A KISS TO THE HOMELAND
(The Canberra Times 'Panorama' Magazine, November 3, 2012)
Looking out the window one day, painter Kim Nelson finally settled on his next subject, Sally Hopman writes
Kim Nelson is as drawn to his art as he is to his sense of community. And that community is Yass, a township less than an hour away from the nation's capital - but one that could be a million miles away from the fast-paced art world.
For the past 15 years Nelson has lived at Mountain Creek, in the valley of the Murrumbidgee River, a landscape that not only inspires his art, but also that of Fred Williams and Elioth Gruner, as it did the words of Banjo Paterson. Nelson's uncle, the acclaimed landscape artist Leonard Long, was also a regular visitor.
''In my youth I ran from traditional landscape painting because I had an uncle who was famous for it and who insisted there was only one way to paint,'' Nelson says. ''It wasn't that I had a problem with the artform but my perception of the spectrum of art practice was a little wider than Len's.
''I do remember though, a painting of Len's that we had at the farm on the Shoalhaven flood plains where I grew up called Fitzroy Ponds with storm clouds. People used to comment on how well Len did 'those God holes'. I mean, we look at an amazing sunset or stormy sky, we see shafts of light shooting through and, because it's hardwired into our DNA, we think God or at least, sublime … sacred.'Nelson is not alone in his love for Yass country. The Murdoch family property Cavan is not far away and, back in 1996 when Nelson took the giant step of leaving his curatorial career to become a full-time artist, he was rewarded with a commission from Murdoch for five separate artworks of the region.
There have been many more such commissions, accolades and prizes since then, but for this artist, who could work anywhere in the world, the Yass region is home. And visitors can see exactly why this beauty has captured his soul from today when Nelson opens his solo art exhibition, Homeland, at his new second-favourite place in the world - the circa 1887 Oddfellows Hall in the main street of Yass.
''My home is about 20 minutes out of town,'' he says. ''So for the last 16 years or so I have been something of a hermit, living in this beautiful environment and producing work for exhibitions. I think I was getting a bit too comfortable.
''At Mountain Creek I could paint the same spot everyday and it would look different. I've tried to capture with this new collection of work a few of those special times of day where the lighting effect is fleeting.''
Taking on the Oddfellows' Hall, Nelson says, and moving back into town for part of the week ''has caused me to call on all my skills again and that has to be a good thing''.
And, of course, there's the name. ''It's a good fit,'' he says. ''How could I resist?''
But it's not only his own work that Nelson shares with his local community. He also bands together with other creative souls in the region to get their work ''out there'', too, and ensure that Yass doesn't miss out on its share of the arts. He is the brains behind YASSarts (www.yassarts.org), which promotes arts and culture in the region and also initiated Classic Yass (classicyass.com), a celebration of local art and culture, which is also on this weekend.
His charity work is also well documented: from donating a major artwork, Desert Storm to UNICEF Australia for auction to Koomarri in Canberra and the NSW Bushfire Brigade. He was also commissioned, in 2003, to create an artwork to commemorate the Mount Stromlo Observatory after the Canberra bushfires destroyed the iconic structure.
Since taking over the Oddfellows' Hall, Nelson has made it the local hub for arts, both where people can see the artist at work and as a performance space for others. ''Rather than searching for events to hold here, many of them found us,'' Nelson says. ''It seems to be a case of build it and they will come - and they've certainly come.'' The visitors book at already includes harpist Alice Giles, Indian dancer Padma Menon and guitarist Jeff Lang. Music has always played a key role in Nelson's life, regularly accompanying his artwork.
''I always have music playing as I work,'' he says. ''I am a strong believer in the idea of synaesthesia - that music, poetry and the visual arts are part of a single continuum, one prompting a sensation in the other. Music is so integral in the creation of my work as to be inseparable.''
Not surprising really when you consider that this artist, in an earlier life, spent most of his days playing guitar in rock and roll bands, regularly playing support for groups like INXS, Midnight Oil and Cold Chisel.
Nelson runs the Oddfellows' as an open studio where visitors can see the artist at work. The stunning, light-filled space is filled with his pictures, from all phases of his career.
Although much of his early work was inspired by German Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer, today his preferred subject matter is his beloved Mountain Creek.
''Homeland is all about the place I live, the place that so many people live, an hour or so from the capital of Australia, yet a million miles away from all the reasons that I don't want to live in the city.
''One day looking out the window at Mountain Creek I realised it had been a long, long time since I'd simply stopped and appreciated where I live, let alone sat down and painted it.
''I ended up living in one of the most amazing places and I realised I was starting to take it for granted. I was thinking about the theme of my 2012 solo show in Yass and coming up with all sorts of ideas - my problem is I have too many interests. Then one day I woke up and thought, I'm just going to paint some vignettes of my homeland.
''So this exhibition is really just me blowing a kiss to the region in which I live.''
SUPPORT FROM WITHIN
(The Canberra Times 'Panorama' Magazine, February 16, 2013)
Yass Valley's art scene is vibrant thanks to a group of local artists, Jennifer Kingma writes
Just one hour from Canberra in the Yass Valley is the home of YASSarts, a vibrant non-profit community organisation driven by passionate volunteers.
Symbolist artist and community activator Kim Nelson is one of them. On Australia Day, Nelson was named the Yass Valley shire's 2013 citizen of the year.
''The award was a total suprise and it's a little embarrassing, especially when you know as many good people as I do,'' he says. ''But [the award] helps to shine light on so many who are talented and who forget to tell others what they do. The award is an opportunity for me to do this on their behalf.''
Nelson is also a finalist in the $40,000 John Glover Art Prize, the largest prize for landscape art in Australia. The winner will be announced in March.
Thanks to Nelson, YASSarts has a website that features the YASSarts Arts Trail, an annual weekend expose in November of artists' studios, exhibitions, music, dance, poetry, writers' workshops and theatre.
YASSarts is hopeful of receiving adequate funding and sponsorship in the future.
''I spoke to Yass council and tried to get financial support but it wasn't forthcoming,'' Nelson says. "But I thought we'll go ahead anyway. So it's still very much in its infancy but getting to a stage where there are certain expectations to make it more professional.''
Nelson's spacious gallery and studio, once a wool store, is in Oddfellows' Hall in the main street of Yass. In 2011 Nelson's uncle, the landscape artist, Leonard Long OAM, turned 100. It was appropriate that Long's centenary exhibition should be in Oddfellows' Hall and be curated by his nephew.
Nelson acknowledges the talented YASSarts team. ''Chief among the movers and shakers is Al Phemister, an indefatigable spirit and a real character,'' Nelson says. ''Other organisers who've come on board recently are Marie Nicole Meunier, Lizz Murphy and Robyn Sykes".
Phemister, a sculptor, has fresh ideas for the 2013 Arts Trail. He has found a 10-acre field that would work well for Sculpture in the Field with a track around the outside.
''It's used for stock most of the year and is nice and undulating,'' Phemister says. ''It's a nice aspect on the edge of town and gives views towards the hills to Canberra. The paddock is suitable for a sculpture walk and with time it might turn into something more - maybe an exhibition and prize.''
Originally from Ireland, poet and writer Lizz Murphy came to Binalong 31 years ago. She is about to have Portraits, her seventh book of poetry, released.
''We were very attracted to the idea of a healthy lifestyle in a beautiful environment,'' she says. ''We discovered Binalong by chance and totally fell in love with it.''
Once Murphy was a visual artist but became a poet because she commuted with a notebook and pencil, not an easel, from Binalong to Canberra for work.
''We've just started readings at the Binalong general store with Libby and George Elliott, Samantha Jane and Robyn Sykes. It's open to singers and musicians as well,'' Murphy says.
Murphy is pleased to be associated with Sykes, a bush poet. Sykes has been writing bush poetry for a long time and Murphy says, ''is picking up all sorts of championships including Golden Damper [awards]. She's just published her first book and CD.
''Robyn and I had such a good time with the 'Storyteller' project in the Arts Trail last year. We're interested in making 'Storyteller' a regular Arts Trail event.''
The 'Storyteller' idea developed through Nelson investigating the work of the prolific bush poet John O'Brien, otherwise known as Father Patrick Hartigan, a Yass parish priest and one of Yass's famous sons.
Also, according to Nelson the youth in country towns are often forgotten, but not in Yass Valley.
''A bunch of Christian bikies moved to Yass and that's been the greatest thing,'' he says. ''One of them, Kim Wood, works at restoring planes at the war memorial and has helped set up a youth centre called Zac's Place. It's funny because it's a Christian drop-in centre but they pretty much look like bikies standing out the front. They're interested in looking after the youth of the town and stage exhibitions and events such as graffiti painting and air-brushing.''
Nelson's daughter Caitlin is one of the youth movers and shakers. She was head of the local Yass Valley Youth Council, and worked hard to get a skate park for Yass and to encourage youth buskers.
''We've really tried to bring on the youth side of things as part of the Arts Trail and having people like Alice [Giles] out there means that musically talented kids can also get involved,'' Nelson says.
''Up until now YASSarts has been a benevolent dictatorship but I'm keen for it to become a democracy and I believe enough good people have come together now to achieve this. This is my hope for 2013.''
A LOOK BEHIND THE VEIL
An article about artist Kim Nelson by gallery director and arts writer Robert Buratti (2008).
It has been written that art as we know it today began when Man created his first ‘useless’ thing. It sprung from an act not borne from the normal motivations of human survival and ‘useless’ in that it benefitted no one other than its creator. It was an opportunity for introspection, self analysis and later, communication.
When art took on the properties of a holder and passer of information its importance grew immeasurably. Throughout early culture, it became a way of charting daily life, land formations, star constellations, tidal patterns, and eventually myth and magic. In its most interesting mode as a recorder of tribal ritual, the line between artist and the priest became blurred. Visual symbols were quickly established as instruments of power and control, with certain images growing as particularly important tools for expressing complex and reserved ideas. The circle became an expression for the divine, the green man or ‘man of the woods’ became an expression for secrecy and esoteric teaching. The pyramid, the hand, the hair of a woman all found inner meaning when read in a specific context.
The scribes of ancient Egypt were forced to gain permission of the high priest before carving particularly powerful symbols into their public structures, in fear of releasing sensitive teachings or angering the gods. Similarly, to safeguard important teachings, artists learnt to create images that were both exoteric, that is, safe and suitable for the layman to view; and esoteric, those with hidden nature that could be decoded by the more astute and perceptive. These symbols and traditions were carried through the history of art and culture to follow. In the ancient Middle East, front doors were emblazoned with specific images to ward off evil. Renaissance churches were designed in line with the esoteric concepts of Vitruvius to achieve a harmony with the divine. Cities were laid out to conform with symbolic frameworks which would see the inhabitants prosper.
