Trading in cold Minnesota winters for sunny California is a dream of many Midwesterners. Aleisha Nelson made that dream come true nine years ago when she moved from Shoreview to Santa Clara, California, to pursue a degree in computer science. Now, Nelson lives in San Francisco, where she’s taken on another dream: art.
“While growing up in Minnesota, I did all the winter sports like figure skating but also played soccer,” Nelson says, noting the many times she traveled through the east Metro for sports. But during her time in high school at Cretin-Derham Hall High School, she desired to move out of state for college. “One of my first choices was Boston College, but Santa Clara had palm trees and was super sunny,” she says. “Everyone was in a good mood, and I immediately thought, ‘I have to go there.’” So, she pursued four years of warmth at Santa Clara University with the idea of moving back to Minnesota after graduation.
Although Nelson graduated with a degree in computer science and now works as a software engineer at Walmart, she says she’s always had a creative side. Growing up, she created DIY birthday cards for friends and family and recalls buying books with blank pages to illustrate and write stories. At Cretin-Derham Hall, she enrolled in a drawing class, where she drew a giraffe using charcoal. “Even to this day, I’m like, ‘How did I draw that?’ … It was my first taste of, ‘I could be good at this, and people are recognizing it,’” she says.
In college, she joined the newspaper team and worked on layouts and opened an Etsy shop selling painted sorority letters. “People all across the U.S. started buying them, and that was my second taste of, ‘Wow, I could do something I really enjoy doing and make money from it, too,’” she says. After the National Panhellenic Conference, a support organization for sororities, asked Nelson to stop selling the letters, she wasn’t sure where she’d go next.
“I was getting ready to study abroad in South Africa [with family]—I love traveling with my family—and I was curious about San Francisco because it’s the big city an hour away from Santa Clara,” she says. So, she drew a map of the city, and her friends started asking her about “the map on the wall;” eventually, she began creating maps for friends, family members and sorority sisters.
“I applied to a craft fair in San Francisco … When I got in, I realized I didn’t have enough maps or products, but I did it and thought it was so much fun to see other people do what I love doing,” she says. After using her technology skills to create a more robust website and “officially” starting Art by Aleisha, she began going to more craft fairs around the country.
In 2019, she visited Los Angeles, New York City and Austin, Texas, which helped her grow her customer base and social media. That year, Vanity Fair featured her hand-painted neighborhood maps on its gifting “It List” in three issues. When COVID-19 hit in 2020, she was certain her sales would drop because craft fairs weren’t happening; instead, she noticed a shift to online shopping, and her website sales grew.
Now, Nelson is thriving on social media. At the time of writing, she has 33,000 followers on TikTok and another 14,500 on Instagram. “It allowed me more time to make prints, since I wasn’t traveling, and I was sitting in my room at home,” she says. Her shop has expanded from offering custom maps to include prints, travel totes, film prints and more. “The hand-painted maps are the colorful ones, and I started drawing maps on my iPad with black and white line illustrations, [and] those are the online prints,” she says. “As an artist, it’s fun to be experimenting with new things … I really love to travel, and I love how that plays into the maps that I make.”
Nelson’s custom hand-painted maps are more than just matter-of-fact maps; instead, each piece of art includes special locations, illustrations, personalization and more.
“The thing that is most inspiring … It’s always been the stories that people come to me with why they want to create a map,” she says. “I’ve had people come to me and say it’s their parents’ 25th wedding anniversary, and the map will include places where their children [were] born, where their family business started, where they met and got married. It’s so cool to finish it and hear stories about opening them … People start crying and get really emotional.”
Although many artists use big cities as inspiration, Nelson says she can make a map of any location, no matter the size. “From the beginning, I said I can make a map of anywhere, even if you’re from the most rural place,” she says.
Although her cartography is the star of the show, Nelson says she’s been breaking into a new kind of art: murals. In April 2020, a Cretin-Derham classmate reached out to see if she knew anyone interested in mural work; although she had no prior experience, she signed herself up for the job. “All of a sudden, I was under a contract to paint a mural [that is] three stories off the ground and huge,” she says. “It took seven days, and it’s a really cool location because, when you’re driving from [the east Metro] to St. Paul, you can see it from the highway.”
The Lowertown mural was her first but certainly not her last mural. That company hired her again to paint a life-size three panel art installation for an apartment complex in the Minnehaha neighborhood in Minneapolis. She’s also done murals in people’s homes around the country and is now working on another life-size art installation for a coffee shop in Northfield, Minnesota.
“It’s so fun to be working on new things, and I had so much fun painting the first mural … I would love to do more in the future,” she says. Art by Aleisha started in Nelson’s college dorm room, lived in her San Francisco bedroom for several years and is now moving into an art studio in San Francisco.
As the art business grows, so does her enjoyment of owning her own company. “I would love to run my own business and have that be my only thing,” she says. “Having the computer science skillset has been helpful in random, little ways … Up until now, I’ve had both [computer science and art], but it is my dream to one day be running my own business full time.”
Nelson says Art by Aleisha is growing rapidly, and it’s no wonder considering how beautiful her murals and hand-painted maps are. “It’s cool how meaningful [the maps] can be or how emotional it makes people,” she says. “I’m just so grateful, and it makes me want to keep making them.”