrence Gallery on December 6, 2014. The painting is oil, acrylic and enamel on canvas. Photo by Lindsey Davis.

The scenes in Neosurreal were influenced by the cliffs in San Francisco, and the time the artist spent in Hungary last year. She visited Europe’s largest freshwater land-locked lake, Lake Balaton, and she was inspired by the diver girls and bath culture in Hungary.

“I want to travel the world; that’s been my main goal the past five years, but it’s a sacrifice,” she said. “You sacrifice stability a lot of times, you sacrifice where you’re going to get your next food sometimes when you’re first starting out.”

Nicholls’ paintings place women at the center of the universe, which definitely adds the “neo” to Neosurreal. She seeks to redefine women as powerful, celestial beings, more concerned with harnessing the power within themselves than succumbing to outside labels.

Some of Nicholls’ paintings use text to add another level of dialogue. The words are either short phrases used to further define the scene or titles spelled out in French. A large canvas filled with women connected by constellations has the words “Tout est lie” written beneath it: “Everything is linked.” Another motif Nicholls created is an open hand with an eye in its palm. “The eye in the hand is about artists being able to see through their art,” she said. “I just think artists can see the world a little bit differently because of what they do with their hands.”


Self-Preservation Character Study by Anne Faith Nicholls. Acrylic on archival, hand-aged cotton paper. Photo by Lindsey Davis.

Nicholls elegantly signs every painting with her initials in lowercase: “afn.” Most of the works in Neosurreal were sold even before the exhibition at the Martin Lawrence Gallery opened, and with design work for VANS, SF Weekly, Keds and The Fillmore under her belt, Nicholls is slated for success in whatever exhibit or art fair comes next.

But she had some advice for current students looking to expand their options in the creative arena: “When I was assigned a project, I did it the way the teacher asked and then I did my own version. So when I got out of school, everybody had the same portfolio and I had a completely different one on the side,” she said. “I was able to take two portfolios into a job or two portfolios to show to other people, and they were like ‘This doesn’t look like student work.’”


To see more of Anne Faith Nicholls' work, please visit