Somewhere in the modern age, our image makers lost touch with this arcane tradition in favour of fashion. In a bid for commercial success, contemporary artists look to each other rather than to the past to find a way forward. In many ways, the future of art, writing and performance can be seen more clearly by looking backwards. Picasso looked to primitive art, Michelangelo looked to Roman Classicism, and Holbein cited the esoteric concepts of antiquity. They joined the long and grand dialogue the painters have created since early beginnings of art, and found a way forward that helped define their age.
The work of Kim Nelson is a contemporary dialogue with this long tradition. He stands alone in Australia as a master of using the symbolic art tradition. A student of ancient culture and its contemporary expressions, his influences range from the early Renaissance to the present day, taking in the gamut of revolutionary concepts borne from these periods of experimentation.
His technical skill is revered by a range of contemporary artist’s intent on equalling his approach. What they fail to notice is that his technique stretches back millennia. His line comes from Albrecht Durer, his light from Vermeer, his shadows remind us of Rembrandt and his concepts are eternal, drawn from the early Renaissance through to classical antiquity. In the history of our great artists we see a steady line of exploration and Nelson is a continuation of this search. Like his optimistic traveller in ‘Beyond These Shores’, he is on the cusp of a new journey with every stroke.
His haunting landscapes have a soul of their own and as can be seen in the ‘Red Shawl’ series, they are far from being a simple expression of Australiana, instead speaking with an original and ancient voice that has seen centuries of life and culture come and go. The landscape that Nelson paints is eternal, full of insight, and we can almost hear it sigh under the weight of silent knowledge.
The figures that populate it are as soft and fleeting as the metaphoric breezes through its trees. In the ‘Muse’ series we are greeted with bodies that fade in and out of our consciousness like ideas or wafts of smoke that tease the light. They are rarely the feature, but are painted as an inherent part of their surroundings, and one gets the idea that within Kim Nelson’s world, the human is second in charge to the grand environments that engulf them.
In their combinations we see the divine. Be it within the grass swaying in the breeze, the red shawl flying on the storm, the glint in the maiden’s eye, or in the peeling skin of a humble onion. The divine resides wherever beauty can be found, and in true Renaissance fashion, Nelson finds the most subtle and suggestive ways of placing divinity and metaphor within his work. The aesthetic qualities of his depictions often run the risk of distracting the viewer from his true intent. His major works demand multiple viewings and numerous re-readings to look past the beautiful form and highly detailed techniques, to truly discover the hidden ideas lurking beneath, and the tiny references to a tradition spanning the history of art. Pulling back the veil on Kim Nelson’s imagery requires an in depth knowledge and appreciation of the original power of the visual symbol.
In looking behind the veil of Kim Nelson as an artist, we see a painter who shows us both the history of art, as well as a peek into its future . . .
ART & CREATION
A testimonial to artist Kim Nelson by author Brian Caswell from the book Nelson: Artworks 1996 - 2010
“STOP!” she shouted, forgetting that we were in the middle of peak-hour traffic. My first reaction was to risk whiplash, snapping my head around to catch sight of the eighteen-wheeler that must be bearing down on us. But there was no truck.
What there was, was a painting. Everywoman for a new century; sensual and strong, yet unassuming; confident, yet private; contemplating her future without fear. She was illuminated behind the plate-glass of a gallery window, commanding the busy intersection effortlessly – and though I could steal no more than a two-second glance, I instantly understood my wife’s reaction.
As soon as I could, I pulled the car over and parked. And thus began one of life’s minor obsessions.
It was 2001, and the painting was the achingly beautiful piece entitled ‘Furs (Symphony for Winter)’. The artist’s name, I discovered, was Kim Nelson – not a name I was at all familiar with. Its ‘old world’ beauty and its technical perfection were more than impressive, but what spoke to me went far beyond technique. Here finally, it seemed to me, was an artist who had immersed himself in the styles and techniques of the past, but had successfully applied them in a modern context.
Naturally I had to have the painting, but sadly it slipped through my fingers – which is another story altogether. However, it led me to meet the artist and gain some insight into his world and art practice – which, in turn, has caused me to reflect on the nature and role of art in the modern world.
The more I learned of his work, the more I came to admire his versatility and the poetic intensity of his vision. His approach is eclectic and unpredictable – realist, surrealist, symbolist, even abstract at times, but always beautiful, with none of the cold, post-modernist intellectualising that so often substitutes for emotion and robs a work of its beating soul. As I have written elsewhere, his vision makes a statement. It is a dialectic spanning both soul and mind, and rejecting the facile compromise, the academic rationalisation.
For a writer, struggling to find a voice in tune both with the sweep of history and the changing tides of a rapidly-evolving world, discovering Kim’s unique artistic vision was like coming home to a place I had only dreamed of.
Psychologist Jerome Bruner speaks of the power of narrative. It is, he explains, how we, as human entities, make sense of the world. Myths and legends – metaphors and symbols – connect us to the universe ‘out there’; acting as a kind of physical/spiritual ‘interface’. Kim’s images speak of connection and separation; of past, present and future melding into a reflection of the sublime.
And isn’t that what it means – should mean – to be human?
I remember once asking Kim how his work was progressing and he expressed frustration “sometimes, everything I think I know seems to fly out the window!” he said. At other times he’s told me that when things go well it’s as if something else has taken over and he is just a conduit. Which is interesting. He wouldn’t be the first to sense that they are just tapping into a wider creative force.
One of Kim’s favourite authors from his youth, JRR Tolkien, also mentioned the role of the artist as a conduit to something greater – that he didn’t consider himself the creator of the Middle Earth mythology in any absolute sense but regarded it as something ‘received’.
Professor Hart of St Andrews University, Scotland, in his lecture ‘God and the Artist’ stated that “…..the work…always comes to the artist as something given and received, and in one sense, therefore, not ‘created’ by him or her at all. Readers and observers of art will find all sorts of things in the work that the artist was not aware they had placed within it.”
Great art can never be an intellectual or academic process – it is created in the soul and in its highest expression, it moves the souls of others. If at best an artist is somehow a conduit of some greater universal consciousness, then it would explain why art is so open to interpretation by those of us who view it. It is, in a sense, the metaphor that unlocks our intrinsic awareness; our conduit to a higher meaning.
In the 21st Century, after two World Wars, numerous recessions and depressions, and a prolonged period of Gordon Gekkoesque ‘greed is good’ materialism, art is no longer regarded as a spiritual vocation, but too often as a commercial ‘career’. In past centuries, however, the spiritual and the artistic were far more closely aligned. Certainly the first artistic responses of primitive man were an attempt to explain the world and universe surrounding him and in subsequent eras many of the world’s masterpieces were created or commissioned in the name of a deeply-held spiritual belief.
Author Jeanette Winterson sees Art and God as akin in recognizing realities beyond the mundane. She puts her faith in the healing power of art. Many have found a spiritually calming and healing quality in Kim’s work. David Jarrard (Middle Tennessee University) said of Kim’s work ‘The Red Shawl II’:
“I find this painting remarkable. For me, the image evokes loss...and hope. It is easily the most spiritually compelling image I have seen in years. Thank you for its creation.”
As someone who can’t write a word without musical accompaniment, I can totally relate, when Kim states that an essential ingredient in his creative process is music. When Kim encounters those ‘stumbling blocks’ in the process of creation – on those days when everything he thought he knew ‘flies out the window’ – it is music that saves the day. He cranks up the stereo to an unreasonable volume with anything from Bach to Nirvana and, he says, it generally gets him out of trouble!
He is a true believer in the idea of synaesthesia – that music, poetry and the visual arts are part of a single continuum, one prompting a sensation in the other. He states that music is so integral in the creation of his work as to be inseparable.
Well, his images have a similar effect on my writing. His eclecticism became the foundation of a character (also an artist) in one of my most successful books, and I have recently rewritten an entire section of my new novel as an homage to my favourite painting in the red shawl sequence – just so that I have an excuse to use the picture on the cover.
But if all of the above suggests that Kim Nelson is an artist with an overly ascetic bent; too serious by far, pre-occupied with translating the ‘human condition’ to canvas; it is encouraging to realise that he still has the ability to stand back and laugh at himself – and at the notion of ‘art for art’s sake’.
One of his fondest quotes is his 8 year old niece’s appraisal of his art “Uncle Kim use to paint trees but now he paints naked women too!”
In your hands, you hold a book that gives just a glimpse of his talent and his importance. It is a book to savour – and one to return to again and again. Each time you do, it will reveal something different – about the world, and about yourself…
Brian Caswell – Author
THE YEAR OF PAINTED FLESH
In 2007 artist Kim Nelson was asked to organize a body-painting project to assist a charity calendar featuring the nude. Entitled ‘The Bare Facts' the calendar raises money for people affected by cancer. Though initially it was envisioned to feature only his work, Nelson enlarged the project to include other artists.
“ I felt we could represent different styles of art as if in a gallery, though rather than hanging on the walls, they'd be on the backs of people in the gallery.”
Nelson obtained sponsorship from Matisse Derivan, an Australian paint company, who were delighted to supply as much body paint as was needed for the project.
The initial project took place one morning in mid July and was loads of fun. Not one of the artists had any experience in body-painting but the feeling of camaraderie amongst the artists, models and assistants was truly inspiring. Best of all, the whole thing was captured for television.
Nelson also went on to design the cover shot for the calendar, this time inviting his friend, artist Anne Hind to do the body-painting honours.
The whole project culminated with a mass nude shot (as per artist Spencer Tunick), co-ordinated and designed by Nelson and staged on the slopes of the Yass River below the historic National Trust property, Cooma Cottage . The bodies were arranged in groups to shape letters that spelt ‘YASS' – the name of the shire in which the charity project took place.
Also, in mid September 2007, Kim Nelson staged a solo exhibition at United Galleries in Perth and, in the spirit of keeping things interesting and different, he decided to do a body-painting to open the show. Needless to say, the gallery going public of Perth had never been treated to an event of this nature at an opening. Once again, the whole thing was captured on film for a news report on ABC Television's ‘Stateline'.
Asked if perhaps body-painting might become a regular fixture of his future oeuvre the artist replied
“ Oh no . . . no, no! It was fun but I also gained a healthy respect for those who do it well, such as New Zealand born artist Joanne Gair . It would be a long time before I got close to that league.”
