Gallery Assistant Lauren Hollowday writes about the autobiographical travel trilogy of artist and illustrator Michael C Nicholson:  

Having spent the last six weeks within the four walls of my apartment, these days I’ve often found myself daydreaming of being someplace else. Back in 2018, I was lucky enough to be able to spend twelve months travelling in Europe after finishing my undergraduate degree. Two years later and I still haven’t organised the photographs from my trip, but I often look back with fondness at my travel journal. Part sketchbook, part diary, part how-to guide; each page is laden with memories of the people and places I am so grateful for experiencing.  

Discovering Michael C Nicholson’s work, who has been self-publishing a series of journals he calls ‘Bio Auto Graphic’ since 2004, therefore really resonated with me. Special Collections houses some 280 artist books dating from the 1960s to the present day, including – some of my personal highlights – prominent figures of conceptual art like Sol LeWitt, Susan Hiller and Richard Long. The Artist’s Book Collection also contains over 30 issues of ‘Bio Auto Graphic’, spanning the years 2004-2016.    

The full collection of Artist’s Books held within Special Collections at the University of Leeds can be explored here.

‘Bio Auto Graphic’ is an ongoing series of autobiographical publications, akin to “zines”. In each issue, Nicholson combines text and images with a graphic design sensibility to document musings about life. The works address diverse topics such as commuting, scars, place-making, politics, birthdays, books, walking and working. All set against the changing landscape of the world. Throughout, Nicholson lays bare his challenges, triumphs and observations. Charmingly relatable, and yet uniquely personal, with each issue one feels a little bit closer to the artist as he gets a little bit closer to himself. ‘A Place of Interest: Mapping Myself’ (2010), ‘A Month of Sundays’ (2011) and ‘On the Margins’ (2012) all tackle this question of self-identity, as Nicholson explores his place in the world.   

In 2005, that place was across the Atlantic. The ‘You, Nighted States’ series, a three-part subset of ‘Bio Auto Graphic’ published 2005-2006, documents a trip to America. The travel trilogy follows Nicholson and Mette-Sofie D. Ambeck, a Danish designer and book artist, as they fly to New York and journey around New England. Setting off a few months after the 7/7 attacks in London, the trilogy addresses themes of security culture, policing and national identity. And yet, through comic illustrations and witty commentary, they make for entertaining reading.   

The first of the three, ‘I, in the sky’ (2005), depicts Nicholson’s London to New York flight. This issue is designed to be read right to left, in reference to the journey from East to West. On the plane, Nicholson considers the differences, and similarities, between the two countries through food, language, pop culture and consumerism. And a shared unease surrounding the encroaching War on Terror. Coming in to land, Nicholson recalls his American dream. What will have changed in the seventeen years since he was last in America? 

The second, ‘Lettering from America Part 1’, is a whistle-stop tour of Manhattan on foot. With a scrolling motif of the New York skyline and an ongoing list of avenues, this issue follows the footsteps of Nicholson as he takes in the Big Apple. Weighing up the pros and cons of big city living, there’s a noticeable dichotomy of fitting-right-in while being the odd-one-out. But in the city that never sleeps, who really wants to conform? There’s certainly no shortage of characters. Along the way, we meet Superman, Truman, a Klansman, a policeman, a naked cowboy and some guy off TV. And yet, what Nicholson notices most are ¾ length shorts and the hidden pocket in his shirt. On to Boston.   

The final issue in the trilogy, ‘Letters from America Part 2’, takes a road trip around New England as Nicholson and Ambeck catch up with old friends in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. They pass through Connecticut, ‘historical’ Boston, the shopping malls of Nashua and the warm welcome of Northampton. Food and drink and laughter. Nicholson draws attention to the books and the rain, the founding dates and the poverty line, the old and the new and the passing of time. Time flies. And then it’s time to fly home. But we’ve been taken on a journey.    

All three issues which form the ‘You, Nighted States’ trilogy have been digitised for our online catalogue, and can be viewed here.

Nicholson’s ‘Bio Auto Graphic’ provide an insightful, intimate and entertaining escapism. While my trip to America this year has fallen through, I’ve visited vicariously with Nicholson as tour guide. And though I may still be stuck in my apartment, the pages of my journal take me back to my favourite cities. So, while you might not be going anywhere for the foreseeable, perhaps consider taking a journey through the pages of a travel journal instead? 

Born in Westmorland in 1962, Michael C Nicholson is now based in London. He studied Illustration at Saint Martin’s School of Art from 1982-1985. The school merged with the Central School of Art and Design in 1989 to form Central Saint Martins. He has lectured in Graphic Design, Illustration and Visual Media at the University for the Creative Arts (UCA) and University of the Arts London (UAL), and delivered visiting lectures across the country. He is currently Senior Lecturer in Illustration at UCA.     

You can get to know Michael C Nicholson in more depth on his blog.