Alumni Profile: Nick Stokes '05It’s a rare gift to truly live your passion—to not only make a living doing what you love, but to spend your remaining waking hours focusing on that same thing, too.
For Nick Stokes ’05, that is exactly how he describes his days. A skilled artist, Nick is employed full-time as an art director at the esteemed Wieden+Kennedy advertising agency in Portland and still finds the time to execute his craft as a freelance illustrator and designer.
Nick comes from a family of artists, so it was second nature for him to be doodling the days away, carrying a sketch pad around as a kid. But it wasn’t until his years at Central Catholic, when history teacher Bill Sprinkle saw some of Nick’s illustrations, that he realized art might be able to offer him more than just a hobby.
An artist himself, Mr. Sprinkle gave Nick illustration lessons after school, teaching him new techniques, skills, and tools, and even gifting Nick a box of his old art supplies—which Nick still has among his possessions these thirteen years after graduating.
Although Nick is quick to point out the scholastics of high school were challenging for him, almost as a reflex, he spouts off a long list of teachers in addition to Mr. Sprinkle—spanning subjects from art to science—who were awesome, supportive, and amazing role models for him. But it was Bill Sprinkle who was instrumental at setting Nick on his life’s course.
“Mr. Sprinkle really was the one who said, ‘You should pursue this and continue down that path,’” Nick said. “He used to always have his artwork up on the walls—his stuff was incredible. He was a good character, an interesting person to have in life.”
While Nick said, in retrospect he maybe should have gone to art school, after graduation he enrolled at the University of Oregon along with many of his friends from his years at All Saints and Central Catholic.
“I excelled at the University of Oregon because the education [at Central Catholic] was so much better than I think public school kids had. As I met other people I was like, ‘Wow, I’m way more prepared for a state school than I expected to be.’”
He never wavered in his dedication to art, however, and after college Nick started doing freelance illustration and design. He worked diligently to build a client base, and soon added work for Nike, adidas, and Habitat Skateboards to his portfolio.
“I’d just wake up every day, draw every single day till I pretty much went to bed, and then I ended up at Wieden+Kennedy, and I kind of accidentally fell into it,” Nick said.
Don’t let his humble nature fool you, as the “it” Nick referred to was a special program called WK12, a school of sorts, built into the advertising agency that took 13 creative minds from across the country and immersed them into a year of ad and art projects, along with networking in the design community. The program was only in existence for nine years, and Nick was in the final class. After his graduation from the program, the agency hired him on, and he started working on accounts like Coca-Cola, Nike, and Procter & Gamble. Now four years later, he splits his time as an art director between the Kentucky Fried Chicken and Travel Oregon accounts.
As an art director, Nick works alongside a copywriter, establishing the art style and aesthetic for the advertisement or campaign, helping clients solve problems or sell products. Nick said his job is like quality control, ensuring a project keeps its artistic integrity from beginning to end.
“I had an old creative director who had a great analogy, where it’s like if you’re an archaeologist and you see a little bit of a bone coming out of the dirt, it’s your job to use those fine brushes and whatnot to brush off the dust lightly while keeping the bone intact as much as possible, and that’s kind of what it’s like as an art director. You have the idea, you try to get it to the finish line; keep it as whole as you originally hoped it would be.”
When asked about his favorite project, Nick cheerfully described his role in creating a 90-second animated video for Travel Oregon intended to inspire people to experience the beauty and nature of Oregon.
“If you go out somewhere like Mt. Hood and you take a picture, it’s never as good looking as when you’re actually looking at it in real life. The photo never does it justice, so we thought ‘What if we do an animation for the project and kind of over-exaggerate what Oregon is like to kind of capture the emotion and feeling of what it’s like to be in Oregon.’”
Nick and his copywriter partner created a script and Nick literally drew out the entire spot, crafting characters and setting it to music. They then hired an animation team to bring the vision to life, including hand-picked artists. The finished product is a campaign called “Only Slightly Exaggerated,” and it’s currently live on the Travel Oregon website.
Oftentimes when one settles into a career and establishes a director-type role, they no longer actively do the work that started them down the path. That’s simply not the case for Nick.
“I still do illustration work—that’s still a part of my life. It’s great having both. As an art director, I feel like you can be more holistic and cherry-pick all the right players to get the vision you’re looking for, while as an illustrator, it’s you thinking and then executing—it’s like an individual versus a team effort.”
He has enjoyed working on projects outside the agency including for clients tied to his interests—like a series of skateboards he created for Habitat Skateboards and a line of t-shirts for Nike.
“I got an e-mail from [Nike] asking me to do a line of t-shirts, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, Nike reached out to me asking me to do t-shirts! That’s like the coolest thing in the world!’ But then I realized, ‘Oh it’s because I grew up loving Nike, and my style of illustration was influenced by people who did Nike stuff—so then I started drawing like Nike and then Nike ended up hiring me in the end.’ It came full circle.”
Instead of making plans for the future, Nick is living in the moment, enjoying all the doors advertising seems to be opening, as well as taking full advantage of the energy and passion he has to continue doing his own drawings.
“I spend a lot of my time working and just trying to get better at what I do, so I always like to be prepared when something comes around,” he said. “But I don’t know—working in this industry—I had never worked in film or TV or with actors or directors or directors of photography, so I think that’s piqued my interest in film and television for sure. I don’t know if that’s a direction I’ll go in, but it’s definitely something I’m more interested in and interested in pursuing. And I still love illustration. That was my passion, since I was a kid, and doing more collaborations with a lot of different companies—just kind of keeping both of those careers going.”
For a high schooler unsure of whether there was a role for his creativity in the “real world,” it’s refreshing to hear how continued dedication, opportunity, and encouraging mentors turned a beloved hobby into a vocation.