ICON - A BRIEF RAVE
Basis of Artist's Talk, Salmon Gallery, Sydney, Australia 10 September 2005
Let me start by saying that 'Icon' is a word that has lost its meaning or more specifically has developed dual meanings. In fact, I'll come totally clean by saying I have taken a huge liberty in naming my exhibition ICON as has most of the rest of the Western World in its varying use of the term.
So in an attempt to redress this, I plan to give you a brief synopsis of the history and origins of the word before we take a look at my artwork.
The origins are steeped in legend but it is said that the tradition was inspired from the moment Christ's face was imprinted on the cloth offered to him on his ascent to Calvary. According to tradition, Luke the Evangelist painted the image of the Virgin and, also according to tradition, many of the icons painted by him still exist. As an artist, he painted not only the Virgin Mary, but also those of the apostles Peter and Paul and possibly others. Thus the beginnings of icons as objects of worship.
Then an interesting thing occurred which also creates a tenuous link with the nature and use of the term in the 21st century. Christianity was persecuted and, consequently, open creation of icons became a dangerous activity. So the early Christians reverted to symbols.
We are all familiar with the symbols of the Fish, the Lamb - even the Vine in association with early Christianity. Christ was referred to as the 'fisher of men', 'the good shepherd' or as in the line from St John's gospel "I am the true vine …ye are the branches". Apparently, if one writes Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour in Greek (Iesous Christos, Theou Hios, Zoter) and then groups together the first letter of each word, you have something close to the Greek word Icthys or 'fish'. These were symbols of reverence that the early Christians could use without fear of being detected (at least for a while).
Finally Constantine the Great came along and gave freedom to the Christians, installing Christianity as the primary religion (it was politically rather than spiritually motivated), but he wanted everything neat and tidy. He insisted on just four gospels, a mission statement and an organised religion (the original public servant you might say). Iconography was able to flourish incorporating many of the graphic symbols that had developed during the years of persecution. To this day traditional iconography bears the stamp of the Byzantine era.
Nothing much for the next thousand years until the mid 19th century and a renewed interest in antiquity and traditions. The Pre-Raphaelite movement in Britain professed a love of all things …. well, Pre-Raphael. That is to say, the nature of religious art before it became (in their opinion), contaminated with the excesses of the High Renaissance. The Pre-Raphaelites were echoed in other parts of Europe via artists such as the Nazarene movement in Germany.
In the current age there are still monasteries in Europe, Russia and indeed America that continue in the creation of icons for their original purpose using traditional methods, materials and symbolism.
Which brings me to the conundrum - at what point did the word 'Icon' get appropriated by the media and computer science and vary its meaning. Well basically as we all know, language (especially the English language) is fluid. It's easy to make the connection between movie stars, sport stars et al and the term 'Icon'. They are revered identities, hence they are 'Icons'. This rationale, in the nature of our pop culture, can be adapted to any symbol of excellence that might be aspired to. Mel Gibson even went one step further by titling his new movie production company 'Icon', complete with a sharply cropped graphic of an eye taken from a Byzantine style icon (well a fresco actually - icons are traditionally painted on wood). He was assisted in this by another icon, Mr Rupert Murdoch, who for good measure became a Catholic.
But the use of the term in computer science is a little more tenuous. Words like 'logo', 'motif' or 'signum' were already in the graphic design vernacular, used to describe emblems. But nevertheless, there they are - icons on every workplace and home computer. The word 'Icon' has been well and truly appropriated in the 21st century to describe those little symbols that identify everything from Folders to Text to Programs on the modern computer. However, in a glorious twist of fate it is in this symbolism that it actually connects, no matter how tenuously, to those early Christians who needed something simple, quick and discreet to describe their faith. In a slightly less glorious twist of fate the computer has become something of a religion itself - an object that we all pay homage to whether we like it or not.
THE MOUNT STROMLO PROJECT
Article from the National Trust magazine Heritage in Trust - Spring 2003 - Canberra, Australia.
by Kim Nelson
In some ways I was the wrong person for this job because my artwork is changing – becoming less exacting and what you might call more painterly. Additionally, undertaking projects like this gives the general public a skewed perception of what sort of art I do. Nevertheless, I’m a sucker for a challenge and Michael Hodgkin at the ACT National Trust was an old friend. We artists are way too precious about our image anyway!
So here we go: Back in 1991, I made my first foray into limited editions by releasing an image of ‘Cooma Cottage’, the NSW National Trust property near Yass that I managed. I’d come to know Michael Hodgkin through his work with the ACT branch of the National Trust. I presented their office with a copy of the Cooma Cottage limited edition and I remember him saying at the time “you’ll have to do something like that for us one day”. I told him I’d be happy to help out if I could. I think Mike always had the idea at the back of his mind over the following years but we never really got around to it.
So to cut to the chase, Mike contacted me about four months ago to say that at my last exhibition he’d been very interested in reading about my new ‘Fine Art Edition’ range and the new technology used in their production. (They have a colour fastness of 130 years minimum). He wondered that if we could perhaps do something, finally, as a fundraiser for the ACT National Trust. At this point a subject for the work had not been chosen but I thought it would probably be something like Lanyon. So I went along to a meeting of the board and gave them a run down on the various forms printing and the pro’s & con’s of marketing something of this nature.
A week or so went by and finally I got a call from Mike telling me they’d decided to go ahead with the project and then he dropped the ‘clanger’. They’d decided the subject should be Mt. Stromlo as something of a memorial to the site. Until this stage a decision still hadn’t been made as to the subject so when I heard this, it was like “oh great!…….couldn’t it at least be something that still exists!”
Obviously it was a very pertinent choice, but from my point of view it had ceased to be a straight forward undertaking. Colin Griffith at the Trust made available the original plans but said they had very few photographs available. The ANU are the custodians of Mt Stromlo and I decided it was time I did some research there. Within minutes of visiting the Mt Stromlo archivist & researcher Vince Ford I knew I was in trouble. The photographic archive was not stored at the ANU but in the wing of the administration building at Mt Stromlo – the very building I’d been commissioned to paint and which was now a charred shell of its former self. All that remained photowise were low resolution images on the Mt Stromlo website and it was there that I sourced two black & white images taken by Norm Banham in the mid 1940’s. For colour reference I took samples of what was left of the structure, such as roof tiles etc. The resultant painting is a composite of the two black & white shots with hopefully a colour scheme that is not too out of kilter with what folks will remember.
My preliminary design was met with an equivocal email from Mike Hodgkin that in essence said that they loved the rough, but one observatory telescope is much the same as another and perhaps we should choose a different structure - one more defining of Mount Stromlo.
In the end we sorted it out and, though the idea of painting a building that I’d only seen once in my life scared me to death, I’m proud of the end result. I just ask architectural experts and those who knew the building well to consider the circumstances and take it easy on me!
About the artist
Artist Kim Nelson will be known to many in the Canberra region. He lived for many years at the NSW National Trust property Cooma Cottage near Yass - 11 years in fact. He was the property’s initial manager/curator when it opened to the public in 1988. In 1995 he filled in for Elaine Lawson as acting senior curator of Lanyon and Calthorpes’ House, Canberra, whilst Elaine Lawson prepared the newly acquired Mugga Mugga for opening to the public. The Mugga Mugga logo is in fact designed by Kim. In 1994 Dr Peter Stanbury (then head of Museums and Collections at National Trust, NSW) stated that “Kim is our model manager and news of his proficiency has spread throughout the Trust and into the public realm”
Whilst many an aspiring curator would probably choose to build on this reputation Kim Nelson left that life behind to pursue fine art. It had always been a part of his life, having drawn since his early childhood. At the age of 17 he attended a year of live drawing at the renown Julian Ashton Art School and completed his first commissioned mural in that same year. The need to earn an income led him down the road of graphic design and marketing and he spent ten years in this industry. Another ten was spent working with house museums as previously mentioned.
Since embarking on a career in art in 1996 Kim Nelson has staged eleven solo exhibitions. He has also completed commissioned work for many organisations and individuals ranging from the National Trust of Australia to media mogul Rupert Murdoch. His exhibitions have been opened by the likes of Chief Magistrate, The Hon. Mr Barry O’Keefe QCAM and Investment entrepreneur Mr Renee Rivkin.
Internationally his work graces the walls of corporations and offices such as the Australia High Commission in London and News Limited in New York. He has gifted art and design to many major and minor organisations and charities such as UNICEF Australia, Hope for the Children (Rotary International), Koomarri Canberra, The Smith Family, NSW Volunteer Bushfire Brigade, to name a few.
THE MYTHIC IMAGINATION
An excerpt from a chapter entitled ‘Art as a Symbol of Feeling’ written by Laurence Caruana.
‘The Mythic Imagination: Art as symbol for feeling’ by Laurence Caruana from the book ‘Eyes of the Soul Exploring Inspiration in Visionary Art and Artists’ by Prof. Philip Rubinov-Jacobson
Initially, the art of Kim Nelson seems to share much with Maschka - the alluring feminine figure surrounded by Nature and embodying its soulful as well as sensual beauty. But the longer we look, we also find an affinity with Machalek - a swirling mixture of light and darkness which eventually find their unity in a luminous center. Above all, Nelson’s art is a life-long journey, in search of experience and awakening, to express his ever-expanding vision.
Kim Nelson was born in Kiama, a village on the east coast of Australia. As the fifth child in a farming family, his unusual inclination towards drawing and dreams naturally gave his parents cause for concern. “Dreams actually played a more unsettling role in my upbringing. Nightmares (or rather, portentous dreams) became a regular occurence around the age of nine.”
But, drawing became an instinctual way for him to explore the unusual world of the interior. “I developed a hunger for myth and legend and my interest in art tended to reflect this... At an early age I discovered Albrecht Dürer and felt a strong kinship. I consider him my guardian angel. I was amazed to discover that he had had a dream of a deluge that paralleled my own, and that he had illustrated it in watercolor...”
And so, after finishing high school, Nelson went to Sydney to hone his drawing skills at the Julian Ashton Art School, which emphasized life drawing. “Drawing is elementary to me and fundamental in the development of any artwork. It was the first form of art I did as a child and I find the act of drawing is still the purest and most direct form of expression.”
But the art scene in Australia, with its gallery politics and emphasis on Modernism, soon discouraged Nelson from pursing painting as a career. The next eighteen years of his life were spent in a variety of practical and creative endeavors: “I worked in graphic design to pay the bills and became involved in contemporary music to satisfy my creative needs.” In all, he spent ten years in graphic design and advertising while playing music as a singer/songwriter in bands on nights and weekends.
