Longtime Victoria artist dies, leaves behind legacy
BY J.R. ORTEGA - JRORTEGA@VICAD.COM
Jan. 21, 2013 at 8:01 p.m.
Updated Jan. 21, 2013 at 7:22 p.m.
Books by Harold Nichols
"Wooden Stirrups: Ranching in the Trans-Pecos of Texas during the Great Depression"
• "Farmers Co-op, A Bridge Street Story, 1974-1999"
"Inspiration comes from life." - Harold Nichols
Mary Doughtie knew Harold Nichols before he was "Harold Nichols" - the longtime Victoria resident and artist who pioneered for a stronger arts community.
Nichols' death, even at 88, came as a shock for Doughtie, who first met Nichols in the early 1950s at Victoria College, where he once taught.
For Doughtie, Nichols was very much alive and had a personality like no other.
"You always knew where you stood with Harold," said Doughtie. "He was a friend."
This was the Nichols she knew - the Nichols taking life one day at a time, just like everyone else.
Before he transformed the historic Farmers Co-op building into an art studio.
Before he chose to retire early.
Before he created dozens of Texas-centric paintings and sculptures.
Before he became the "Harold Nichols" everyone came to know and respect.
Nichols was born Aug. 25, 1924, and was raised in the rural West Texas city of Alpine.
He knew the ranch and loved everything about Texas, said his 66-year-old son, Jim Nichols, of Victoria.
Jim Nichols said his father died Monday morning after collapsing from suffering a cardiac arrest at Twin Pines Nursing and Rehab Center.
Nichols joined the Army Air Forces and was eventually discharged. He then received his masters degree and moved his family, which also included his wife and daughter, Nancy Baker, to Victoria to pursue a career in teaching business administration.
His son was only 6 years old when they moved to Victoria and remembers his father mostly for being the kind, nurturing man he always was.
"Wherever we lived, Daddy was going to improve it somehow," his son said.
Though Nichols spent the first half of his life teaching at Victoria College, the passion to create was always evident, his son said.
"He had a universal interest in art," his son said, adding his father could work with anything from welding and blacksmithing to woodwork, painting and even sculpting.
This was the side Doughtie didn't know much about. When she met him, they were young, starting out, trying to make it by.
"We were all struggling together. We were struggling to do our jobs and take care of our families," she said. "I was one of the first people he met out here. We got to be good friends."
From teaching business administration, Nichols eventually grew into the position of business manager at the college. He opted for early retirement so he could devote the rest of his life to creating art - art that has left its mark on the community.
Nichols hit the ground running as soon as he retired. In 1974, he purchased the old Farmers Co-op building on Bridge Street. His vision was to turn the building into a venue for art lovers.
That vision came to fruition as Nichols spent much of his time working on his pieces, including renovating the building.
"He loved to do things in his workshops," his son said. "He liked to involve me in those activities. There was always something to be done."
In the late 1990s, the Victoria Art League bought the building from Nichols and continued using it as a hub for local artisans.
Bill Bauer, president of the league, said the building still has Nichols' influence written all over it.
The walls, the classrooms and the latches are all Nichols.
"I think if you lose someone like Harold, you've lost a piece of the soul that is art in Victoria," Bauer said.
More recently, in 2009, Nichols created and donated a jaguar to the University of Houston-Victoria. The school mascot, which is life-sized, sits between the University Center and University West buildings.
Hundreds of students have stopped to have their picture taken in front of "jaX the jaguar" since it was placed on campus, said UHV President Phil Castille.
"Harold Nichols was a talented artist and a true friend of the University of Houston-Victoria," Castille said. "Our university is saddened to hear about the loss of Mr. Nichols."
His sculpture of a steer is at Sul Ross State University in Alpine - a place Nichols always called home.
Throughout the years, Nichols had many exhibits to showcase his artwork, but perhaps one of his biggest dreams that never became a reality was to have a San Antonio-style river walk snake through downtown Victoria.
In 1985, the vision became more tangible when he gathered a group of investors willing to make that vision happen.
Sharon Steen, a friend, was one of the investors.
"He was a renaissance man," she said. "He had an interest in the past and an interest in the future."
Though the idea never developed, Nichols was one to never stop dreaming.
"He knew he would be going home," Steen said about his death. "We're all sad about it, but he brought so much to this community. Earth won't be the same without him."