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Omaha Magazine

Nic Thurman on The Camp of Kitsch: Brushstrokes of Philosophy & the Human Condition

Dec 27, 2022 09:59AM ● By Chase Murphy
Nic Thurman in his studio.

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

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Kitsch (/kiCH/), rhyming with the traditional pronunciation of niche, is an art form that sings an ode to the old masters of painting while embodying a timeless element: human emotion. Kitsch is often misunderstood, ill-defined by cursory internet searches alone. Nic Thurman, a 23-year-old Omaha native, seeks to express the true meaning of Kitsch to the modern art world, and moreover, society at large.

Thurman was introduced to art and painting as a freshman at Creighton Prep. His friend enrolled in drawing class and persuaded him to stop by the studio during lunch one day, seemingly knowing that he’d enjoy the ambiance and energy that emanated there. Thurman, with no previously known passion for painting, walked into a room which would serve as a figurative dry field of creativity—awaiting a single, stray spark.

Jeremy Caniglia, the art teacher at Creighton Prep, provided Thurman with the flint he needed—a paintbrush, paint, a canvas, and a mentor. 

Caniglia said, “The world has no idea the amount of perseverance it takes to succeed in art, but I saw that in Nic before he was even in my class.”  

Caniglia released Thurman from the confines of a high school syllabus by allowing him to focus on a single painting for months at a time.  

“You’re going to learn more creating a face with muscle, bone structure, and layers over the course of three months, then you would turning in six different assignments during that time,” Caniglia noted. 

He also granted Thurman full access to the art studio as much as possible. These freedoms, along with constant mentorship—and Nic’s marked dedication to his craft—allowed the burgeoning artist to hone painting techniques and skills at a rapid clip.  

Three-and-a-half years after commencing his painting journey, Thurman was awarded the National Scholastic Gold Key, a prestigious award given to 1% of the 325,000 (on average) applicants who submit annually. He was flown to New York to accept his award, and his art traveled around the country as a part of this exhibition for about a year. Doubtless an impressive feat, Thurman managed to one-up himself by securing an even more exclusive opportunity: an apprenticeship with the world-renowned Kitsch Master, Odd Nerdrum.

Thurman was the youngest apprentice Nerdrum had ever accepted, fresh from high school at 18 years old. He spent two years at Nerdrum’s estate in Sweden, learning the ways of the old masters—a position which is granted to a mere three to five students globally each year. It was during this apprenticeship when Thurman learned more of the deep philosophy ingrained in Kitsch, as well as the modern art movement—the latter having attempted to destroy, pacify, and degrade the former throughout its course as a movement. 

“In the 1800s, Kitsch was coined from a German word and used to describe art or an artist that copied and imitated the old masters, strictly as a derogatory term,” Thurman said. “It was used to insult the artist by implying they are a bad painter without original ideas.”

However, Nerdrum has been on a quest to redefine the meaning of Kitsch—based on the philosophies and stories within the art of the old masters—and in turn, Thurman grew determined to spread its meaning to the world.  “Kitsch is the opposite of modern art. It’s about the story and philosophy in the paintings. There is something that reaches out and grabs onto your heartstrings,” Thurman explained. “Kitsch makes you feel a certain way, it touches your emotions, and it leaves enough interpretation for the observer to then create a world and a story surrounding the painting being observed.”

Thurman believes that a painting, or any form of art, should have philosophy rooted in its core. 
“It should fundamentally serve people. It should help them have a better life,” Thurman said. 
This goal is not accomplished by modern art, in Thurman’s view. A white canvas with splotches of brightly colored paint doesn’t typically invoke an intellectual response. It doesn’t serve humankind with a message, a philosophy, or a related emotion by which the observer can take something positive from, according to Thurman, and Nerdrum’s definition of Kitsch.  

“Anyone who tries to derive meaning from those forms of modern art is simply engaged in intellectual masturbation, attempting to be perceived as sophisticated and cultured,” Thurman said.

Thurman makes a compelling argument for the utility of Kitsch in the modern world. After all, these old masters are some of the most respected and compelling artists in history: Leonardo da Vinci, Michealangelo, Rembrandt, and Caravaggio, among other eminent figures. 

Thurman currently supports himself with his art commissions and other endeavors, including conducting workshops and private lessons, and working at a painting supply company. Relentless in his mission, the mores of modernity provide him defiant inspiration—and ample canvas to make his mark on the infamous world of Kitsch. 

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This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, click here. 

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.


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