Then, rather by chance, he found himself as the manager/curator of galleries and museums, such as the National Trust of Australia. “When the music fell apart in 1984 I decided to get out of Sydney for a short break. I took a Graphic Design job in Canberra and ended up with the National Trust.”
But his successes as a curator in Canberra failed to fulfill the deeper longing to express himself through his own paintings. Though he continued to curate and also exhibited as a painter for the next eight years, he was not able to focus on his art exclusively. Suddenly, a series of events made him re-consider his life up to that point.
“In November 1995 a friend I admired died tragically in an accident in Antarctica - he fell from a mountain side that he used to climb every evening to watch the sunset. I loved his passion, he had achieved so much and though he had much still to give, I believe his was a life well lived. His death affected me.."
But this was not an isolated incident. Within that same time period, another acquaintance died, re-inforcing the feeling of mortality as the artist approached mid-life. He was forced to look back and re-assess where he had come from and how much he had accomplished. According, once more, to Nelson:
“It wasn’t till a few years ago when two friends I greatly admired died in pretty much the same year, that I started to review my life. I realized that I couldn’t live with the idea of lying on my death bed knowing that I hadn’t given my gift a chance.”
In 1996, Nelson gave up his career in curating and turned to painting full-time. All the ideas for paintings which he had never had time to express now came tumbling out. He also brought his skills from the previous years in curating to organize his own exhibitions. Now, living and working in the alpine foothills not far from Canberra, Nelson feels that the long circuitous path to a career in painting has offered many unusual experiences and insights: “It has only been recently that I have been able to concentrate on and develop my art and I am only now starting to understand the visionary nature of it. Perhaps it was meant to be a journey and I have been gathering the experiences to channel into my work.”
A fine example of Nelson’s more recent work may be found in When a Saint Starts Hiding Sin (2003). The landscape and the principle figure are charged with movement and meaning. The dark clouds gathering over the mountains may soon obscure the bright shining sun. And the figure herself seems to be suddenly caught unaware of a certain act and its impending consequences. The overall atmosphere is one of expectation. But what imminent event is about to occur?
“This work came to me in a dream and so I drew a rough sketch as soon as I awoke. And that is where it stayed for the best part of a year until I felt confident to attempt a major work. As to its meaning? Well, that was another reason I had to let it lie fallow. I heard the line ‘When a saint starts hiding sin’ and I knew straight away that was its title, without quite understanding why. It has something to do with people and things not always being as they wish to appear. The painting features a setting that is almost biblical, but why is the figure suddenly checking over her shoulder?”
The artist’s own curiosity attests to his use of dreams and the unconscious in creating a work of art. His prescient dreams began when he was still quite young, and his fascination with Dürer developed in part because the great German artist had also once rendered a watercolor of a cataclismic dream foretelling an imminent deluge. That omenous and foreboding atmosphere is also present in this painting. The predictive capacity of the unconscious must never be underestimated. At times, the unconscious is able to warn us of impending events, even if consciousness remains quite ignorant of them.
“I tend to dream subjects up so I guess my work falls into the category of visionary art. That’s not to say that I don’t draw inspiration from the real world but that I am simply predisposed to the other. Ideas come to me ‘out of the blue’ and it is a source of eternal frustration that the actualizing of these ideas rarely match the dream. I’ll be the first to tell you that my dreams far outweigh my skills.”
Feu is another painting that imparts Nelson’s cataclismic vision of the world, but this one is based on an actual event. It evokes the massive forest fires which raged out of control close to Canberra in January of 2003.
“I live fifty kilometers from the capital. For weeks we lived with the smoke pall and we even readied for evacuation twice when the fires came to within two kilometers of my home. If you have ever fought or been in the presence of a large fire, there is little doubt that it resembles a creature, a living entity with a mind of it’s own that is hard to predict. In the presence of Nature’s awesome power we are so insignificant...”
As with the previous painting, so here the artist has concentrated and personified Nature’s power into the form of a woman. Since time immemorial, artists have represented the sublime and destructive powers of Nature through woman’s equally fierce and intriguing aspects. Nelson’s women also have that quality: beautiful and spiritual, at once inviting and frightening.
As with Maschka, Nelson’s depiction of woman is inspired by the thresholds he has crossed over in life. Woman is not the erotic ideal of a young male’s fantasy, but a far more soulful creature where even conflicting qualities may harmoniously co-exist: creative and destructive, attractive and terrifying. The mysteries she personifies lie so deeply in her nature, that Nature herself expresses them through her.
In The Lady of Shalot (1996), Nelson renders his own interpretation of J.W. Waterhouse’s well-known painting, based on a few lines from Tennyson’s poem: “...And at the dimming of the day She loosed the chain and down she lay The broad stream bore her far away, The Lady of Shalott.” In the painting by Waterhouse, the boat with its comely maiden is viewed from the side, leaving her destination unclear. “After viewing the original Waterhouse painting in the Tate Gallery I thought; ‘wouldn’t it be interesting to place the viewer on the other side of the subject, using many of the same components as seen in the painting...”
Nelson gives Waterhouse’s verson a quarter-turn, resulting in his own variation on Tennyson’s theme. Now we can see into the boat, where Nelson has placed a few more personal elements, besides Waterhouse’s crucifix and the three candles. As well, the face of Nelson’s heroine differs: her expression is more inward. Most important of all, we see that her boat is destined for a distant isle.
‘The Isle of the Dead?’ The theme of the ‘boat journey’ returns, as a barque brings its occupent to some unknown destination. Is she setting out towards death? The three candles on Waterhouse’s boat offer us a clue since, as Nelson notes, “the three candles represent three stages of life, with the last candle having just gone out.” But Tennyson’s poem, like Nelson’s painting, leaves the nature of that distant shore vague: “The broad stream bore her far away...”
This leads us to wonder if the woman’s journey is not toward the interior rather than the exterior. “In the epic poem, is the lady’s plight actual or psychological?” Nelson wonders. The inward-looking maiden may have set out towards Nature, but she may soon discover the mysteries that lie deep within her own nature.
Whatever the case may be, it is at once fascinating and disturbing how the artists in this chapter, though generations and continents apart, have turned to the same timeless imagery to express the passage through life. Not only is the mythic boat journey an ever-repeating leitmotif, but we have also seen those three candles before in Maschka’s Know Thyself - elements which, for him, ‘remained enigmatic...’
In Eloe (1998) Nelson offers us an intensely evocative image which moves our vision onto a higher spiritual plain. In fact, certain elements seen in the previous paintings repeat themselves here. The sun, centrally located in the upper portion of When a Saint Starts Hiding Sin re-appears here in the same place. And the central figure of a woman also recurrs, except now she is purely ethereal and angelic. As the catalogue to a 2001 exhibition expressed it, ‘Nelson’s work is a mysterious alchemy of sensuality and spirituality.’ Now spirituality gains the upper hand. In this painting, no landscape is present; there is nothing to tie woman to ever-changing Nature. Instead she emerges as luminous and transcendent.
Interestingly, the artist remarks that, “Eloe existed without the central figure for some time. It became complete when I witnessed a performance of Dru Yoga. In their teachings, letting in the ‘light’ and letting go of the ‘rubbish’ is central... The pose depicted in the painting, though suggesting the angelic, is actually a frozen moment of a Dru Yoga movement...”
This painting freezes a moment in time, and offers an ancient ritualistic gesture from India’s yoga tradition. Such a gesture, when properly performed with a clear mind and open heart, will momentarily transform the person ennacting it. It will center him, body and mind, at a higher level of awareness. As such, Nelson’s painting is also, in the yogic tradition, a pratima - an image for meditation. By concentrating our vision onto it for an extended period of time, we may see our higher Self mirrored in the central figure. And, rising even higher, we may also find our reflection in the timeless expanse of pure light above her - a luminous unity that wordlessly and without images reveals the innermost source of our awareness.
In this way, Nelson’s vision continually expands through those isolated events in life that resonate with myth and mystery. ‘Perhaps it was meant to be a journey’ he had said earlier, referring to his circuitous life-path, ‘and I have been gathering the experiences to channel into my work.’ Those more personal events have been transformed through his art into new mythic icons for our times. With equal emphasis on sensuality and spirituality, the artist has fused images of woman and the world into singular works of beauty and transcendence.
Both Maschka and Nelson, as artists at life’s mid-day, have arrived at that point where they may look back at their accomplishments, and forward to the tasks that await. That backward glance, once it is prolonged, becomes a labyrinthine journey where the artist as alchemist attempts to unite all opposites in himself. Woman appears, in the maze of his mind, as erotic and soulful, a mystery as intriguing and secretive as Nature herself. Caught in the sphinx’s eternal gaze, mesmerized by her wide open eyes, his image of woman becomes an engima without end.
THE LINE, THE CROSS & THE CURVE
Catalogue entry from Kim Nelson's 2001 exhibition at the Trevor Victor Harvey Gallery,Sydney, Australia. (24th August until 9 September, 2001)
Kim Nelson’s August 2001 exhibition at the Trevor Victor Harvey Gallery is entitled ‘The line, the cross and the curve’, a lyric from English songstress, Kate Bush.
"this curve, is your smile and this cross, is your heart and this line, is your path "
In commenting on this intriguing title the artist states: "The title of this exhibition is not so much a visual theme for me as a state of mind ...... following your heart which is your path and facing adversity with a smile."
Kim goes on to say, "Throughout the creation period of this exhibition, I’ve been reacquainting myself with the inspirations of my youth and realizing where I’ve come from. I rediscovered, in the cool climate of Nuremburg, my brother Albrecht Durer and in Toledo, the Spanish skies of El Greco. In the hills of Umbria I came across a contemporary Renaissance master by the name of Massimo Rao. Of course, you will realise, as I haven’t been outside of Australia, my travels have all been in my head. But what a wonderful journey it’s been.
Also over this period my dad was dreadfully ill and in late June he died. I loved my dad. I don’t know of anyone I admired more. Maybe it has affected the mood of this exhibition - maybe not; but it has made for one very frenetic & upsetting period of my life. I wish he was here to open my show.
The point is, there isn’t necessarily a theme to this exhibition, or if there is one it’s simply as the lyrics state. I’m following the heart."
CONVERSATIONS - 10TH OCTOBER 2003
Interview with Kim Nelson from a radio program entitled ‘Conversations’ by Bill Oakes, Canberra Radio Station, Artsound FM
BILL OAKES: Thanks for coming in and having a conversation with me.
