Harvard-Westlake and Beyond: An artist's journey

By Sofia Heller

Sitting in her pajamas in the residence hall of a Stockholm art school, Avalon Nuovo ’13 was eating the same dinner she had eaten every night that week. It seemed like her plan for the night was going to be watching a movie with friends, until she got a call from a New York area code. On the other end of the line was The New York Times. 

As an illustrator, an assignment from The New York Times was a formal initiation into the professional art world and a turning point in her career, Nuovo said.

“It was one of the moments where it was exactly what I want to do with my life, so it felt like so much was riding on my being able to do this well,” Nuovo said.

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Despite being unsure of what to sketch, or even how to begin, Nuovo said getting the call was the most reassuring moment in her career as an illustrator. Eventually, Nuovo began sketching with a process that she continues to use for similar assignments.

“You can’t wait for inspiration to strike,” Nuovo said. “It just has to do with reading through, picking out words and distilling the essence. From that point, it’s coming up with every idea you can find that is an illustratable object. Most of the jobs people hire you for are things where you can’t get a photo of it because it’s an abstract idea, so that’s part of the challenge.”

Before she was able to confidently submit her illustrations to The New York Times, Nuovo faced hurdles in her art career, especially during her time at Harvard-Westlake. Even though she comes from a family of artists (her parents met at the Art Center College for Design where Nuovo would later attend), Nuovo said she still felt lost at school where her dean was unclear on how to advise her. Until Nuovo attended, no Harvard-Westlake student had gone to the Art Center College for Design.

“Not bashing Harvard-Westlake, but no one at Harvard-Westlake understood the idea of having a career in the visual arts," Nuovo said. "It’s sort of just the perspective and how people perceive things that you’re interested in doing are so dependent on where you happen to grow up, what school you happen to go to, but it’s so interesting once you leave that.”

By the end of high school, when Nuovo had figured out she wanted to pursue illustrating, she said she started spending most of her time drawing rather than focusing on studying or doing homework.

“If you ask certain Harvard-Westlake teachers, they’ll probably remember me drawing through class,” Nuovo said.

Since high school, Nuovo's passion for illustration has not ceased, and she continues to dedicate her time and career efforts to drawing, she said. 

“[Illustrating] is the only thing I want to do in this world,” Nuovo said. “I wouldn’t say that I even think about how much I love art. Frankly, the act of drawing is built into my brain as a thing that I get irritable if I don’t draw for a couple of days. It’s just a thing that I need to do like eating and sleeping.”

Nuovo said the structure of illustrating is one aspect that contributes to her love of the drawing and helps her maintain happiness in her daily life.

“I’m a very neat-freak, organized person,” Nuovo said. “I like that illustration is a scheduled thing with a goal, as opposed to fine artists who work in a lot of different ways. I like that I’m working by myself in the studio when I’m working on something, but I’m also working on a thing that someone else is contributing to. I also like that I’m contributing something that has an application in real life. I like having my work used in real life for something other than a thing on a way to look at. I think that’s really cool, and I think when you see things like that in the world that are done very thoughtfully, it brings little moments of joy.”

When she draws for herself, Nuovo finds inspiration from letters of other alphabets, medieval manuscripts, period films and packaging from 1960s and earlier, she said.

“I’m not a very youthful 23 year old,” Nuovo said, laughing. “I [find inspiration] in weird little things, which I think is quite common for illustrators and designers. You kind of find the thing that you realize is a very specific, cool thing, and you start collecting them.”

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Not only does Nuovo take inspiration from linguistics, but she said she also finds the act of drawing itself operates as a language for her.

“When you [draw] everyday, it comes as easily as speaking,” Nuovo said. “A lot of the time, when I get sick of talking to people, that’s just what I want to do. I love it because it does things that words can’t.”

After rededicating herself fulltime to illustrations and deciding to quit her job as an editor at a publishing house, Nuovo said she has learned a lesson that she previously heard frequently and believes applies to most people in their early 20s.

“Absolutely nothing happens the way you think it’s going to,” Nuovo said. “It took me years after high school to realize I could literally do whatever I want. I could go to Australia and train horses if I wanted to. At Harvard-Westlake, there’s a pretty narrow idea of the way your life is meant to go afterward: university, internship, job, et cetera. But I’ve since figured out that it’s more fun to deviate.”

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