CRESTVIEW — An art career that began with exhibits at the Crestview Public Library and the first CALA: Crestview Area Loves the Arts festival has blossomed for a former local artist.
As his art "experiments," as he calls them, turned toward superheroes, E.J. Nieves — gaining fame as N.E.H.S., short for No Eye Has Seen, from 1 Corinthians: 2:9 in the Bible — started displaying at large South Florida comic conventions.
While exhibiting canvasses at MegaCon last month in Orlando, Nieves was approached by Yuka Kobiyashi, Marvel Comics Chairman Stan Lee's assistant of 10 years, who expressed admiration for his work.
"She said, 'I want to introduce you to Stan. Bring me a set of prints for Stan. I want you to sign them for him, and bring a set for Stan to sign for you,'" Nieves said.
The next day he was escorted past a line of V.I.P.s who paid $300 each for the privilege to meet the legendary creator of Marvel heroes including Spider-Man and The Avengers.
"He looks at my print and he smiles. It was amazing," Nieves said. "The only thing that came out of my mouth was, 'Thank you for what you brought to this world.'
"I was speechless. I was awestruck. He was the man who created The Avengers. He was Spider-Man. He was the Fantastic Four."
But the story doesn't end with that encounter with the 91-year-old hero of the superheroes. Kobiyashi had a proposal.
"She said, 'How do you feel about traveling with your art?" and extended an invitation for Nieves to exhibit at Kamikaze, Stan Lee's personal show, Oct. 31 and Nov. 1-2, the artist said.
Teacher by day, artist by night
Nieves creates his pieces at night after teaching sixth through eighth-grade art at Legacy Middle School in East Orlando. As N.E.H.S., his fame has grown, especially following his visit with Lee and an interview on TheRealStanLee.com.
"People have been coming out of the woodwork to support me. They buy my art," Nieves said. "I'm still teaching but I'm still doing my art. I'm up to 2 or 3 in the morning to do my art.
"I've just been asking God, 'What's my next move here?' I love my teaching, I love my kids, but it's really getting hard."
But Nieves is used to the hard life of an artist and encourages young artists to never abandon their passions.
"You have to work hard," he said. "You have to have that passion. I don't encourage people to go bankrupt or go in the hole, but there were many times I was in the red and I had to eat Ramen and dollar hamburgers to survive because I was putting all my effort into my art. Sometimes if you want it that bad, you have to do that.
"This was definitely not an overnight thing. I was not always N.E.H.S. I was E.J. Nieves. I was not always the coolest kid on the block. It took time. I went through my hardships.
"A lot is changing in my life and I'm so grateful to God for it."
"It stands for No Eye Has Seen, and it comes from the scripture 1 Corinthians: 2:9 which states: 'No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those that love him,'" Nieves stated in an interview currently featured on Stan Lee's website.
"A lot of times, I told myself if I ever get my chance, I don't want to show my face too much," Nieves said. "It's almost like a superhero.
"To me it represents that anybody can do this. You don't necessarily know who this ambiguous, mysterious figure is. I like that mystery and that intrigue. I want to capture that in the hearts of people."