KIM NELSON: Thankyou for inviting me
BO: We’ll start off with one of your selections of music. What’s the first one.
KN: Ah….well it’s a bit loud and noisy. It’s by Deep Purple and I first heard this when I was around nine or ten years old.
(Music plays: Speed King by Deep Purple)
BO: That’s a pretty dynamic start. Is that the kind of music that was being played or you were playng back in, whenever it was, the early 80’s or something ?
KN: I still love it but it’s ….. umm ….. no. Actually, by the time I got playing in bands, things had changed a bit and I was changing too. Deep Purple ‘In Rock’ was my brother’s album - I heard it and certainly took it on board when I started playing but as I said things had changed – disco and then punk and all the Nu Wave thing – all that sort of stuff and you know - when you’re playing live, it’s all taken on board.
BO: And of cause that’s what you were doing weren’t you because it seems to me as I said in the introduction, really, music was your main thing - music in Sydney – although having said that you went to the art school first - but let’s stick with music for the moment because music seemed to come over the top of everything else for a while. You had your own band? What did you play?
KN: Well I was pretty bad at playing most things so I wrote songs and sang, which I wasn’t particularly good at either but it was better than my playing! Music was more dynamic than the art scene. It was happening, it was fun. Art - well, I love creating things, and music was part of what I did. I love drawing, I love painting and I’d been doing that since I was very young but the artworld seemed a very ‘stitched up’ and staid sort of outlet compared to music. Contemporary music is young, it’s vibrant, whereas the thought of doing the whole gallery thing and going through the predictable art process just didn’t appeal at all.
BO: Just staying with the music and the composition – does this mean you read music.
KN: Very basic – I’m being sorely tested at present because my daughter is learning the flute (laughs) and she now reads better than I do.
BO: So when you compose do you actually scribe.
KN: No, no. It’s basically, ah, this goes with this and that goes with that - you put it together, you play a few lines, you build on it and a group is a great interaction. You come up with ideas that might not have been there initially – somebody else throws in their ‘two bobs’ worth. But basically I’d craft a song chordally and I’d introduce melody etc.
BO: And where were you performing? What sort of places?
KN: Oh, anywhere that would have us.
BO: As long as you got paid.
KN: No! (laughs). I remember when I first came to Canberra, I worked with a chap in graphic design and he said “Ah, so you’re in bands are ya.” And I said “Yep, what’s it like down here?” and he said “Well it’s pretty pitiful. You’d be lucky to get six hundred dollars a night.” And I thought. Wow! We use to have to pay the pubs to let us play in Sydney!
BO: OK. So it was sort of contemporary ….. and loud?
KN: Not always. I’m giving the listeners a skewed idea. I actually partook in some more traditional things as well. I played mandolin and sometimes recorder in a three piece – pseudo Pentangle come Clannad or whatever. But my main thing, and in the focus of audiences I guess, was rock music of one form or another. We did OK. Extraordinarily enough, it was after I’d given the whole thing a rest for about five years that I actually got involved in the most professional way that I had, and that was down here in Canberra.
BO: And what about your interest now in music? Are you still into that sort of music or do you think it’s evolved?
KN: Even during that period it was evolving. You don’t necessarily get to play everything you listen to and you shouldn’t either. You’ve got to create your own thing. By the time I moved to this region I was listening to everything and various music led me onto other music. You hear something or someone and you find out they’ve played with someone else or this producer had worked with that person and so you go and listen to that music. You gradually grow and grow in listening to music.
BO: It seems to me also that this sort of music is compatible with the nature of the painting you do. Is that right.
KN: It’s interesting actually. There’s some music I’ll listen to when I’m painting that mightn’t be necessarily the style of music I play if I was just listening directly to it. Sometimes you need music that’s going to totally block out all other thoughts. If you have a block or things are not working out with an artwork, it’s best to have something so loud and busy it stops you thinking and you just get painting and eventually a channel opens and it works. Other times, you know ... well … music reflects everything you paint and sometimes the music needed is more ambient, like Loreena McKennit. Not often with me. If I’m having trouble, I need it loud.
BO: Alright, we’ll talk more about painting in a minute, but we’ll take another piece of music. What’s the next one?
KN: Ah. Well this is a classical piece. It’s the Dans Macabre by Camille Saint Saens. I heard this first when I was about thirteen years old. We had a wonderful music teacher at school. We all thought he was and he just loved his music. When he’d play us a piece and we’d study it he’d close his eyes and listen to it. He explained this piece of music very well. What the composer was trying to do. It also has a middle European influence – what I call a Magyar influence – in the main theme that the violin plays. I’ve come to realize I’m predisposed to that culture - not only in music but in faces too. I love that sort of face in my paintings as well.
(Music plays: Dans Macabre by Camille Saint Saens)
BO: I just thought it was interesting that the style of music you’re coming out with is indicative, I think, of your painting, or some of the painting of yours. Do you feel that’s the situation?
KN: It most definitively is. It’s my plus and my negative – it doesn’t pay in music and art to be too diverse. But I am, I love mixing and matching. I love the sweet & sour.
BO: How do you describe your painting? For example, I’ve got some words that have been written about your painting as being “haunting, ethereal, pensive, mystical, disturbing”. Do you see it like that?
KN: I don’t know how I see it. I don’t give it a name. It’s so much jargon at the end of the day.
BO: Well, some of the painting that I’ve seen of yours is a mixture – I’m not an authority on painting – it seems to me that it’s a mixture of physical objects, realistically represented and together with that you also go into design and less representational work.
KN: Umm….. the work that I’ve done is informed by a range of things. I’m obviously very interested in history and mythology - and music, as you can guess. I love myth and works that draw on that. For instance, when I heard they were creating the movies of ‘Lord of the Rings’ I thought “My God! Let’s see how they fare with this.” I love that sort of thing. I’m not a very ‘arty’ artist. I don’t hold much with that. I create. I love the idea of imagery and I love thinking about “how can I approach this”. The Mount Stromlo commission I did recently is just a straight forward format but I was able to introduce a surrealist aspect to it but it’s not very ‘painterly’. (ie. Paint for paint sake).
Other works I do will have a much more textural…umm…impasto feel to them, because that works. I love this hotchpotch, this umm…cooking pot of ideas and putting it together. I don’t see any reason to stick to a field. I think you become your style. You are your style. People who are into my work will recognize it. I don’t think that, even with the diversity in my work that anyone who’s familiar with my work would be fooled. They’ll see something and say “Oh that reminds me of what Kim does” as you said yourself. But it is – ah - diverse and I make no apology.
BO: Do you set out with a clear intention to create a particular image or set of images.
KN: I’ve occasionally tried to create a theme. I love the idea of themes but (laughs) generally after the first couple of paintings it all falls apart because I get a great idea for something else. I think a lot has been made, in the twentieth century, of feel and emotion and blah, blah, blah, because that – ah - agenda was not addressed in previous centuries. You know, the Pope commissioned you this or a rich wealthy patron got you to do that - and you did it. It doesn’t mean that that art didn’t have emotion and feeling. Some of the greatest art in history was created for commercial reasons. It’s just that in the twentieth century the agenda has been all about expressing yourself and there’s been some amazing stuff come out of this. In a sense though it’s become overkill. I think the very doing of art and doing work that comes naturally to you is it’s own expression and as soon as you put it out there in the wider world people are going to interpret it any way they like.
BO: I was going to ask you about that. Do you have some sort of expectation or objective, even, when you do a painting, that you want to create something in people’s minds?
KN: Certainly; I think that’s a ‘given’. Fifty percent of the time you approach something with - ‘this is the desired effect I want’ - this is what you’re trying to get across – whether people get the underlying meaning or not, doesn’t matter because art in the immediate sense, is a visual thing. Then you can start reading in to it, it’s meaning. When I started off in my school days, you know, I’d grown up on the record cover art of the 1970’s. Then I saw Salvador Dali’s work and I thought “Great! That’s brilliant. That works too!” and so in High School I did some fairly surrealist pieces that got everyone’s attention and that was great. Then as I evolved it became a bit deeper and around the age of thirteen I read about Albrecht Durer and felt an immediate connection with this - umm…what was he? - late fifteenth century German artist. He seemed like a symbol of a lot of other things that were occurring to me. I loved the adventure of his life and what he did. So a lot got taken on board and … umm, I thought, well I’d like to show these things and bring these things out in my art. I’ve got a very large grounding in art. I write a brilliant ‘paper’. I can talk the art talk but at the end of the day, as I said before, it’s so much jargon. I do believe in that idea that, what you like, you like and no-one has the right to tell you otherwise. When I create art, I do it for myself and hopefully most artists do. I may not fit into what the art hierarchy call art in Australia but it is relevant none the less and has an audience.
BO: OK, well let’s pause and take another selection of music. We’re trying to pick up six pieces in this program today.
KN: Umm...alright. It’s called ‘Running up that Hill’ by Kate Bush, an English composer. I think Kate’s a present day genius and even her own generation didn’t quite know how to label her. She’d written both of her first hits by the time she was 14 and was signed up by a record company at the tender age of 16. She studied mime and dance with Lindsey Kemp and when the record company finally released her album the first single Wuthering Heights went straight to the top of the charts and they started marketing her as this pretty young thing. It soon became evident that she was much more. Kate Bush is responsible for introducing me to other forms of music in the world and instruments like the Uillean pipes, an instrument I love. Kate’s lyrics are also poetry and not the usual “baby, baby I love you” that seems to predominate contemporary music. She also pioneered one of the earliest forms of ‘ sampler’, the Fairlight, which for those who don’t know, is a keyboard that can transform sampled sounds to notes – for example, glass crashing. Anyway, enough.
(Music plays: Running up that Hill by Kate Bush)
BO: Let’s move on to how the painting came about. You always wanted to be a painter I presume. Was that the story?
KN: I don’t know if ‘want’ is the correct word; I just did it. But then, out of school, you think “well, now I have to make a living”. I didn’t really enjoy the idea of doing more education so I ended up getting a job ….
BO: But first, you went off to the Julian Ashton Art School ….
KN: Well in a sense that was my last year at school. Rather than finish my last year in secondary schooling because I was getting such good grades (laughs) I talked mum and dad into letting me go to Sydney all on my ‘little lonesome’ to attend ‘live drawing’ at Julian Ashton. (Kim Nelson was in the top 10% in the state for Art & English in his final year of secondary schooling)
BO: Now this is ‘live drawing’. What does that mean?
