photos by Steve Coray
Ever since she can remember, Lori Nelson has called herself an artist. Growing up in a small orchard town, her artistic influences were limited, but her first trip to Spain as a foreign exchange student opened her eyes to a world of art. She became aware of the tremendous power art can have and was able to apply this awareness to her own work. She cites the French Nabis painters as a major influence. To the Nabis, a picture had meaning only when it possessed “style.” This was achieved when the artist succeeded in changing the shape of the objects and imposing contours or a color that expressed the artist’s own personality. This “style” is apparent in Nelson’s artwork as she allows her memory and personal perspective to dictate the rendering of her figures and landscapes. The result is a pictorial, almost childlike style, but with intensely layered emotions.
In her upcoming exhibit at Phillips Gallery From This Remove, Nelson continues to reveal her thoughts on subjects including motherhood and marital and romantic relationships. Although relationships are a significant subject for her, the artist uses words such as “distant,” “removed,” and “solitary” when describing her work. Nelson’s figures often occupy a large portion of a quiet foreground and appear to be completely uninterested in the world behind them. She explains, “We are all alone, ultimately; especially in the harder moments of life – even if you have other people around you. But I think there are different kinds of being alone.” Although distance and solitude have developed as themes in her art, family has always surrounded Nelson, providing her with a strong support system. In fact, it was her mother who encouraged the artist in her and gave her the confidence she needed to, as she describes it, turn her childhood into “careerhood.”
Lori Nelson grew up in Grand Junction, Colorado. One of five children, she considered herself an independent child whose mother encouraged the unique qualities in her. A schoolteacher informed Nelson’s mother of her daughter’s drawing habits during class time, but instead of reprimanding her, Nelson’s mother took the behavior as a cue to enroll the young artist into pastel classes and enter her drawings into as many competitions as she could find. Ever since, art has been a dominant aspect of Nelson’s life. There was a short blip in high school involving a failed cheerleading tryout, but Nelson now sees that mishap as a fortunate experience that guided her to focus more on her painting throughout high school. She attributes her success and confidence to her supportive upbringing. “My mother planted the idea that I was an artist at a very early age, so I didn’t feel like I needed to go to school to become an artist.” Yet, she went to college to pursue an art degree anyway.
After spending a year in Spain, Nelson attended Brigham Young University — for “a minute.” The housing policies didn’t agree with her independence so she transferred to the University of Utah where she was free to rent a one-bedroom apartment and live on her own. She received a Florence Weir scholarship to the U and earned a BFA.
Nelson values her college education, but she isn’t too quick to attribute much success to her university training. She had a difficult time with the strict academic work in Paul Davis’ class. Take one glance at a Lori Nelson painting and you’ll understand why. Most of her work is inaccurate and painted from memory. She prefers her figures be less academic and purposely paints her backgrounds in a childlike manner. Nelson is the first to admit her buildings would fail the perspective test. “I like the idea that I’m painting something I remember and it’s kind of a gauzy, filtered memory. I’ve stared really hard at trees and buildings to see how they are and how they work, but I don’t want to get too focused on the physical reality of something, because that’s not what I’m getting at. When I was weak in my drawing, Paul Davis would say, ‘Before you can paint like a child, you need to paint like an academic.’ I think there’s something to that because you understand what you’re doing rather than resorting to what you’re doing.” Nelson believes her classes at the university proved to be a benefit, providing her with a constant critique on her work.
When first examining one of Nelson’s paintings, a dark and dismal feeling might envelop the viewer – a feeling that could be attributed to the greenish-yellow palette the artist uses. She starts with one color and then spiders out from there. It makes for an eerie light that she can’t get enough of. Nelson is well aware of the weird feeling it evokes: “My husband calls it dirty fish tank lighting. There were two experiences I had when I saw that color. About five years ago we were at an estate sale, and the previous owners must have been smokers because the walls were this gorgeous color of yellow from all the smoke and nicotine from the past 50 years.” Another time she saw a cloud that looked to be a similar color. “I always refer to that cloud and that light whenever I think about painting the sky. I couldn’t understand how it got to be that way. The air was yellow. It was an eerie moment and I always go back to that color.”
