Every now and then we like to reach out to Alpena natives who are out there making a name for themselves with their talent. This year we reached out to the talented Nick Hartman a.k.a Chapel of Ghouls to find out more about his ghoul art and the message about mental health behind his creatures…
First, tell us a little bit about Nick Hartman…
“My name is Nicholas Hartman but usually just go by Nick. I graduated from Alpena High School in 2004, received an Associate in Fine Arts from ACC, and a Bachelor of Science in Film Studies from GVSU. I worked as a Film Curator at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts located in Grand Rapids, MI for 8 plus years, but the museum closed due to the devastating effects of the pandemic. I’m now currently working for the historic Wealthy Theatre where I continue to curate films, manage theatre operations, and am head of the Grand Rapids Film Society.
Other than my professional work, I’m an artist who goes by the name Chapel of Ghouls. I’ve shown my work in a handful of galleries, put on my own art shows, and am an advocate for all things mental health. My hobbies include skateboarding, painting, listening to music, all things film, reading, and embracing the gift of life. I love drinking cold beer, spending time with my loved ones, and believe that every day should be lived to the fullest. I’ll rest when I’m dead.”
What is your favorite childhood memory growing up in Alpena?
“I don’t think I have a specific favorite memory but reflecting on my childhood I always find myself daydreaming of the days when my friends and I just skateboarded around town all day, every day. We had no worries, no responsibilities, and just had our skateboards and each other.
We spent our youth exploring the city and used it as our playground. We ran from every authority figure imaginable because at that time – skateboarders were “trouble-makers” and all the adults painted this terrible picture of us. Honestly, though, it made our lives that much more exciting, and I would give anything to go back!”
Who was your biggest role model growing up?
“My biggest role model is and will always be Kurt Cobain. I fell in love with Nirvana’s music at an early age due to my older brother introducing them to me (thanks, Ryan). I would then find myself obsessed to where I was stealing my brother’s older shirts out of his closet and wearing them to school, listening to every CD on repeat, and reading everything on Kurt.
There’s a Cobain quote that I live by and that’s “Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are.” I remember reading that at an early age and it just stuck with me. From there I just didn’t care what people thought of me and all I ever wanted was to just be me.”
How do you think growing up in Alpena shaped you as a person and/or perhaps, sparked your creative outlet?
“As a kid/teenager in the ’90s and early 2000s, there wasn’t a lot for me to do in Alpena. I mean, sure, it’s absolutely beautiful. You’re surrounded by water, and the nature is stunning. However, as a kid – you just don’t really see that because it’s all you know. Once you leave – you realize what you really had. I’m now 45 minutes from a lake in the Grand Rapids area and it’s such a bummer.
The summers were fun but as soon as winter hit – I just found myself isolated. All my friends partied (I didn’t at the time) and I HATE being cold, so I found myself locked inside a lot. At that time, I would obsess over watching horror movies, reading spooky books/comics, listening to extreme metal bands, and playing video games. The arts were such an escape for me and I’m not sure I would have dived so deep if I was born and raised in a warm climate.
I think a combination of seasonal boredom, sobriety, and being around others who were so different than me, and not necessarily in a positive way, helped shape me. As much as they made my life a living nightmare – they made me who I am. I was the kid who dressed in all black and refused to follow trends. All the “normal” people just made fun of me continuously. I was shoved into lockers, called “gay”, and pretty much threatened daily. May sound weird, but I thank them for their behavior because they shaped me. They made me say “If this is “fitting in” then never want to fit in.” I mean, is it that fun to conform to what everyone else wears, does, and listens to? NO WAY. I want my own personality and to express who I am.”
What inspired you to create Chapel of Ghouls?
“To put it simply – anxiety, panic attacks, hypochondria, and every single negative feeling inspired me to create Chapel of Ghouls. Unfortunately, when I was really young, I was introduced to death at a very young age by losing two of my cousins in a horrific car accident. Years later I would then lose a very close friend in yet another car crash. Following that, I developed epilepsy and was bedridden for quite some time. From there the list goes on of tragedies, heartbreak, and haunting memories. I believe these events created a tremendous amount of PTSD and one day – Chapel of Ghouls kind of happened by accident.
Long story short – I remember a specific moment when I was having an extreme panic attack (most likely from all my trauma) and to calm myself down I busted out my sketchbook and just started drawing to distract my brain. As the panic attacks continued, I would just grab my sketchbook and draw. One day I realized that every time an episode occurred, I would draw the same image – a ghoul.
I realized this ghoul reflected my feelings, a manifestation of my struggles. From there on I began to realize the more I faced my issues and the more I talked about them – the better I felt. That’s where the name Chapel of Ghouls comes into place. The ghoul(s) equal my struggles and a Chapel is a place of worship. I believe that if I befriend/praise my feelings – the more I will understand them. I know they’re a part of me and will always be. I can’t run from them so why not praise them and try and understand them? What’s that saying “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer?” It may sound a little out there and I get that, but it’s what’s worked for me.