KN: It means learning the tradition of drawing from life rather than still objects like sculptures or photos. You might have to do a thirty second sketch just capturing the essence. Then you might do a set of three minute sketches. Ultimately you get to indulge in a thirty minute one. It’s probably one of the few places in Australia teaching the tradition – the technical aspects of learning to draw what’s in front of you.
BO: What sort of materials? Did they give you a range?
KN: Perhaps if I’d spent more time there but I was working mainly in charcoal and pencil. You could have done painting courses but I figured I’d get my craft down in drawing and know that I can do it.
BO: So it was a sort of tradesman’s approach as to how to draw ?
KN: I guess you could say that. It wasn’t much sought after – I think it’s coming more to the fore again now. In the colleges and art schools at the time there was a strong emphasis on contemporary and self expression - you know; who’s to tell you how to draw – but I wanted to learn that tradition.
BO: After that you went back to the farm for a little while to help your father and then you thought “Nah, I’m out of here.”
KN: (Laughs) I worked with Dad for a period and it was during that period that I started playing in bands a lot, then I finally decided that I had to get back to Sydney. So I answered an advert kept that job for six months …….
BO: …..well that’s interesting because graphic design …..well I know what’s involved but tell but tell me, what was actually involved in doing the graphic design.
KN: Well you can study for or do courses in graphic design. I think the basic is about four years. I didn’t. You can specialize in different areas, especially now, but in those days I became a ‘jack of all trades’, whether it be using airbrush, designing books coming up with concepts for TV adverts.
BO: So you just picked up these skills?
KN: Well yes. I just bluffed to start (laughs)
BO: …and watching other people I suppose.
KN: Certainly – learning from other people, watching what they did and … I was creative. So what I actually lacked in experience, at least I had the ideas.
BO: The airbrush strikes me as something very applicable – appropriate – to the sort of painting where you can swirl about etc. but you don’t use an airbrush now, do you?
KN: I’ve never actually used airbrush at all in my paintings. I used it for creating effects and touching up photos. I did one or two straight forward images for advertising seafood, I think (laughs), but that was about it. I tried it once about four years ago. I got out my good old Olympus (airbrush) because I thought it could prove useful in creating a background to a work I was preparing. Almost gassed myself because I used oil and needed to dilute it with turps. When I was cleaning up I tripped over the tube that connected the airbrush to the air compressor causing the airbrush to smash into the wall. Totally bent the end nozzle and needle so I guess that was God’s way of telling me not to…..
BO: …..I thought you were going to tell me it swirled all over the canvas creating a Pollack style creation.
KN: Would have been interesting to see Jackson Pollack use airbrush !
BO: … well, I mean the idea of flinging paint around. OK then. Let’s take another piece of music. What’s the next one?
KN: The next one is another contemporary. It’s an ‘80’s group called ‘The Fixx’. Even though they may not have been heard of a lot in Australia they certainly influenced a lot of other bands that followed. It’s called ‘One thing leads to another’.
(Music plays: One thing leads to another by The Fixx)
BO: And does one thing lead to another as far as music is concerned.
KN: Oh yeah! (laughs)….and art. All the things of the past have lead up to this moment.
BO: And you’ve said this before, that some of this music does in fact influence your art.
KN: It does to a great degree with some of them – not all. When I first heard/saw Kate Bush I thought “I want to paint pictures like that music”.
BO: When you came to Canberra you actually ended up getting accommodation at ‘Cooma Cottage’ (A colonial homestead near Yass, NSW, Australia), which is a little bit unusual to say the least.
KN: It was unusual. There was a rental crisis in Canberra – I’d started work there and I was staying with friends at Yass and they told me there was a place just out of town that nobody seemed to be taking up the option of renting. When I saw the state of it I could understand why! (laughs). It hadn’t been restored but the National Trust came to the party with the living quarters and so I figured “I can live with this”. I was use to travelling an hour through Sydney traffic anyway so an hour traveling through country side from Yass to Canberra each day sounded infinitely better. So I figured I’d live at ‘Cooma Cottage and work in Canberra.
BO: … and then that lead to a fulltime management job and curatorial role because shortly after you moved there the property was opened up to the public.
KN: I lived there for four years before it was opened to the public so it was beginning to feel like my own place which was foolish of me, but I was invited to stay on after it opened in the Bi-centennial, as manager. A year later there was a bit of a schism in the Trust with the result that it was mooted that certain properties that had recently been opened would have to be closed again due to financial problems. I thought, “no way - not Cooma Cottage”. So I guess I brought to bear a lot of abilities & skills I had in promotions and advertising and we just started running things locally.
BO: What sort of things?
KN: Ah … shows, music, exhibitions, festivals…. and we started making the property viable as a ‘money making’ concern. I think, outside of Sydney, ‘Cooma Cottage’ was the largest grossing income of any of the Trust properties during the time I was there. I should have been taking a commission! (laughs). So - yeah - in a sense, without doing a formal degree in curatorship via university, I actually did it on the job. So that opened up the invitation to fill in for Elaine Lawson with the ACT Museums & Galleries back in 1995.
BO: At which time you moved from ‘Cooma Cottage’?
KN: Yeah, at the end of 1994. I’d been there eleven years, unbelievably. So I filled in for ‘Lainie’ in 1995 and when she returned I thought I’d take a part time position with them as a kind of safety net whilst I got my art started but it didn’t work. I had to make the ‘jump’.
BO: Yeah. Well that’s a big decision really, to say “right, I’m now going to be an artist”…..
KN: …..very scary…..
BO:….going back to that original quandary years ago that you didn’t know whether you could make enough money out of being an artist.
KN: It’s also having the facilities to display what you do. You see, I fall between the cracks a little in terms of the artworld in Australia. It’s not that people don’t like or want my art it’s just that there’s pressure to fit into the Australian art scene. You know “what are you, what are you !? We need to title & package it”. If you’re left or right of that, it can be hard. So I initially started marketing myself and staging my I own shows. I’d been doing it for everybody else for so long and I’ve got to say everything worked to plan and at the end of the day I gained an advantaged position and had a gallery come to me. But that’s another story.
BO: Yes. Well let’s take another piece of music and we’ll get back to a couple of your recent projects. What’s the next one.
KN: Well, this is not necessarily a favourite because there’s a lot of her stuff I enjoy. It’s Loreena McKennit and the piece I’ve chosen is ‘Two Trees’, mainly because it starts out with the Uillean Pipes, an instrument as I’ve mentioned before, that I love. It’s a piece of music based on a poem by Yeats.
(Music plays: Two Trees by Loreena McKennit)
BO: That sort of music touches on Symbolism as well.
KN: Yeah. I guess with her and Kate Bush, they harken an almost ‘Pre Raphaelite’ romantic era which certainly played a part in what I’ve done in the past.
BO: ….because it seems to me that you reflect in different ways, things like that. Even when you’re doing a painting of a particular object that might seem unrelated. Let’s just talk about one of them for example. The most recent one is the Mount Stromlo project.
Just to describe that quickly, it’s a scene pre-fire of the Mount Stromlo Observatory. It shows a couple of the buildings, trees and bushs around it and it’s also got – umm - a sky of sorts – a big sky background which I thought was appropriate in terms of Mount Stromlo but let’s just talk about that because …. you do mix up your presentation of the actual imagery, don’t you?
KN: I do. In this case it was a necessity for one reason. ‘Stromlo’ is not an example of the sort of work you’re going to see at an exhibition of mine….
BO: ….but parts of it are though ….
KN: …..well this is the point. I made a commitment to myself back in ’96. I want to help out with my art in whatever way I can to assist charities and organizations. So ‘Stromlo’ was a version of that. When they commissioned me to do ‘Stromlo’ I thought “mmm….well ….”. It wasn’t a definitive charity arrangement so I thought should I do this? In the end I decided I liked the people. I’d known Mike (Hodgkin, National Trust of ACT) for a long time and I thought, it is a challenge because, well it doesn’t exist anymore for starters! Then I found out the photo archive had been burnt as well (laughs). So I thought, “how can I do this the Kim Nelson way whilst remaining historically accurate”. Obviously they don’t want anything too bizarre because it’s a fundraiser - it had to be appealing (a limited edition print has been created of the artwork). So I thought we’ll mix the surreal with the real and see what we come up with. I created the building as architecturally correct as I could under the circumstances. I found two small low ‘res’ black & white images on the Mount Stromlo website that had been taken during the 1940’s by Norm Banham. The foliage was quite young so it gave an uninterrupted view of the building, though not in great detail .
BO: There are very vibrant colours in the building.
KN: Well it’s almost like a night shot of the structure on a full moon and I thought “my trademark on this will be the sky”.
BO: Yes terrific. I think the sky is lovely.
KN: I think it makes it – otherwise it’s just an illustration of a building and well, you know, that wouldn’t be Kim. So I chose a significant celestial body, the ‘Tarantula Nebula’. It was fascinating – and this is a case of “how am I going to paint this, how am I going to paint this! Which technique, what way can we approach this to get the most out of it”. Well the building itself needed to be fairly flat and exacting but with the background sky I decided on using a glazing technique which I’d learnt of when reading about some of the great artist from the turn of the last century like Howard Pyle & Maxfield Parrish. By glazing I mean using a transparent colour and building up the modulation of colours. Consequently, because it’s not opaque, light is able to travel through the layers giving a wonderful glow to the colours. If you spotlight this painting well, the sky really glows.
BO: I was looking at this quite closely and the sky itself is sort of – umm - waves of different colours.
KN: … mmm …I was fascinated by the effects of cosmic gas as viewed through the telescope using various filters. I thought “Yeah, that’s just what I want”.
BO: I thought it was very attractive, actually.
KN: I’ve done a few works in the last couple of years that harken this – semi abstract – on that very theme. They are called ‘Eloe’ which means Spirit. So I thought, “here’s a chance to introduce this idea in a more conventional format”.
BO: It’s highly spectacular. Actually I thought … and I guess this is a topic for another painting …. Just doing one of the sky. It really is – umm - tone on tone. Well, that’s probably not the right description, but it’s different tones which make up the sky, then within that you have star clusters and that sort of thing – the nebula. It’s highly spectacular.
KN: It’s subtle isn’t it. I got that one right. Pity about the building ! (laughs)
BO: … and just one more little thing – down the bottom of the painting I guess you could say it’s abstracted almost.
KN: It’s dripped away.
BO: Dripped away?
KN: Sometimes I’ve ruined a painting by ‘finishing’ it. (laughs)
BO: I see. O.K….
