Northern Wilds Magazine
Through multiple mediums such as watercolor paintings, bookmarks, stickers and enamel pins, Nielsen captures the beauty of the North Shore and beyond. | SAM NIELSEN

Forging a Creative Life: Duluth Artist Sam Nielsen

As many artists would attest, a creative life is one of continual growth and discovery. Duluth artist Sam Nielsen has spent the last several years forging a creative path of her own. She started an art business that went from a passion project to a full-time endeavor, and through multiple mediums such as watercolor paintings, bookmarks, stickers, and enamel pins, she captures the beauty of Duluth, the North Shore and beyond.

Although Nielsen had a deep-seated love for creativity, she hadn’t initially envisioned herself becoming a full-time artist. She attended college to study music education, but in her last year she began to wonder about switching tracks and pursuing a career in art. There was just one problem–she hadn’t taken an art class since middle school.

“I took a painting class in my last semester as a music ed major to test the waters before diving in and changing everything,” Nielsen said. “At that point it wasn’t even on my radar that I might be a full-time artist someday.”

Nielsen ended up graduating with a degree in art education and planned to build a stable teaching career while painting on the side. She moved to Duluth to teach art at the high school level, but it was there that her own art career started to gain traction. Prior to the move, Nielsen had started a 365-day sketchbook project where she sketched every day for a year. As she shared this sketching journey online, she began to grow a following of people interested in her art. From there her business, Art by Sj Nielsen, was born.

Duluth artist Sam Nielsen. | JANECANE PHOTOGRAPHY

Starting a creative business from scratch is no small endeavor, and the early years of Nielsen’s business were busy; she recalls many days when she would come straight home from teaching to work on her art business until it was time for bed. More and more people were finding out about her work, and during her second year of teaching she reached a tipping point—she was beginning to get more orders and requests for commissions than she could handle. She could either keep teaching and start turning down new customers, or go full-time with her art. Nielsen chose her art, and the rest, she says, was history.

Every artist has a unique creative process, and Nielsen finds herself drawn to creating in collections. One of her sketches might lead to an idea for a collection of sketches, or a particular piece from a collection of paintings will become the inspiration for a new painting collection.

“The first few collections I did were North Shore scenery focused, sometimes using reference photos of my own or photos that people have shared with me,” she said. “But right now, I’m working on a collection of mini pieces. I stumbled across a mini paint palette online, and have been focusing on this extravaganza of mini sketches.”

As part of this mini painting collection, Nielsen travels with her mini sketchbook and pocket-sized paints and creates on the go. One of her social media posts from this fall shows her creating a mini watercolor from start to finish while on the Lutsen gondola. Along with inspiration from her own travels along the North Shore, this mini collection is including paintings from places that Nielsen has never been. Her social media followers had the opportunity to submit reference photos from around the world for Nielsen to paint. Not only has this enabled Nielsen to travel from her desk, but it’s helped her community of followers become more involved in the creation process. Nielsen said another highlight of this collection is that the mini painting format has been a great fit for her life as a mother of two young children.

“Through the Woods,” by Sam Nielsen. | SAM NIELSEN

“It’s been so life-giving for me during this season since we just had our second child a few months ago, and right now my creative and business time is slipped into whatever spare moments I can find,” Nielsen said. “I think the mini piece is speaking to me so much because you don’t need quite as much time–it’s nice to actually complete something versus doing little bits of a bigger piece over the course of weeks.”

Nielsen said that the 100 mini paintings will only be available as originals. Along with her paintings, Nielsen also creates and sells stickers and enamel pins. One thing she’s intentional about is having a variety of different pieces at various price points, thereby making art accessible for people from all walks of life.

In addition to her art, Nielsen also made her debut as an author in 2018, penning a book entitled 5-Minute Watercolor: Super-quick Techniques for Amazing Watercolor Painting. The book was published as part of a 5-minute art series. The publishing company had found her on Instagram and reached out to see if she’d be interested in writing the installment on watercolor. Nielsen agreed, and the book was eventually published by Firefly Books and is available online where books are sold.

Altogether, Nielsen said that her favorite part of the creative life she’s forged for herself has been the connections she’s made along the way.

“Being at art fairs has become one of my most favorite things because of getting to connect with people and hear their stories,” she said. “It’s so easy to be at your table painting away, but to hear how a piece has touched or impacted someone is so rewarding. It feels like something so much bigger than me.”

To find more of Sam Nielsen’s art, visit her website ( or find her on Instagram under: sj_nielsen.

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