Through Her Own Lens

Photographer Nicole Acosta's Hoops Project inspires women to tell their stories

Nicole Acosta photographs a subject for the Hoops Project

Nicole Acosta photographs a subject for the Hoops Project

Sitting at a laminated table of a small McDonald's restaurant in a dusty Texas town, a young Nicole Acosta couldn't keep her eyes off of the picture hanging on the wall.

"I was maybe 7 or 8 years old, and we were on a family trip," Acosta remembered. "There was a portrait of Frida Kahlo.

"I was so drawn to the image, so infatuated with it. I found out all about her. In high school, I was one of the only Mexican students in my class, and I learned all about her all over again. That's when I knew I was going to be an artist."

In the past three decades since her fateful encounter with Kahlo's portrait, the Milwaukee native has become so much more than that.

Acosta harnessed her creativity and trained her eye at Milwaukee Public Schools' Milwaukee High School for the Arts (MHSA), studied at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD) and participated in MATC's respected Photography program.

Today, she's an acclaimed Milwaukee-based photographer, painter, storyteller, dancer, marketing expert and community activist.

"Nicole is a self-described unicorn: an amazing professional artist who is an accomplished arts professional. She's a mixture of talents, a great cocktail of a person," said Rew Gordon, executive director of Mitchell Street Arts (MiSA), which hired Acosta as creative director this past summer. "We chose her from a slew of amazing candidates, and she has been stellar at what she has been working on. We are so happy she is on the team."

Discovering her creative brain

At one point, Acosta's immigrant parents weren't so thrilled about her artistic bent. Born and raised on Milwaukee's south side, Acosta was expected to become a nurse, a doctor or a lawyer. Instead, she loved to dance and took ballet lessons. She played the viola. She saw life through a different lens.

"From an early age I was different," Acosta said. "I was a creative kid. I liked to daydream. My head was in the clouds."

Her parents agreed to let her attend MHSA if she studied visual arts and not dance. It was at the high school that she fell in love with photography.

"For a while you couldn't keep me out of the darkroom. I would skip classes to keep working on things. It became quite an obsession with me," she admitted. "My parents bought me my first 35 mm camera at 7 Mile Fair. They might not have understood what I wanted to do, but they supported me."

She also had supportive instructors who encouraged her and nurtured her nascent talent. "I had an eye for it," she said. "Having the eye means you know that decisive moment — that exact right time to take the shot. No matter what kind of equipment you use, your eye will shine through. You can't really teach it. It's innate."

But after graduating she discovered she couldn't get rich as an artist while being the mother to a baby boy. She decided to go to nursing school. "Bad decision," she said flatly. "Inside, I knew I had to be an artist."

Training her critical eye

She took photography courses at MIAD, Wisconsin's only private, four-year college of visual art and design. She fell in love with the portrait work of photographers Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton.

She enrolled in MATC's Photography program to learn the technical side of the art form and hone her skills. She said she endured pointed, at times stinging, critiques of her work, but she learned.

"At MATC I got to explore my place in the world," she said. "I was pushing the envelope at times."

Still, her dreams of becoming a self-sustaining artist were tempered with the reality of paying bills and raising her children. She dropped out of MATC and earned a degree in marketing at Alverno College in 2016.

After sending out hundreds of résumés and sitting in a dozen fruitless interviews, Acosta landed a job as the marketing manager for Ex Fabula, a community group that hosts public storytelling events and collaborates with businesses and nonprofits. She flourished there and, three years later, took a marketing job at the Milwaukee Chamber Theater.

In 2019, she started her HOOPS project, taking photo portraits of Black, Brown, Indigenous and Asian women wearing hoop earrings and collecting their personal stories. The project received national recognition, became a play performed at the Milwaukee Chamber Theater and is the subject of a soon-to-be-published coffee-table book.

She took photos of women from all kinds of places and professions, including teachers, artists, doulas, creators, healers, healthcare workers, musicians, poets, advocates, mothers, DJs, hair stylists and dancers.

"When I began the HOOPS Project, it had no name and had no actual goal, except to share personal stories and to document what hoop earrings mean to so many," Acosta said. "I realized that adorning oneself with hoop earrings is something deeply personal, ritualistic and revolutionary."

"Many, many people have told me how emotional and impactful HOOPS has been for them. When I hear that, I get re-inspired," Acosta added. "I never, ever thought my art would resonate so much with people."

It resonated so much that in February 2023, Acosta was named the 14th Artist in Residence at The Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee. She set up a studio off the lobby, taking photos, painting pictures and gathering stories from guests and community members.

"We were excited to welcome Nicole to The Pfister and looked forward to seeing her tell our guests' stories through her photography," said Brandon Drusch, the hotel's managing director.

Acosta completed her six-month artistic residency in September. She now is devoting all her time to Mitchell Street Arts collective (MiSA). MiSA has stages for performing arts such as theater, spoken word poety and open mic nights, along with studio and gallery spaces for woodcarving, ceramics, photography and painting.

Acosta is also active in Latinas Unidas en las Artes (LUNA), an organization dedicated to empowering the city's Hispanic/Latino/a artists. Young girls of color routinely reach out to her to ask advice about life and art, she said, and she unflinchingly shares her story.

"I've overcome a lot of challenges and a lot of barriers. There are things I never thought I would talk about but have become more open about. I'm thrilled if my story helps them," Acosta said. "People of color, especially women of color, have felt silenced for a long time. They have been overlooked, underpaid, not taken seriously. At some point I decided I didn't need to wait for permission from anyone. I decided I was going to create what I wanted."

Learn more about Nicole Acosta's work at