KN: I’m not the first to use this technique – for instance, the Australian artist Tim Storrier seems to enjoy the effect. You ‘wash’ a work in and build on it. Only in this case some of the preliminary wash is left showing and, well, you know … this is not a photograph folks, this is a painting. Here’s the main event (the building) - it’s highly finished. Then as you get towards the bottom there, it’s a suggestion of grass and then you can see the workings underneath.
BO: Yes, some of the bushs are also faintly astracted/impressionistic?
KN: Something like that.
BO: It’s a mix of styles …. and this is Kim Nelson is it? This is the modern ….
KN: (laughs) This is the ‘Oddfellow’! (reference to the ‘Oddfellow Exhibition’ that Kim Nelson was staging during this period). Well I suppose. I don’t know. It’s part of what I do. It’s not borne out to a great degree in this painting but over the last couple of years I’ve done a few paintings just experimenting with the idea of the spontaneous splash, drip or whatever and building on it. You see, there’s that mix and match again. I have the technical ability to render something realistically, perhaps even photorealism …. But what if – umm - you mixed the unfinished - the spontaneous – with the highly rendered and well, you know…. it’s a great effect. It’s great fun messing with the rules. It’s just creating.
BO: Great! My guest has been Kim Nelson, who’s an artist. Thanks for coming in and having a ‘Conversation’ with me.
KN: Well I hope I made some sense (laughs)
BO: It was great. Let’s go out on your last selection of music. Who’s this
KN: Ah! A person who messed with the rules a lot – mixed a matched. Jeff Buckley. This piece of music is entitled ‘Grace’ and when I first heard it I knew I’d just witnessed something special. If there was an equivalent in music to what I’m up to with art, it would be Jeff Buckley.
An article by Joanna Litchfield relating to Kim Nelson's artwork 'Desert Storm' . (Canberra Times 27th November 1994)
One late July day in 1990 while on holiday in London, artist and departing curator of Cooma Cottage (the National Trust property near Yass NSW), Kim Nelson witnessed a startling event that was to haunt him for four years. It was close on lunchtime in the grounds of the beautiful church of St Martin-in-the Fields when through the crowd stalked the figure of an angel.
He towered over three metres tall, his face was deathly white and instead of radiating peace and goodwill he appeared shackled and vagrant-like. He was heralded by a tiny, gnome-like creature dressed in a World War I helmet and jacket above a crisp ballerina’s tutu.
"It was an amazing sight," Nelson recalls. "This was street theatre and as it progressed it transpired that the tall figure was a fallen angel and according to legend or mythology, when an angel falls to earth some ill is enacted on the world. I overheard someone telling their partner that this was a Belgian theatre troupe.
"None of the things I had seen affected me quite as much as this. I decided that if I was ever to be true to myself I must get this down on canvas, paint a picture about the troubles in the world, war, famine and natural disasters and how innocent people, everyday folk are caught in between, helpless to do anything against the might and power of such catastrophes. Desert Storm, the painting, was conceived there and then.
"A day or two later I was on a plane back to Australia and within a month Iraq and the United Nations were at war."
Commitments prevented Nelson from putting brush to canvas until a few weeks ago. Since 1988 he has worked as a curator/manager for the National Trust of Australia. He expresses regret at having not worked on the painting the moment he go back to Australia, saying he feels it may lack some of the magic and emotion of the moment.
Whatever his misgivings, the painting is an immensely powerful work. Measuring almost three metres by two, Desert Storm epitomises the horror of war, the chilling fear of its innocent victims, the threat of worse to come and the inconsolable grief of loss.
The scene is the desert; in the left foreground a terrified woman clutching a distressed infant looks back as she flees a flimsy campsite. Behind her the last of the blue sky is engulfed by streaks of fire and then the black storm itself. In the centre of the painting, seeming to rise out of the canvas to dwarf everything, is the fallen angel, bars of lightening following the leading edge of his enormous wings to be earthed far below. The right side of the painting is darkness save the eerie glow of the aftershock of lightening and the final touch added just two weeks ago, an olive branch.
Nelson is still not sure why he felt compelled to paint Desert Storm but even while the project was still in the planning stages he decided it should be donated to some organisation that might benefit from such a gift. He contacted UNICEF who were delighted by the idea.
He sought sponsorship from Scan-Larson-Juhl, one of the country’s largest frame manufacturers. Not only were they prepared to donate a frame, they also suggested the addition of a newly developed molding which they were about to release; its name "Desert Mirage". For Nelson, the jigsaw puzzle was beginning to fit together.
Desert Storm, complete with olive branch, occupied the entire length of Nelson’s tiny studio at the National Trust property Cooma Cottage, until its recent move to the Anthony Rose Gallery in Yass where it will remain on view until the UNICEF handover.
Sculptor and friend, Marlie Kentish-Barnes popped into Nelson’s flat one day and viewed the painting.
"That’s Frederick," she said, pointing to the figure of the fallen angel. She explained to Nelson that she knew the troupe quite well. Though they performed regularly overseas, their home base was Sydney. With the jigsaw now complete, it is hoped that the troupe will be in Australia to be present at the time of the official handing over of the painting to UNICEF next month.
The painting Desert Storm marks a new era in Nelson’s life, its completion and his impending departure from the National Trust have cleared the way for the progression of his art. Although he has had exhibitions in recent years his consuming work for the National Trust has left little time for painting. Were it not for his time a Cooma Cottage however, Kim doubts he would have reached the decision to devote all his time to art.
Nelson was born in the Australian east coast town of Kiama and grew up in Nowra, some fifty kilometres further south. Throughout his school years a natural aptitude for drawing provoked his parents into sending him to the renown Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney where he studied drawing. He diverged into graphic design & advertising in the years that followed and it was when he accepted a graphic design job in Canberra that he stumbled across the National Trust property Cooma Cottage. He started living there in 1984 and when it opened to the public in 1988 Nelson accepted the role of manager/curator turning it into one of the National Trust's most remarkable success stories.
Nelson seems to have been an integral part of Cooma Cottage. Although he will be missed in his present role, his love of the Southern Tablelands will hopefully keep him and his family nearby and ‘Desert Storm’ and other inspirational works to come will ensure he is never forgotten.
THE DOLE OF THE KING'S DAUGHTER
An essay by Diane Hickey – August 2001, University of New England, Australia
The artwork that I have chosen to discuss is the "Dole of the Kings Daughter" painted in 1999. I first saw this painting on a post card in a local art gallery. I fell in love with it immediately because of the beautiful girl who amazingly enough reminds me of my younger sister. The postcard did not have the full painting, only the top half and I did not realize until later when I started to do some research that there was a man in the painting at all. The painting is an oil on canvas, 750 x 950mm and although I have not seen it in its entirety I imagine that it is an imposing art work with its mystical feel and its life like figures.
The use of line in the grass surrounding the lake invokes a sensation of texture and the flowing lines of the girl’s robe convey a gentle blending with the scene. The delicate flowers on her bodice and the design of her gown suggest cultural association with the medieval times and contrast with the nakedness of the man and the angular lines of his chest.
The eye is immediately drawn to the figures in the centre of the painting; this is the positive space. The negative space or background is equally important in this painting as the two spaces are intrinsically melded. The use of the oblong in the centre of the work gives the feeling of depth or looking through a window into another world. The size of the figures in proportion to the water, trees and hills in the background and their placement lower in the painting also gives the illusion of depth.
I cannot be sure of the actual texture of the painting but there is a visual illusion of texture. The fine quality of brushstrokes used for the girl’s hair give it a soft, wispy quality and her face a milky, translucent glow. The water appears to be flowing rapidly and the use of a lighter colour and the downward brushstrokes towards the front of the picture gives the feeling that the river keeps flowing even though the painting stops.
;The colour in this painting is visually appealing. The rich colour of the girl’s gown and hair contrast with the flesh tones in the man’s body. The intensity of colour in the centre as opposed to the surrounding frame draw the eye inward and gives the impression that you are being pulled into the painting. The use of the blue, green and grey give a cool hue and contrast, yet complement the colours in the figures. There is a balance and harmony in this work achieved through the choice of subject, colour and the positioning of the figures. There is also a sense of closure, as your eye tends to finish the shape of the figures and the surrounding scene.
The Dole of the King’s Daughter is a traditional Breton poem translated and made famous by Oscar Wilde. While researching this essay I found a copy of the poem at a Celtic website and have included it with my essay. The painting is based on that poem. After reading the poem I have a completely different slant on my perception of the painting. Unfortunately I think the King’s daughter killed her husband to be with her lover! All that and she still has that beautiful serene look on her face! In seriousness, I feel that the artist has portrayed a sense of love, passion and warmth in his painting. This is a theme common to many artists and is also reflected in other works that I have viewed by the same artist. There is a look of melancholy on the girl’s face, which is contrasted in the face of the man, which is unreadable due to his relaxed state.
Over the last few weeks I have carried a picture of this artwork with me to ask others their feelings about it based on their first impressions. I had an overwhelmingly positive response. People from varying age groups identified with the natural setting and admired the beauty of the painting. My two-year-old daughter has been carrying the picture around saying that it is "Aunty Chrissy", so my initial feeling that it reminded me of my sister was correct!
This painting appeals to my own interest in the medieval theme and its Celtic origins. The poem it is based on gave me a deeper insight into the painting and a greater appreciation of what is happening in the scene. After appraising the work my impression has changed slightly but my appreciation of it has not faltered. It is a fine piece of work and one, which Kim Nelson should be proud of.
Diane Hickey is studying for a Bachelor of General Studies/Teaching with the University of New England, Australia.
The above transcript was part of an essay for a unit on Visual Arts and Music.
The Dole of the King's Daughter
Traditional Breton poem that inspired a painting
(Breton poem translated by Oscar Wilde)
Seven stars in the still water,
And seven in the sky;
Seven sins on the King’s daughter,
Deep in her soul to lie.
Red roses are at her feet,
(Roses are red in her red-gold hair)
And O where her bosom and girdle meet
Red roses are hidden there.
Fair is the knight who lieth slain
Amid the rush and reed,
See the lean fishes that are fain
Upon dead men to feed.
Sweet is the page that lieth there,
(Cloth of gold is goodly prey,)
See the black ravens in the air,
Black, O black as the night are they.
What do they there so stark and dead?
(There is blood upon her hand)
Why are the lilies flecked with red?
(There is blood on the river sand.)
There are two that ride from the south and east,
And two from the north and west,
For the black raven a goodly feast,
For the King’s daughter rest.
There is one man who loves her true,
(Red, O red, is the stain of gore!)
He hath duggen a grave by the darksome yew,
(One grave will do for four.)
