Interview: Jan Anders Nelson


Name: Jan Anders Nelson

Where do you live: Gig Harbor, Washington, USA

Known for: Photorealism, Drawing, Painting

Currently working with:
Oil on canvas & panel, drawing with color pencil, graphite and pastel on rag, photography.

When did you realize that you were going to work with this/in this area?
While being active in art from a very early age, I explored music and theatre (acting, directing, dance and scenic design) until realizing that I worked best in a studio rather than in ensemble and that drawing and painting were the activities where I could establish the creative rhythm that works for me.

If you could choose one place only to live, where would that be and why?
I truly love where I live, the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, the mild maritime climate, inland waterways, rain forests and snowcapped mountain ranges all call to me. This is home.

How would you describe your creativity?
This is about a compulsion, a need to organize and describe what I see through the mediums I use in painting or drawing. My thoughts on creativity circle around a core concept that all creativity occurs when the equilibrium is disrupted, chaos breaking down order allowing for new patterns to emerge. These patterns emerge for me as I move through life with my camera which serves to freeze a new insight that I can refer back to in my studio.

How and when did you start to work with this in a serious manner?
I found my place in the studio as an undergrad in the early 1970’s and while I left it for a time am very happy that I have found a path back over the past few years.

What do you do at the moment?
I work for Microsoft Corporation as a software engineer when I am not in my studio. Being an artist/engineer is certainly not a new phenomenon, I find that the parts of me that engage in the studio are the same as when I am inventing a new algorithm or system. The artifacts of that effort are software programs and patents. At times I see the patents as being equal to conceptual artwork in how I approach my creative efforts for the benefit of my employer.

A recommendation for those who think about starting and running a creative business?
If you are compelled to do things your way and have a the self-confidence to fail repeatedly in order to learn how to be successful and the drive to keep on pushing past the dark times in your career then go out and jump into your passion! Find a group of like-minded creatives and feed the community there as well as take back the energy from the group. You need this, else the isolation can become overwhelming.

Find a mentor, someone who will show you where the path lies, providing some guideposts along the way. It is crucial that this person not try and turn you into a small version of themselves. I was once advised to stay away from art schools populated by stellar art figures, quoting Brancusi “Nothing grows under a large tree.”

I think this advice is very important. There are many who will pull and push you to get what they need or what they think you need. Take what they offer, but drive yourself, do not be driven by others.

Tell us how it all started.
My parents are musicians, I grew up being placed on a stage at a very early age when needed for a musical or play. I took music lessons for voice and instruments for the first 20 years of life, starting at about age 6. Even with all the music focus, my mother always had a lot of paper, watercolor, pencils and crayons for me to use, encouraging me to make art when I was home sick. I believe that those early years were very important to my finding myself in the studio intent on making art as a college student. It really was an evolution through the Arts, an exploration of music, theatre an dance on my way to becoming a studio artist.

What is the most important thing in a workplace/studio for you?
Space and light.

What is your favorite film?
The 1972 film “Silent Running”. The visuals in the film include the geodesic geometry of Buckminster Fuller and an environmentally charged story line that resonates today with the reality of climate change. This film coupled with my study of Fuller’s work, writing by Rachel Carson and living in a throw-away culture of mass-production sharpened my worldview of thinking of our planet as “Spaceship Earth” and the need to care for our ship if we want to survive.

Who would you like to invite for a dinner and why?
If choosing from living and/or dead, then I would love to spend an evening with Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Buckminster Fuller, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Leonardo Da Vinci and Amadeus Mozart. Asimov and Clarke were amazing futurists and storytellers. Fuller brought us engineering and geometric concepts of tensegrity, synergy and structural forms based on his study of the nature of things. Chardin was a great scientist, philosopher and conceived of an evolutionary path for the Universe he called the Omega Point, and a path for humanity where we evolved into Omega Man, with a collective conscious that transcends the individual and becomes a part of the Universe. Da Vinci was a fellow engineer and artist, and though I do not presume to be as talented as Leonardo, I would love to talk! Mozart clearly also could see or think in patterns and turned those into glorious music. His genius would complement that of the other dinner guests, and I would like to get his opinion on his favorite music if he were conversant with everything created since his passing.

How do you like to spoil yourself?
Going to a quiet restaurant with Connie, my wife, and close friends where we can enjoy great food over a leisurely dinner and relaxed conversations.

