Unlikely Pairs: Interview with Artist William Nelson

William Nelson
Artist William Nelson is known for his paintings that depict unlikely pairs, groups, or figures interacting via sharing the same canvas space.

Artist William Nelson is known for his paintings that depict unlikely pairs, groups, or figures interacting via sharing the same canvas space. From Hollywood film icons to nostalgic comic book environments, William uses his work to reveal a narrative. As he declared in a quote from an official press release:

“The nature of a comic and the personas of the movie stars, presented in the ethos of the Hollywood studio system, act as blank canvases for us to project our personal experience, principles, and standards of behavior.”

In his most recent series., William uses the setting of New York City as a muse. This latest collection explores the synopsis of notable movies using figures that audiences should interpret, and reinterpret, to explore the link between the figures. Among the works featured are:

  • Munich, inspired by the German silent film Pandora’s Box, Lulu (Louise Brooks) is a young woman with many “patrons.” She is so beautiful and alluring, no man nor woman can help but to fall madly, deeply, hopelessly in love with her… and despair. She stars in a musical production, prevails in a struggle for a gun, and escapes her manslaughter trial with the assistance of men under her spell and a fire alarm.
  • New Orleans, features Ann-Margaret from The Cincinnati Kid, where “The Kid” takes on “The Man” in a high-stakes poker game in New Orleans, hoping to become “The Man” himself. The Kid is tempted by his best friend Shooter’s wife Melba (Ann-Margret), an unlikely Queen high straight flush makes an appearance as well as a penny pitch with a shoeshine boy.

Currently, William Nelson’s paintings are being exhibited at Cavalier Galleries, which have gallery spaces in New York City, Nantucket, MA, Greenwich, CT, and Palm Beach, FL. A solo show of his work is scheduled to debut in Fall of 2022.

William NelsonWilliam Nelson recently discussed his paintings and career via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your talent for art and how did you get into painting per se?

William Nelson (WN): When we’re kids, we like to create with all kinds of things: blocks, sand, crayons. I liked pencils and I liked to draw. For most kids, art is drawing, drawing is fun, and, for me, it was instinctive. I’ve always been a competent draftsman and I have improved with instruction and practice. While I never had a sense of discovering a talent, I have always recognized that image making was part of my life. Painting was a different matter; it took a lot of effort to achieve a level of competency. Oil painting was the sandbox I wanted to play in and still presents its challenges. I liken it to snow skiing, if you have the right gear, some natural ability, and training, it’s fun. You’ll learn good technique and have a great time until you veer off trail and find yourself in trouble. You can climb up and find another way down, the painting equivalent of taking a turpentine-soaked rag to the canvas or rely on guts and instinct and break every rule if that’s what it takes. That’s where the fun is. That’s what got me, and keeps me, into painting.

MM: How did you develop your unique style and why are movies and famous people of such interest to you?

NW: My style of painting is less a conscious decision and more a result of my studio practice. I give my best effort first drawing the composition in charcoal, which inevitably falls a little short. Then, I scumble it in again with oil paint and dry brush, refining and correcting. Next, I use pigments and medium to paint it again, add more corrections, paint it again, and again, doing my best not to lose the drawing in the process. It is undeniable how inextricable the painting and drawing processes are. Then, in its own sweet time, the painting reveals itself and, I do my darnedest, to stop before I foul it all up. My temperament, personal bias and maybe a mild case of OCD, play a role as well. I like a painterly quality. I work fast and loose, and I make a big mess. But, In the end, I want a neat and tidy painting. I am not concerned with photorealism, but I want to be convincing. I like my colors to work together so I mix a limited number of pigments. Influences make their way into my paintings in theme and composition. My recent work has an obvious Alphonse Mucha vibe, but my style is consistent.

William NelsonFirst Steps: Concerning the movies and the famous people that are of such interest to me, you may know the scene in The Field of Dreams when James Earl Jones talks about “the one constant through the years has been baseball.” I get it. I’m a Yankees fan. Not like my wife, Dana, who rocks a Yankees coffee cup and Christmas stocking. However, for me, the one constant through the years has been the movies. I grew up in Florida before most people had air conditioning. When it was unbearably hot, some combination of my neighborhood pals, my brother Ben and I would ride our bikes to the lake or the movies. We saw great movies like The Sting and the Sound of Music, bad movies like King Kong vs. Godzilla (I think it was half dubbed and starred Raymond Burr) and our parents took us kids to see Bonnie and Clyde at the Drive-In- good movie, bad idea. Later, Star Wars and Jaws, Apocalypse Now, and Animal House, then I went off to college. At the University of Florida, I studied Art, Bio and was an under-sized overachieving Academic All-SEC Linebacker for the Gators. Game weekends were the best. By Friday the work was done. We goofed around on the turf for a while, then, piled into buses and, with police escort, went to dinner as a team – fried chicken or prime rib. Half of the guys preferred fried chicken. Go figure. After dinner, back on the bus and off to the movies! Movie night before the Auburn game we saw First Blood starring Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna and Brian Dennehy. Auburn had a young running back named Bo Jackson, however, the next day we took Auburn down like John J. Rambo took down Sherriff Will Teasle.

