The positive resilience of Jordan Nicholson
Jordan Nicholson made his mark in Seattle, Washington, as a tastemaker, through his photographs of artists like Drake, Chance the Rapper, and Macklemore, and producing creative content in a city that hasn’t been typically known for having a booming creative class. Historically, Seattle has produced a lot of alternative music and has had its handful of cultural movements. Notwithstanding Nirvana and the Grunge movement, the heyday of Death Cab for Cutie, and the blip of national fame from Macklemore, the city has been known more for its innovation in technology and coffee.
Still, the very fact that the artist community is extremely niche in this part of the Pacific Northwest has actually made success possible for folks like Nicholson, who is passionate for all things about his hometown. Just a quick scroll through his social media profiles will give you an idea how much he loves his town and its people. Nicholson acts as the Emerald City’s pseudo one-man welcoming committee to people from all over the world. His hospitality for both outsiders and residents alike has earned him the nickname as the “Mayor of Seattle” among his peers.
There’s also something else remarkable about Nicholson that speaks to his ability to thrive in environments that aren’t necessarily catered to him. “If you haven’t noticed, I was born without arms,” he told me matter-of-factly. “A lot of people are scared to ask me about it, but I don’t mind talking about it because it makes me who I am.”
What exactly gave him such a healthy amount of grit? I asked myself. I wanted to learn more.
Nicholson invited me over to his work-play loft to chat, so I made my way towards his spot at Artspace in the Mount Baker neighborhood of South Seattle. It’s a new mixed-use arts building that creates affordable and accessible housing for artists—one of a few artist-led urban villages that have popped up in the area to battle the rising housing prices.
From one end of the hall, I could see Nicholson’s floating head and a set of waving hands pop out from one of the doors. He started a gleeful laugh that bounced down the hallway and kept up this laugh-wave-hello combination right up until I made it to his door, where he hugged me with an intensity and warmth that is usually reserved for family or close friends that one hasn’t seen in years. We had met once before, but within seconds of our embrace, it felt like we had known each other forever.
I followed Nicholson into his light-filled, live-work loft space, an expansive area teeming with the low thud of old school hip-hop flowing from his speakers. I was instantly greeted by an enviable sneaker collection that scattered across the entrance of the floor. His loft was thoughtfully curated with an eclectic assortment of chotchkies and memorabilia (I laughed out loud when I spied a huge Taco Bell sign that said “Thank You” sitting next to a yellow foam finger holding the “W” sign that he used in a music video he directed for the hip-hop group Blue Scholars). The wall right next to his workstation was adorned with prints from the Japanese Edo-period. A leopard Supreme towel was draped casually over a ladder. A collection of colorful dad hats randomly hung from different pegs on his wall. The space genuinely represented Nicholson through and through.
Nicholson grew up in South Seattle in a family of four, not far from where he lives now, in an environment he credits for shaping a lot of his formative years and experiences. His mother, a Chinese native who grew up in Indonesia, studied her way out of poverty, landed a scholarship at Wellesley College, and received her dental degree at Harvard. She met Nicholson’s father during her residency at the University of Washington, where he was a dental assistant.
Even though Nicholson’s mother’s parents were against her marriage to a man who didn’t look good on paper at the time—he was Black, had a difficult family history, and went to a technical college—she followed her heart and went through with their relationship. “Imagine what wouldn’t have happened if my mom didn’t get married to him,” he told me. “What would have happened if my mom or dad cared about what her parents thought about her being with someone that wasn’t culturally acceptable? I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t exist.” The artist said his mother always had an unwavering commitment to pushing for the truth even when it seemed faint and out of reach. “She’s always taught me this mindset of doing what you want and that as long as you follow your gut instincts, it doesn’t matter what the circumstances are,” he said.
Nicholson’s mother’s mental toughness and resilience also helped him accept himself and his physical disability. “One of the things my mom really taught me [was] mind over matter,” he said. “Don’t pity yourself. There was no babying whatsoever with her, it was always, nah, ignore that.” Where society may see his handicap as a shortcoming or a setback, the Seattle native learned to take an extremely levelheaded outlook. “I think that it’s okay that I can’t grab a box of cereal off the top of a fridge, but I can draw, make illustrations, take photos, go skating, and do all these other things,” he said. “I think that it’s really important to spend your energy on things that you can do and not focus on the things that aren’t as in your favor.”
Despite all of this, there was a time when Nicholson’s happy-go-lucky demeanor and grit were once severely tested. In the summer of 2012, after graduating from the University of Washington, Nicholson was at a house party when a drive-by shooting broke out. “It sounded like firecrackers,” he recalled. “Everyone ran, so I dropped to the ground and waited until the sound of gunfire died down. As soon as I got up and walked over to cross the street, I saw someone lying on the ground, and I rushed by [her] side.” He realized that the victim had been his good friend Shari. She later passed in the hospital.
“That was the worst day of my entire life,” Nicholson said. “It messed me up, and honestly, for a long time too. Here you are, fresh out of college, excited for the rest of your life, and you see something like that happen to your friend and can’t help but realize the fragility of life. You’re left with these questions of like, ‘What’s the point of all this? I could die tomorrow.’”
After losing his friend to gun violence, Nicholson struggled in a dark space for three years, all while trying to keep up the happy facade that everyone knew him for. He feared that he would burden others with his trauma. “As long as I’ve been Jordan, I’ve always been this super positive, happy-go-lucky dude, and that’s been the story that people know of me,” he said. “For a long time, I felt like I had to keep up this narrative.”
The trauma of that incident coupled with the pressure to perform as one of Seattle’s most sought-after photographers took its toll on the designer. “I used to ask myself all the time, ‘Why was I born?’” he said. “Is this even worth it?”
I asked him about what got him through that period in his life. “I just took it day by day and tried to meditate, to be present, [and] to not be in my head so much,” he replied. He then took out his phone to show me a photo album titled “Self-Love,” a collection of different screenshots that he took of text conversations with friends who had offered encouraging words.“I don’t think it’s wrong to love yourself,” he said as he scrolled through the different messages. “I definitely know that I’m not better than anyone else. But I think it’s important to know for myself that I am a good person.”
After three years of self-reflection and moving from one agony to another, something finally clicked in Nicholson when he came across Brazilian author Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist—a book with a protagonist he eventually identified with. “For the longest time, I wondered why I had to go through this terrible thing,” he said. “I realized that it was so that I can conquer it and win. I feel like that’s been the story of my life; I didn’t get the best cards dealt to me, I was born the way I was born and had crazy things happen to me in my life, but despite all that I truly believe that I’m still going to win.”
Written by Kandice Che
Photos by Jordan Nicholson