Taming the Beast: From a dingy little studio in East Nashville, artist J. H. Nelson takes a walk on the wild side
by Joe Nolan
Muscovy ducks are the earliest known domesticated ducks in the Americas. They were being raised by various indigenous cultures since before the arrival of Columbus. They’re much bigger than Mallards, with ink-black feathers and white-tufted heads, and their scarlet faces are covered in bumpy, textured skin. They’re odd ducks all right, but also exotic and striking.
These same terms can be applied to the massive, colorful, creature-filled canvases of J. H. Nelson. The first time I saw From A Burial at Ornans—a 4′ x 10′ portrait of nearly a dozen Muscovys spread across three panels—I didn’t know what the birds in the scene were. I guessed turkeys, buzzards, and vultures before Nelson let me off the hook.
“I think they’re beautiful things. They’re beautiful animals, and I just wanted to take advantage of how weird they look,” says Nelson.
The title references the famous, massive painting by Gustave Courbet, which records the funeral of the painter’s great uncle in 1848. At 10′ x 22′ that painting had a scale normally reserved for religious or historic subjects, but Courbet filled his scene, documenting common people at a common event in the setting of their own small village. It was both a massive scandal and a massive success.
“In that Courbet painting, he painted all the people in this village. There is this lovely detail in the painting of these old ladies in white bonnets and white collars with a black background,” says Nelson. “I was like, OK. That’s how I’m going to paint these ducks.” Nelson’s birds bustle against a background of deep-green corn stalks and blue-slate slivers of night sky that finds the ugly ducks looking stately and noble—their black-and-white feathers taking on a formal air.
Nelson’s paintings are full of animals. However, where an artist like Walton Ford looks to Audubon’s naturalist illustrations, Nelson’s menageries are inspired by a childhood spent in rural Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and by the visual language of cartoons.
“I feel at ease with these forms. It’s something familiar, and animals interest me,” says Nelson. “It’s mainly the visual impact of them, you know? We’re not that far from the agrarian society—especially when I wasborn. When I was born, the abstract expressionists hadn’t even showed up yet, or at least they weren’t on the radar.”
Nelson’s West Nile includes a huge, scarlet mosquito as well as the animated magpies Heckle and Jeckle. In Thumbs Up, a troupe of anthropomorphic boars devours a nest of vipers, and Little Orphan Annie signals the titular approving gesture from the safety of a tree line.
The cartoon stuff was part of my visual language growing up. It’s also a part of the latter half of the twentieth century. It’s a visual language that I understand and that other people understand.
Nelson’s paintings also share a layered sensibility that speaks to his education in sculpture and printmaking. His painting Tick Tick includes a bat speaking in a cartoon dialog balloon that is a 3D element attached to the surface of the canvas.
“I’ve got a background in sculpture, and I’ve always been comfortable with three-dimensional elements,” says Nelson, who earned a Master of Fine Arts from Ohio University. “It’s something I naturally turn to if I need it. Painting on a 3D surface was actually how I started painting. You could say I’m self-taught as a painter.”
In Tick Tick, repeating butterfly and tree motifs are layered over the painting’s subjects without claiming the foreground of the piece. Similar graphic elements were incorporated into pop painting when artists in the 1960s embraced the look of commercial printing. For Nelson, their inclusion comes out of years of experience with various printing techniques.
“Printmaking was interesting because of the drawing,” he says. “I’ve always drawn a lot—it’s a constant. You just keep throwing down ideas with drawings, and eventually you find something worth trying out on a bigger scale.”
While their influences differ, a love of large scale is something Nelson shares with Walton Ford, and both painters have a knack for dramatic narratives. But where Ford’s storytelling—in keeping with his visual aesthetics—feels anachronistic and literary, Nelson’s scenes are cinematic. He spent years working in the film industry as a scenic painter and a set designer.
“It’s a language we’re all aware of. We’re all products of film—that’s our language now. My paintings end up being a montage of scenes. A little creature ends up like a character in a play or in a movie. They’re just part of the narrative. You have your character. You have your place. You don’t know where your character will take you, but there is also a sense of place which is a character unto itself.”
Nelson’s painting’s are widescreen affairs that require months of work and carry similarly large price tags. Red dots on a wall at an exhibit of Nelson’s work start at about $17,000 and go up from there. However, it’s precisely the scale of the work and the sales prices Nelson has to ask that have combined to keep his paintings largely unseen. Aside from an invitational show at MTSU last fall, most of Nelson’s work has stayed stored in his East Nashville studio for years.
“They’re so large. It makes it hard for the gallery system to know how to market them,” he says. Tick Tick, for instance, is a full six and a half feet by thirteen and a half feet. “If I knew how to market it, I would, but I don’t. I just don’t let it bother me. The important thing is to keep producing art.” Part of the problem is the lack of serious contemporary fine art collectors in Nashville, paired with the fact that many efforts to cultivate and grow that audience have perversely lowered the prices a collector should expect to pay for an original work of art. Another part of the problem is even more practical.
“A lot of galleries in Nashville don’t have walls big enough to show these,” says Nelson. “Many people don’t have walls in their homes big enough to show these. The good news is that the people who have the room are the same people who could afford the work.”
GORGEOUS, EXOTIC, PUREBRED DUCKS for sale to the right family. Eleven silent siblings. No dropped feathers, completely housebroken and hypoallergenic. Pets or meat. Bring your wallet. Bring your tape measure.
Find out more about J. H. Nelson’s art at