Later that year. I moved to New York City so I could finally grow up to be an artist. I met this cool girl. The girl with the Yankees coffee mug. I’d cajole her to play hooky with me and go to the movies in the afternoon when the theaters weren’t so crowded. We continue that tradition to this day.

William NelsonMM: How did you break into the art world and get your paintings accepted in galleries across many major cities?

NW: About seven years ago, I needed new representation. Ellen Nettles at Art Now Management advised me to go old school and print a booklet of my new work and send it snail mail. The theory being that galleries get thousands of emails daily from artist that go right to spam. So, I sent out 300 booklets from MagCloud.com. Right away, a beautiful gallery in Florida offered me a solo show with a nice ad budget, but then their funding got pulled and they unexpectedly closed. I received lots of positive replies, but I thought I was cursed. Something always seemed to be in the way; famine and locusts, no; bankruptcy and untimely death, yes.

Then, I got a call from Ron Cavalier, President at Cavalier Galleries, with locations in Greenwich, CT, New York, NY, Palm Beach, FL and Nantucket, MA. He said, “I’m coming over.” Later in the week, he showed up at my studio, looked around, and with a laugh (which at first concerned me) muttered, “I can sell this stuff.” We made a gentleman’s agreement and when we shook hands, he told me to expect a call from his gallery director. He also mentioned that he made the trip to make sure my work was actually paint. The next day I met with his Gallery Director Lindsay Ebanks, who just dropped off her daughter at school and arrived with her snoozing toddler in a car seat. She immediately arranged for a pickup and two months later I had a solo show at their gallery location on West 57th St. in New York City. After the first year alone, the gallery had sold 18 paintings – for reference, I make about 17 paintings a year. Recently, Ron also placed my work in the prestigious and beautiful LewAllen Gallery in Santa Fe, NM.

William NelsonMM: Out of all your paintings, do you have any personal favorites?

NW: When asked about favorites among my paintings, I have two answers. I like the second to the last piece I completed best. Paintings always change as they come into being. Sometimes I change my mind, and sometimes, they change my mind. Every painting ends up a little different than the way I planned. Sometimes that annoys me. Until I start the next one. Then I appreciate how hard it is to close the deal on a piece. The last 10% is murder. Debbie and the Fight has special meaning for me. It was part of the Nexus show. Debbie Reynolds, with a gleeful smile, is fully aware of a violent altercation behind her but the playful expression of the painting empowers examination of a challenging subject. That’s where the action is. Not the fight or Debbie’s smile but the conversation that is instigated in between.

MM: How did you come up with the concept for your latest series and why did you decide to base it in NYC?

NW: In this series, I substituted the comic characters – who offered a contradictory force in the paintings – with location. Location along with elements of the movie narrative where the figures were appropriated, present a different kind of complimentary force. These paintings are more subtle, perhaps more mature, than others, but they are not lacking for the tension that makes a good piece buzz to life. New York does have a strong presence in the series. It is where I spent my young adulthood. New York is where I met my wife and where we got married at the Epiphany Catholic Church. It is where I earned my MFA at the School of Visual Arts. It is also where our two sons were born at St. Vincent’s Hospital. I decided to base many of the pieces in New York City because we are of New York City.

William NelsonMM: How did your childhood impact your creativity?

NW: My childhood stunted my creativity. I had a lot of catching up to do when I got out on my own. For far too long, when I had something to say and paint something I was passionate about, it was inevitably something ticking me off. As a result, I created a storage problem of numerous large, dark, personal paintings. My problem was I confused anger for passion.

Then, I had one of those Oprah Aha! moments. I knew I did good work goofing around painting my young family, so I switched focus and started painting only what I loved. I remembered a conversation with one of my art foundation instructors. “You draw funny,” she said, then continued when she saw the look of disappointment on my face, “not funny, bad. Like funny. You’re funny!” With that once forgotten conversation in mind, I started to have more fun with my paintings. Another conversation that comes to mind happened in a figure drawing class at the Art Students League. The instructor worked his way around the room to my easel and said, “absolutely magnificent,” he was referring to the model. She was absolutely magnificent.” Then addressing my work, “it’s convincing.” I try to make my models absolutely magnificent.

William NelsonMM: What have been the highlights of your career as an artist?

NW: Highlights of my career have to be my work at Cavalier Galleries. I have participated in numerous group shows and this fall will be my fourth solo show with Cavalier. Thank God making art doesn’t age out. Paul Cezanne, who laid the foundations for art of the 20th century, had his first solo show in 1895 at age 57. I hope my highlight reel has a few frames left.

MM: How do you hope that your artwork and career will evolve over the next ten years?

NW: As I get older, I do less things better. Things I do better include conceptual and physical painting. I’ve been told I paint like a much younger guy. I don’t know about that. I couldn’t paint like this, say, 10 years ago – more baggage, less wisdom, not to mention about 10,000 less hours logged. As far as career evolution goes, I can only control what I can control. For the next ten years I’ll be putting the work in. Deo volente.