What does a typical day creating Ghouls look like for you?
“Each day is different. There are days when I wake up and have no desire to create and there are others where my brain won’t shut off and I’m obsessed with expressing myself. Some days, I wake up, make a pot of coffee, put on a record, and just start painting. Other days, I pour myself a stiff drink(s), put on a record, and get to work. 90% of the time I’m painting in my studio and it’s surrounded by items I love such as horror film memorabilia, Halloween decorations, comic books, etc. Ya know, things that nerds love.
When it comes to the actual painting process, I just try to dig deep within and ask myself how I’m feeling that day. I never go into a piece with a plan – I go in with emotion and just let the brush take control. I’m sure that sounds extremely cheesy but it’s the truth.”
Do you have a favorite piece of art and what makes it your favorite?
“When it comes to my art – no. I never really look at one of my paintings and say, “Good job, man”. I usually finish it, hate it, toss it in a corner, and say, “Another negative emotion released” and move on to the next piece.
Now, other people’s art – yes, absolutely. However, I’m never really inspired by paintings, drawings, etc. I’m more moved by cinema and music. I’ll tell you, I could watch William Friedkin’s ‘The Exorcist’ on repeat and listen to Nirvana’s – In Uterto all day, every day. That’s the art that moves me.”
What projects are you currently working on?
“I have two projects I’m focusing on. A few months back I released my first ever comic book and only printed a total of 50. To my surprise, they were all sold out. I decided I’m going to continue making more so I’m currently working on issue #2. The comic is very influenced by EC comic books from the ‘50s like Tales from the Crypt, SHOCK, Creepy, etc. Instead of telling stories of ghosts and such, I tell stories of anxiety, depression, death, etc., and use those emotions in a metaphorical context.
Other than that, I’m getting back into my first love – filmmaking. I originally graduated with a film degree and used to make a handful of films. I then landed a career as a film curator and spent my time watching other people’s work. As much as I love it, I need to create my own. I have plans to shoot a short experimental/abstract film that will relate to the work of Chapel of Ghouls. My goal is to begin production this winter.”
Tell us a little bit about how mental health is weaved in through your artistic expression…
“As I expressed earlier – the ghouls came to life out of panic attacks, and I realized how much better I had felt once when I was drawing. Each piece of art I create is an expression of my personal mental health struggles whether it’s my hypochondria, anxiety, depression, fear of death, horrors of life, etc. I believe the more we face our demons/issues, the more we overcome, ya know? My work is related to nothing but mental health.”
What kind of support did you receive in the community, whether that be in Alpena or in Grand Rapids, and did it help shape your current path?
“As I mentioned previously, I was bullied in school for who I am. There was so much conformity back then and if you didn’t dress a certain way, share the same beliefs, etc. – you weren’t really accepted.
I will say, I did receive plenty of support from my parents though. I remember one specific moment when I was in my room and my mother came in to ask if I wanted to hang out. I agreed and we went to the mall together. The thing is, I was dressed in a white button-up shirt that was covered in fake blood, had a torn-up suit coat that read “redrum” on the back, had long black hair, and was dressed in black from head to toe. Not once did she ask me to change, not once did she judge me. She showed me nothing but love and honestly, that’s all the support I ever needed. If it wasn’t for my parent’s support – I’m not sure where I’d be.
To all the parents out there reading this – please accept your children for who they are. You have no idea what it means to them.”
For young people growing up in Alpena today, who have dreams of growing a business through creative expression, what advice would you give them?
“Never listen to anyone’s opinion but your own. To know you’re going to make mistakes and know that it’s okay to fail. Failure teaches you important life lessons but also to recognize to keep going, to not give up, and to give it all you’ve got. Finally, push away the ones who don’t support you, push away the ones who try and pull you down. They don’t care about you – they want to see you fail. Use their negativity against them – and turn it into something positive. Use their fire as fuel.”
What do you miss the most about Alpena?
“The days of my youth. The warm summer nights, skateboarding through the streets, getting into trouble with my friends, the chilly October winds, and the warm hugs from my family.”
Where can we find and purchase Chapel of Ghouls merch, paintings, books, and more?
So, I’m really bad at being a “professional” artist. I always get requests to create a website but I just never wanted to. The best way to find my work is through my Instagram and that’s ChapelOfGhouls. I always conduct commissions and such there.”
We want to thank Nick Hartman so much for taking the time for our feature! Most recently, Chapel of Ghouls was featured in Grand Rapids 2023 ArtPrize during the month of September. “This annual event celebrates artists working in all mediums from anywhere in the world. Spanning over 18 days, ArtPrize takes over public spaces, storefronts, galleries, local businesses, and more!” – City of Grand Rapids
We are so proud of the work Chapel of Ghouls has created to spread the message that talking about our feelings and talking about our mental health is OKAY! If you or somebody you know is having a hard time, please lend an ear, a hug, and some compassion.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline – 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
*All photos courtesy of Nick Hartman – Chapel of Ghouls*