The nature of her figures (often women) might also contribute to what one might call a melancholy mood. Nelson paints primarily plump, fleshy figures that control a considerable portion of the canvas. “Traditionally in art, women have been big enough to fill up the space on a canvas. When I used to paint them very small, it was about that person being frail or weak. I’d rather they look substantial and strong.” She used to paint figures in a way that more resembled herself, but she started adding more layers to them so they didn’t necessarily come across as self-portraits. It is important to Nelson that the viewers relate to her figures, enabling them to better identify with the story she tells.
On the surface, the people she paints seem downhearted, but to Nelson, some possess a comedic quality – in a dark way, of course. She has only one explanation for those who comment on the somber nature of her work: “I run each painting through the test: is this cheesy or is this not cheesy? And I guess I concluded who needs another ‘Painter of Light?’” The subject matter often involves a collection of personal impressions or how she remembers feeling at a certain moment in time. She openly admits to the autobiographical nature of her paintings. She can’t avoid the fact that as her children get older, the children in her paintings get older. Perhaps she finds humor in the figures because, in retrospect, she finds humor in her own behavior when it comes to being a mother. “Sometimes when people paint about motherhood it can be really awful and sentimental. I want to paint about the reality of motherhood; concerns and feelings that aren’t always addressed.”
Nelson addresses some of those concerns in a recent work titled, “In the Distance.” The mother in this scene is completely unaware of what’s happening with her children out in the hallway. She lives in a different reality than her children at this moment, as she seems to be swept away in her own romantic world. Nelson describes the dog as the only responsible figure in the painting. “My dog will sometimes stare at me until I come downstairs and see what’s happening with the kids.”
Because she’s a mother of two young children, Nelson doesn’t have all the solitude other full-time artists might enjoy. “Sometimes I tend to be isolated anyway and my kids keep coming after me and coming after me. It’s something I need to work through because I feel some guilt about it – especially during this age where there’s a lot of attention on the stay-at-home mom. They’re pretty good about being on their own, but I do feel like I have people chasing me all the time when they’re around. But I feel like if I’m painting when they’re at home, I’m painting during their time. So if I do paint while they’re here, we negotiate a time when I can make it up to them.” When her children are up in the studio they can be a distraction, but she says they’re very uninterested in what she’s doing. She claims if her kids came into the house and she was baking, that would generate more interest and distraction, as it would be a departure from normality.
“I pretty much let my kids raise themselves, much like the way I grew up. That’s more my tendency and I feel a little shame about that just because there’s so much in the media about parents being the anti-drug. I think, ‘Oh, no, if I’m not the anti-drug, what’s left?’ But I have a feeling that they’re doing all right because I enjoyed growing up that way.” Just like her children, Nelson wants her paintings to become independent of her. “I like the idea of starting out with a story and letting it walk away with the notion that it can survive on it’s own. That way I don’t need to hold on to it.”
The Nabis painters Nelson so admires often signed letters with D.T.P.M.V.E.M.P. which stands for dans ta paume mon verbe et me pensee. Translated into English, this phrase states: “In your palm my word and thought.” Lori Nelson’s word and thought consume her canvas, owning each color and contour. Her imagery is thick with metaphor, emotion, and satire – revealing her innermost feelings and desires. But Nelson chooses to remove herself from the story and allow the viewer to interpret her work according to their own experiences. “You want [the painting] to be able to tell its own story whether its one that I started or one that the viewers are connecting on their own. I like something that can reach people in a different way. That, to me, gives a little bit of life to my paintings.”
Laura Durham works for KUED Channel-7 in the Creative Services Department, curating community engagement projects for both PBS and KUED productions that foster trust and value to the communities in Utah. She also produces Contact with Mary Dickson and Contact in the Community — a digital series featuring arts and culture groups in Utah. Prior to her work at KUED, Laura spent 15 years at the Utah Division of Arts & Museums in the visual arts program and later managing communications, branding, marketing, and public value projects for all arts and museums programming. She has served the Utah community in various capacities with her role as Vice President of the Salt Lake Gallery Association and Program Director for the Salt Lake Gallery Stroll. She lives in Salt Lake City, sings with Utah Chamber Artists, and loves to contribute to 15 Bytes as often as time allows.