Nora Balayti may not be a household name, but many Chicagoans are unknowingly familiar with her work.
The 32-year-old artist from Dixon, Illinois, has worked with some of Chicago’s most recognizable establishments to attract both the eyes and stomachs of people in the city. Whether pounding down sandwiches at Lucky’s or working in the cozy, short-term office spaces of Assemble in the South Loop, residents and visitors alike have undoubtedly feasted their sights on her intricate – and sometimes witty – murals and designs.
After graduating from Northern Illinois University in 2006 with a B.A. in Drawing and Painting, Balayti relocated to Chicago’s Buena Park neighborhood. The city provided the young artist with a vast canvas to explore, and there was certainly no place she’d rather set up shop.
“Chicago was my home long before I ever moved here,” she said. “ I was born to be a Chicago girl. The city fits my personality – I love the constant hustle and bustle. It has everything I want and need, and so much more.”
She can recall her early days as an artist in grade school, when her natural ability resulted in multiple coloring competition first place finishes, and she was regularly chosen by her peers to focus on the drawing portion of class projects. Her early experiences provided an unwitting glimpse into her future, and she credits her parents Patti and Bob for influencing her to follow her passion. And Balayti said it was the time she shared working alongside her father that proved to be her greatest inspiration.
“My dad was a professional painter, so I spent time working with him in the summers when I wasn’t in school,” she said. “I learned everything about paint, thinners, scaffolding, how to position a ladder – I was doing things that girls my age weren’t doing.”
Applying what she learned during her summers with her father, coupled with years of perfecting her trade at NIU, Balayti moved to Chicago and began establishing her personal brand through freelance opportunities. She applied her skills to nearly anything that helped market herself early on, such as designing T-shirts and tattoos.
She wasn’t always paid for her work, but bartering proved to be an option for the budding entrepreneur who was just looking to showcase her abilities. However, it was a conversation she shared with Chris Johnston that helped build momentum toward her career as a painter.
While they sat in the quaint confines of Wrigleyville’s Dugout Sports Bar, where Balayti had designed tee shirts, Johnston recognized that her talent and personality was a good fit for what he was looking to bring to his Chicago eatery.
“I started working with Nora right from the beginning,” said Johnston, owner of Cheesie’s Pub and Grub. “Her unique and playful style shows in her art – it caught my attention immediately. I knew what she was doing would match perfectly with my brand. Not to mention her goofy and fun personality was a perfect fit for us.”
The Lakeview Cheesie’s location opened in 2012 and features Balayti’s murals throughout. Since then, Johnston has hired her to paint his Wicker Park and Evanston locations, as well as his bar Whiskey Business. He said he is always quick to suggest Balayti to other local establishments to spice up their decor.
“I have already recommended her to other businesses and will continue to do so,” he said. “This city, as well as many other cities across the country, deserves to view her artwork.”
While her work is completely new and an extension of her imagination, she admits that other artists have loosely influenced her style. Part of the fun for Balayti is having the freedom to play with different techniques to find new interpretation in existing art. She considers herself and impressionist, finding joy in taking something and putting her own twist on it to make viewers see things in a new way.
“I like to grow and learn from all styles. And I want people to not only look at my work differently, but also feel differently,” she said.
Although she has stayed busy in recent months, she takes her accomplishments in stride, appreciating each opportunity that has been presented to her. For Balayti, success isn’t defined by how much money she makes or how many murals she paints. Instead, Balayti considers happiness to be her sole motivation. Even now, when a new client approaches her, she still experiences the same excitement as she did in the early stages of her career.
“I think success is being comfortable with what I’m doing,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how much money I make or what exhibit I’m in; I just want to be happy with my work. At the end of the day, as long as a client’s happy with my work and I’m happy, then we’re all good.”
She has completed nearly 50 pieces throughout Chicago. Her work can be spotted at a number of Chicago restaurants and bars, including George Street Pub, Roadhouse 66, SPiN Ping Pong Social Club, Paul’s Noodle Shop and Deja Brew in Oak Lawn. She has also supported local causes such as Green Star Movement and Chicago Cares, having recently worked with other local artists on a mural outside of Horace Mann Grade School.
To learn more about Nora Balayti, visit norakatepaints.com.