No moon in the still heaven,
In the black water none,
The sins on her soul are seven,
The sin upon his is one.
BEYOND THESE SHORES: SOME THOUGHTS
This exhibition reflects on the nature of journeys both outward and inward and of course, the spiritual - the 'corner stone' themes that every artist seems to cite ad nauseum. In a sense, the practice of art is a journey and in this body of work I have tried to focus on that.
In my experience with the artworld though, the balance between verbal expression of what the artist is trying to 'say' and the actual expression itself (ie: the artwork) is currently weighted, heavily, towards the rhetoric. With this in mind I will try to keep any dissertation upon the theme of this exhibition as brief as possible.
In heading to Europe with my wife & daughter late last year I was tangibly making a connection and rekindling those things that had inspired since I was very young. I don't know why history, myth and legend have intrigued me since childhood - why the life and times of the German Renaissance artist, Albrecht Durer, resonates with me so strongly - why I'm predisposed to faces of middle European decent - or simply why I don't need a road map when finding my way around Britain! (generally speaking …) and so on. I'm sure New Age philosophy would put it down to past lives - and that's fine. I'm open to all possibilities. But I do know that much of what inspires me lies beyond these shores.
The title 'artist' is a loaded one these days, full of portent and urban myth. As a child I created things intuitively and not through some innate wish to be an artist. I put off undertaking a career in fine art for years partly because the artist stereotype was alien to me but mainly because the things I wish to create fell between the cracks of art practice in Australia. It wasn't going to be easy. Fortuitously though, in a book about the work of artist Jorg Schmeisser, my attention was drawn to the poem Ithaka, by C.P Cavafy, and I remembered it wasn't about arriving somewhere in the world of art, (especially not by someone else's rulebook) but rather what you gain on the journey.
When you set out for Ithaka
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way
not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth
Ithaka gave you the splendid journey
I suppose I could write of many things that have influenced this exhibition. Perhaps the legend of the voyage of St Brendan for instance, which is basically an allegory for the ultimate leap of faith - or the idea of a 'Modern Sacred' in art as espoused in the work of contemporary Australian artist Richard Clements and (in my opinion) the contemporary Italian artist Massimo Rao, both of whom are sadly lost to us now. The influences are endless (as is art) and ultimately lead to the works you see before you which, hopefully, will speak for themselves.
If you are reading this, then you have probably come to my exhibition and for this I thank you. I would like to dedicate this show to the memory of the two artists previously mentioned - Richard Clements and Massimo Rao.
"The life that burns twice as fast shines twice as bright"
- Kim Nelson
BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD
By Michelle Matic
Kim Nelson is a contemporary artist living and working in the foothills of the Australian alpine region not far from the nation's capital, Canberra. While most art administration students dream of becoming a well known curator or director, Kim Nelson left that life to become an artist. For ten years he held a position as a manager and curator for the National Trust, he also filled in as a senior curator with the ACT Museums and Galleries in 1994. However, in 1996 Kim Nelson left this successful career to become a fulltime artist.
"I didn't plan on being a curator. In Sydney I worked in Graphic Design/Advertising by day and played at nights in contemporary music. I had my own band and wrote the songs but bands are made up of the delicate balance of egomaniacs and inevitably someone will leave just when you're prepared to hit the 'big time'. We played up to three times a week, sometimes twice in a night, and practiced twice a week. When it all fell apart in 1984 I decided to get out of Sydney for a short break. I took a Graphic Design job in Canberra and ended up living at the National Trust property Cooma Cottage for 4 years before it opened. I didn't get back to Sydney!"
In 1988 the National Trust property Cooma Cottage was opened to the public and Nelson was asked to stay on. He accepted the position, thinking it would be a good chance to get out of advertising and start his personal interest in painting whilst caretaking the property. However, in 1989, with the pending closure of some National Trust properties due to Bicentennial overexpenditure, Nelson submitted a proposal to head office suggesting that if he could make the property successful, it could keep open and trading. Through a range of events and exhibitions he managed to make more than enough to keep the property viable and the National Trust elevated him to the title of a Manager/Curator. Nelson says his career as an artist went out the window through his obsession of making the property work. In late 1994 he was offered a temporary position with the ACT Museums and Galleries to fill in as a senior curator for twelve months, due to his success with the National Trust. "So you see, I became a curator by accident."
"I stumbled into curatorial work... it allowed a greater freedom in my creativity and opened me up to worlds I scarcely considered in Sydney. In Sydney my world was insular, tied up in advertising in the day and being a 'Rock Star' at night. I had no concept of other peoples' lives and what was important to them." Nelson did eventually manage to create artworks whilst working as a manager and curator at Cooma Cottage, but found it was quite difficult. To him, painting and curatorial work were literally two careers and he felt he was unable to give his art career the necessary attention. Even so, between 1990 and 1994 Nelson had four exhibitions which he believes that although successful, lacked focus and aims. "I was just desperately getting work together when I could and showing it with whoever would take me. You must also take into account that the art I wished to pursue fell between the cracks -there weren't the galleries out there prepared to show my work." Even when major galleries wanted to show Kim's work- none could really see a ready market for the full spectrum of his artworks and ideas.
Although other curatorial positions were being offered, there was a turning point in Nelson's life that forced his decision to pursue art fulltime, "My father, one day years ago, had absently said that he didn't believe that I really wanted to be an artist. Though I have a great relationship with my dad, that got my ire up." Nelson even remembers the father of a long time friend who used to talk to him about how he painted in his youth. "He was a good artist, but the constraints of having five children had forced him to be practical. He said ..."one day I'll get back to it"... because he loved it. He never did. Then in November 1995 a friend I admired died tragically in an accident in Antarctica - he fell from a mountain side that he use to climb every evening to watch the sunset. I loved his passion, he had achieved so much and though he had much still to give I believe his was a life well lived. His death affected me and it intoned the old saying that life is short and if there is something you want to do you should get on and do it."
Throughout 1996 to 1999 Kim Nelson represented and marketed himself utilising the skills he acquired in graphic design, advertising and curating. This empowered him with the confidence to run his own art exhibitions. "I have a sense for marketing and I understand the media. Though it was difficult, money and timewise, I felt it necessary in obtaining an advantage position; that is, I wanted to be able to approach a dealer of my choice with credentials - a career in progress so to speak."
It was during the lead up to Nelson's first Sydney exhibition, representing himself, that he realised he was potentially heading for a loss, however, he resiliantly utilised his contacts,and the exhibition forged ahead. The show was organised with the help of his brother Tony and some close friends. "Friends of mine are property developers. They made available a site they were developing in Camperdown. The site...was good, a wonderful space with huge semi circular windows. It had been a show room. They put in a basic hanging system and some lighting, though the windows produced a wonderful natural light. We got some other sponsorship in the form of printing and radio advertising. The radio company owned two separate stations so we had advertising with two different audience demographics." They needed some form of publicity for the exhibition, Nelson's brother Tony (a radio producer) had produced some radio advertising for the flamboyant stockbroker Rene Rivkin, so they asked him to open the exhibition. Providing that he liked the work, Rivkin agreed to open it. He did and he bought three works. Nelson had 250 people at the opening and it was stippled with personalities, some offering promises of future exhibitions. "For a week or two every body around knew who I was - I even got stopped once in the main part of Canberra for an autograph!" Nelson says "Your main hit is the opening night and in this case it worked." Nelson has basically used similar principles for his other exhibitions in Canberra and Yass with the added advantage of knowing the dynamics of the region, as well as basics such as learning how to present a media release that keeps their attention. "These are things I would have learnt through my promotional work in museum/galleries and tourism. And you tend to build up contacts."
Currently with representation from the Trevor Victor Harvey Gallery in Sydney, Nelson most recently seems to have been gravitating to the theme of the life cycle in his artworks, it was in fact a theme of his last show in Sydney. Nelson believes that it feels like the last four years have been a learning process with a backlog of twenty years of paintings, that have remained undone and are now being vented. "I feel like I've been sending myself to art school trying out all these things in my little studio. I think it is panning out now a bit". Nelson's most recent exhibition in Yass, April 2001 'Works on Paper', was like a foray into one subject area, not so diverse.
In terms of inspiration, Nelson believes that "sometimes, perhaps 50% of the time, ideas will just come to me but inevitably these must be fuelled by a whole range of experiences and influences. At other times I may just be flicking through a magazine and see a face or a sky that will initiate some form of creation. Occasionally the good old-fashioned inspiration will come through a dream or enter my head whilst mowing the lawn or travelling and these are the times when you really feel you are just a channel for something beyond yourself." Nelson has always been attracted to mythology and it's parallels to the human condition, he is also inspired by the many elements of different art fields, yet he finds a connection to symbolists, and artists who can call upon mythology in their work.
At present, Nelson paints predominately in oil purely out of necessity. " I cannot afford a range of materials and I don't have a lot of time up my sleeve but ultimately I would like to work in a range of mediums. I have just completed a course in traditional Lithography (working on a lithostone). I can sculpt in stone and wood and model in clay. I have worked in watercolour & gouache. I started out totally in acrylic and I have learnt the tradition of egg tempera. In graphic design I used an airbrush daily but have not picked this instrument up for fifteen years. In graphic work I have also used most things and more often than not I will use a brush & ink in the tradition of the illustrators."
"Even in advertising and curating I was still being creative. When it becomes repetitive and mundane, those are warning signals - not to quit but to re-examine what you're doing and why you're doing it." When considering success, Nelson says "I think I had some measure of success as a curator because I didn't yearn to be one! I loved the National Trust property I'd come to call home and I wanted to see it succeed. With Cooma Cottage, I had a mission." Nelson also feels that another by-product of being a curator is that now he has an empathy for galleries. Partly due to the way he raised money to run the property. Nelson curated 'money making' exhibitions, including an Arthur Boyd show. "I had to make it work, which placed me in the precisely the same situation as every commercial gallery in Australia."
He also feels that for someone who is so aware of the principles of marketing he is his own worst nightmare. "Though an image/style may be developing in my art, it is uncontrived." states Nelson. "I am constantly treading that fine line of what makes good sense marketing wise and being true to myself. I do believe though, that if you have faith in what you do, you will ultimately succeed and marketing is just a by-product. Success in this case is making a living doing something you love. It doesn't mean it's all smooth sailing but if you're being true to yourself, that is some measure of success."
Kim Nelson quoted from an interview with Michelle Matic, April & May 2001
Artwrite Authorisation: Associate Professor Joanna Mendelssohn
© University of New South Wales • College of Fine Arts