The power of nostalgic art

By Christy Johnson, founder & CEO of United Goods

The Barbie movie comes out soon, and I'm SO EXCITED because I was a huge "Barbie girl" growing up. Along with the giddiness and anticipation, the movie has also got me thinking about nostalgia. Particularly, its ties to art.

That sensation of "longing for the past" is directly linked to my State Icon illustrations. My little prints have been described as "memories in a frame" many, many times at art shows throughout the nearly 20 years I've been making this work.

I love the sentiment so much that I use it in my marketing materials and when explaining what I do to people I meet. Because it's true! I draw landmarks that are meant to evoke warm feelings of your past and the places you adore, as well as recollections of times spent with the people you love.

Why do we feel nostalgia?

Nostalgia often finds us flipping through the Rolodex of our brains to recall memories, experiences, relationships, or even cultures. We revisit cherished movies, music, books, art, and familiar places, especially when times are rough in our present-day lives. To combat feelings of distress, nostalgia swoops in and offers solace; a comfy, secure space to hang out and dream of happier days.

But even when life is good, we often walk down memory lane because it provides a sense of continuity. It grounds us in our personal histories and gives us a feeling of identity. Psychologically, we reminisce to improve our mood, boost our feelings of social connectedness, and pump up our self-esteem.

I've read that nostalgia can counteract feelings of loneliness or alienation by reminding us of meaningful relationships and shared experiences. It's also been known to enhance psychological resilience and give us coping mechanism during crappy times. Fascinating, isn't it?

How are art and nostalgia connected?

First I wanna talk about nostalgia's tie to pop culture. Examples that come to mind are fashion trends coming and going over and over, retro-themed parties, and endless reboots of TV shows and movies. In a way these call-backs tap into our collective memory and offer a sense of familiarity and comfort, regardless of the generation we belong to.

With visual art, nostalgia impacts both artists and viewers. For example, I can lean on the images of my past to dream up which State Icon I'll draw next. I also receive suggestions from fans all the time, and they often tell me why they'd love to see an illustration of a particular building, sign, statue, etc. Hearing those stories is so inspiring! It helps me understand the connection people have to these memorials.

As for art's viewers, you can probably relate to feeling sentimental when laying eyes on a particular piece. Your heartstrings are tugged and sometimes you're hurtled back in time. I've seen this on many occasions at art shows. Someone comes into my booth, glimpses a State Icon and gasps, laughs, or puts their hand on their heart (my favorite). When any of these reactions happens, I immediately perk up because these exclamations are basically the reason I do what I do. I've experienced some really touching moments, but the one that always stands out is a story I talked about in a previous blog post (scroll to question/answer #3 to read it). I get teary just thinking back to that time.

In addition to subject matter, artists like me can use colors and details to evoke a sense of nostalgia. For example, I love when I get a chance to include little touches in my illustrations that only people who really know that landmark will appreciate. It can sometimes be like an inside joke; a sideways glance, smile, and wink that I "get it." I think it's also what sets my drawings apart from other landmark-focused art that's out there.

In a way, art can kinda be like a time capsule that preserves our pasts and helps us tell our stories (which is a topic I plan to write about in a future blog post). Nostalgic art may also evoke a sense of connection, and help us understand ourselves and where we came from.

It can also give us a glimpse at the world as it once was, too. This resonates with me. I really like to draw buildings and signs that no longer exist because it helps memorialize them and in a way keeps them alive. (What's that? There's a quirky dive bar that closed its doors 10 years ago and is extremely missed by regulars? I wanna draw it ASAP.) 

What's the benefit to surrounding ourselves with nostalgic art?

Art is, of course, personal and subjective. We bring our own experiences, memories, and emotional connections to a piece, and that shapes both our understanding and response to it. Something that creates warm fuzzies in your friend might inspire a feeling of "meh" or "so what?" in you.

The power of nostalgic art lies in its ability to connect people via shared experiences and spark conversations. 

As you know, the world is fast-paced and ever-evolving. So like I mentioned above, it's not uncommon to find ourselves longing for simpler days. Since nostalgia is so good at taking us on an emotional journey through yesteryear (haha…yesteryear…how's that for an old-timey word?), I think it's important to display artwork in your home that reconnects you with happy moments and places.

When life feels hard, you can look at your little framed print and be reminded of emotions, connections, and senses from your past. Like, maybe when you see your State Icon of the Cafe & Bar Lurçat Sign you instantly think of a leisurely happy hour with your buddies and the taste of French fries dipped in aioli (or is that just me…?).

As both a creator and appreciator of art, I feel fortunate to be able to lean on nostalgia in my work. To me, it's incredibly rewarding to embrace the past while celebrating the creative possibilities of the future.

So tell me: Does art make you feel nostalgic? In what way? And which of my State Icons gets you "right in the feels"?


large storage bin filled with well-loved barbie dolls

A present-day pic my dad sent of the 20-plus, well-loved Barbies (and Barbie spin-offs and Barbie-inspired dolls) I played with incessantly as a kiddo.

1 comment

  • Wendy Nielsen

    These two pics made me so happy!!! Love you

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