What is luxury for you?
Time. We only get so much of it and have no idea how much that is. Spending my allotment of time doing what I want to do is perfect luxury.

What is the nicest compliment you’ve received for your creative work, and from whom?
I love hearing from folks who like what I do, it always feels good to get a compliment about my work, whether commenting on skill, imagery or both. But the highest compliment I have received comes when someone wants my work in their collection. The most recent of these was a couple of weeks ago when Terry O. Herndon asked if I would sell him a painting I did  in 1978, that it represented the “end piece” of his 40 year collection of American art dealing with the impact of the automobile on our 20th Century.

Being included in an important collection that includes major artists like John Sloan, Ansel Adams, Jacob Lawrence, Thomas Hart Benton, Stuart Davis, Guy Pene Du Bois and Wayne Thiebaud and identified as creating the work that Herndon has described as that “end piece” capping the collection is very humbling and exciting. The way in which this came about is even more substantial to me, that a fellow artist, Eric Green, felt that he could recommend my work to Mr, Herndon. That act of support means a lot to me.

What do you fear most?
I am not sure I know what monsters lurk under my bed at night, but maybe one thing that drives me is an idea that when I take my last conscious breath, it will not be with regret. I guess I fear regret for a life not lived.

What is a happy life to you?
Happy… My wife and I are healthy, our children out in the world in pursuit of their passions and time every day when I can make art. Interludes with friends and family at dinner, in gatherings. Time in the mountains or by the lake. Travelling the planet.

What does a regular day look like for you?
Up early, spend an hour at the computer working on engineering work, dealing with emails that come in overnight, maybe check-in on social media to see what other artists are posting. I try to also spend a little time first thing on the work I have on my easel before heading into work.

The balance of the day during the week is all about software engineering, though I have a drawing table in my office and spend time there on art when I need a break from engineering. The works done there take months to complete, but it does allow for some studio time in that place.

Then back home where Connie and I can decompress from the day over dinner, perhaps take in a movie and then spend another hour at the computer cleaning up the day’s work before spending the last of the day at the easel.

Tell us about your dream project.
I am working on it right now, a series of paintings that I am calling the “Dirty Picture Show“. This collection of paintings is a record of my time spent in walks through forests, fields and salvage yards, taken with my Nikkormat FTN and Nikon 50mm lens four decades ago, the slides recently recovered and in their existing state, complete with dust and scratches. This added layer of patina is now a part of the record and so a part of my story.  

When completed in about a year from now, I see the works are consisting of 8 – 10 paintings 24″ X 24″ that look like the original slides, plus 4 larger works 36″ X 48″ that are just the images contained in some of the slides. I also think that when I hang this show, I’ll include a room with a carousel slide projector and a 36′ X 48″ blank canvas where an 11th slide is projected, a workstand next to the canvas with my mechanical pencil on it, allowing anyone who comes to the exhibit to work on the layout of a painting.  

I might also provide a collection of paints and brushes for participants to use to paint into the layout as they see fit as a second act to the work. The imagery on the website are mockups of the paintings.

Who is your professional role model/inspiration?
Don Eddy has been my major mentor and longtime friend over the past 4 decades. His work ethic and skill are exemplars for anyone who considers being a studio artist, his creative process and personal philosophy are inspirational and his abilities as a mentor have helped me remain focused on my own creative efforts.

How would you describe your work style (academic field or fashion style, or both, or something entirely different)?
My work style has academic or historical influences to be sure. My tools are very traditional in the sense of using oil paints, pencils, brushes… But I also use digital photography, Photoshop, video projection and whatever new tools I can find that fit with my vision and project needs.

Which is the one thing you can’t live without?
The support of my wife and soulmate.

What inspires you?
Creative inspiration feels mostly like a continuum for me, with one project leading to the next. The points within that flow are moments when I stop and focus on what is happening around me using my camera to take notes as someone earlier would have used a sketchbook. There are individuals that I find inspiring as well, in how they are committed to their passions and the work that creates.

A book that has changed/made the most impression in your life?  
“Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking” by Buckminster Fuller.

This book helped me think about how it is possible to order the magnitude of all things possible in solving a problem into the macro and micro aspects as well as a construct for defining a 4D framework for considering solutions to problems. I was fortunate to be able to discuss a little of this with Fuller 40 years ago when he came to the Pacific Northwest to deliver a series of talks.

Connect with Jan via Facebook
Read his blog and check out his awesome website

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