Jeleata Nicole captures her subject’s personality and identity with signature style


Queen, oil on canvas, 24″ x 18″

Portraiture is one of the oldest art forms. Part artwork, part biography and part history, an artistic portrait captures more than just how a person looks. Through portraiture, we get visual clues about their personality and the culture and society in which they lived.

For over 5,000 years, humanity has been drawn to artistic renderings that capture the essence of people we love and admire. These treasures become heirlooms that keep memories alive generation after generation. Portraiture is having a glorious moment thanks to contemporary artists such as Jeleata Nicole, who are using this traditional genre in new ways.

For example, in her work Queen, which was displayed at the opening of the International African American Museum, a Black woman calmly regards something or someone outside the frame. Her colorful headscarf, African beadwork earrings, lilac eyeshadow and lipstick are modern; they tell us when she lives, what she values and how she values herself. Her expression and how she holds her body convey strength, purpose, vision, resilience and intelligence.

The Mask, oil on canvas, 10″ x 36″

In Reminisce, a portrait of Nicole’s cousin, a Black woman sits at the top of stone steps with her chin propped in her hand. Her bright yellow wide-legged pants, colorful neck scarf and peace sign earrings suggest another era, or maybe a renaissance. Though she’s wearing round mirrored sunglasses, she looks straight at the viewer as if sizing us up. She is calm, relaxed and not interested in any nonsense.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Nicole is from a family of artists and began preparing for a life as a working artist in middle school. “Art is in my blood. I always knew this is what I wanted to do,” she says. After attending Moore College of Art & Design, she worked in the arts in a corporate capacity before making the leap to full-time artist in 2016.

Since then, she’s been making waves, including winning awards for Queen and Reminisce at the MOJA Arts Festival. Her portrait of John Lewis is displayed at Trinity Church in Boston, she was one of 20 artists selected to create work for the Democratic National Convention and commissioned to create three murals for Black Lives Matter in Philadelphia. “As things started to change, I wanted to be vocal in a positive way. Art gives people a voice that they might not have otherwise. I’m not great at verbalizing how I feel sometimes, but art is a blank canvas that lets me show it. It starts conversations that help,” Nicole says.

Goddess, oil on canvas, 30″ x 20″

One of the conversations the artist likes to have, especially with her three children, is that not everybody gets lucky in life. “I was having a moment with my children where I was trying to explain how some people are less fortunate than us. Compassion International had a walk-through exhibit where you could hear start-to-finish stories from children who had struggled through poverty. I left in tears. I couldn’t sponsor anyone at the time, but the organization agreed to collaborate with me,” she says. Nicole curated an art show featuring different artists and mediums, all with the theme of compassion. She still donates proceeds from that body of work to alleviate childhood poverty.

When Nicole and her family moved to Charleston in 2019, she entered the local art scene as a guest artist for Miller Gallery, a competitor at MOJA and an exhibitor at Piccolo Spoleto. “I love Spoleto. Being around so many creatives for so long, I was like a kid in a candy store,” she says of her time at the festival. “At Spoleto, I’m with my people, and I get to do me. I don’t plan on ever leaving it.”

Jeleata Nicole with Reminisce, oil on canvas, 20″ x 30″

Though her subject matter is diverse, ranging from animals and beach scenes to historical figures, Nicole considers herself primarily a portrait artist. “Doing portraits is where my heart lies,” she says. “I love to capture expressions. The eyes are how you reach the soul, and then everything else falls into place. My portraits tend to be very tight, so I do other subjects to let loose. I don’t stay in one lane, and I don’t have to. I can give everyone a little something.”

Though you will see her around town at events such as MOJA and Piccolo Spoleto, Nicole spends most of her time on commissioned paintings that include families, children, pets, and wedding and memorial portraits. Her website explains the five-step process, including tips for selecting the perfect photographs to help her get to know the subject. *

Robin Howard is a freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at

More Information