Chicago artist unveils new work at upcoming show

Chicago artist and 2004 fine arts alumnus Nate Otto has artwork displayed all the city, but his most notable work is with the Chicago internet company Basecamp. He designed a character for the company’s app and website and also painted a mural in their West Loop headquarters. 


After a shocking presidential election Nov. 8, Nate Otto said he wondered if he should carry the responsibility of responding to the country’s new political status through his artwork.

A Chicago-based visual artist and 2004 fine arts alumnus, Otto is usually known for his colorful, unique and stylized public works of art found throughout the city and in local galleries. Although politics may influence his art in the future, for now he has decided to donate all the funds from his $10 Mystery Drawing items—small surprise illustrations sold on his website that are worth $10 and shipped to buyers—to the American Civil Liberties Union. Since he started the fundraiser one week ago on Nov. 14, he has sold 40 drawings and raised $400 for the organization, as of press time.

“I don’t want to just post articles on Facebook,” Otto said. “I want to be able to do something more.” 

In addition to raising donations for the ACLU, Otto is preparing for his solo show opening Nov. 25 at Wicker Park’s Firecat Projects, 2124 N. Damen Ave., which will include all new work, he said.

Otto, who became a full-time artist four years ago, said having solo shows is an opportunity to display the growth and progress in his work. But Firecat’s distinct model, which gives the artist full control of the show and does not take any commission from the work, gives Otto a special creative edge.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like Firecat,” Otto said. “I like to show [my work] where people I know are going to see it.”

Otto’s reputation in Chicago’s rich art community works to his advantage for the show titled “You Are Here.” Stan Klein, founder and director of Firecat, said he discovered Otto’s work through other local artists and said his style perfectly clicks with the gallery’s model.

“We look for unique artists who don’t really fit the normal model of artwork shown generally in galleries and museums,” Klein said.

Klein said the large space can comfortably show 20 to 30 pieces, and artists curate it to their specifications with no control from Klein. This idea is one he said he hopes to see adopted globally.

“The model of gallery traditions have faded away, especially when you have a footprint,” he said.

He said most galleries now do art fairs and are privatively owned, consequently falling into the more mainstream art scene and showing commercial or socially accepted work. He said this leaves no space for the “quirky personal artist” who may bring different styles to the art surface, but Firecat aims to be that space.

Since Firecat opened in 2014, Klein said artists have ranged from ages 11 to 92, including 72-year-old Cal Schenkel, who was the album illustrator for rock guitarist Frank Zappa.

Recognized nationally and internationally, Otto currently has an exhibition at The Bubbler at Madison Public Library in Madison, Wisconsin, which shows Otto’s signature blending of street art and patterned design elements. The show attracted many users at the library, said Trent Miller, Bubbler program coordinator. 

“Anyone who has meticulously or obsessively doodled in a notebook and filled it up with repeated patterns or images can appreciate [Otto’s work],” Miller said, adding that even those without art backgrounds are able to see and appreciate the quality in Otto’s style.

Miller, a curator and artist himself, said bridging the gap between different ranges of audience appreciation is difficult, but Otto is successful in doing so. Otto said attracting a spectrum of people is a goal of his.

“I try to make art for everybody and not just art insiders or the elite [art] collectors,” Otto said.

Otto’s artistic opportunities range from commercial work to personal work. He has painted murals for Facebook and Nike and is best known for his illustrations and graphics for Basecamp, a Chicago internet and graphic design company that expanded nationwide. But his personal projects, like his upcoming exhibition, are the most fulfilling, he said.

“I am doing [art] to please my own aims,” Otto said. “I am just following my whims.”