Ellen Nelson is a little hungry.
The 26-year-old painter works in her Kalamazoo studio in the Park Trades Center four days a week, all day, making oil paintings that can take up to two months to complete, eating the same kind of sandwich — Tofurky with lots of fixings — every day.
“I’m probably the most Type A artist you’ll find,” Nelson says, laughing. “When I was a kid, my mom always said, ‘I don’t care if you’re digging ditches. You’ve got to do your best.’”
For that reason, Nelson says, she eats just enough food so that she’s a little hungry all day. “It keeps me alert,” explains the Kalamazoo-raised artist. “I want to do the absolute most quality work I can do. It’s a very spiritual thing in here, you know?”
The windows of her studio space are open, and large, heavy curtains are blowing into the room. Eight of her largest paintings, each 4 by 4 feet, line two walls of a common area. Four slightly smaller paintings lean against another wall. Nelson wears all black clothing with leather boots. A bright floral travel cup sits on the table where she normally paints, her canvases propped on a chair.
Since graduating from the University of Michigan with a B.F.A. in art in 2013, Nelson has been creating series of paintings — related by the intention behind them — with names like X-Communication, Standing Room Only and Bridging the Distance. She shows her work at least once a month in both Kalamazoo and Detroit. Here she is a founding member of the Alliance of Kalamazoo Artists, a group that came together three years ago to share information and tips about the business aspects of being an artist. In Detroit she is a part-time member of the studio collective Riopelle.
Bridging the Distance, the first painting series Nelson completed after graduation, began with Animals, one of Nelson’s most compelling paintings: a radial collection of animal parts painted realistically, with glistening aortae, a fuzzy hide and sinewy, branch-like tendons, intestinal sacs and pig feet extending toward the edge of the canvas. At 4 feet by 4 feet, Animals is a visceral piece with the potential to repulse, but its overall effect draws the viewer in with its technical skill and the clear story of a dialogue around animals and our relationship to them pulsing behind its imagery.
“I started my college senior thesis thinking, ‘I’m going to save the world! I’m going to tell everybody what’s what with these paintings here.’ And then I realized, that does not make for great artwork,” she says.
After graduation, as she was trying to figure out her next steps, Nelson remembers thinking, “If I stop painting, it’s just going to be bad.” She moved out of her school studio and set up a studio in the basement of the house where she lived in Ann Arbor.
The basement, she says, “was really dank and creepy,” but the remarkable Animals came out of that environment.
“It started out as a very personal piece. I was at a huge turning point in my life. I wasn’t going to show it, but it was the best thing I had ever done technically.”
Nelson figured out that if she showed Animals as part of a series, it wouldn’t be a piece that just “yelled at people.” She spent the next year weaving the series together, painting Insects, Shoes, Plants and Insides, a painting depicting a pile of human organs that is probably Animals’ closest cousin, but without its crackling electricity.
Her mother, Kay, a retired WMU computer science professor and a teacher turned stay-at-home mom, and her father, Don, offered for her to come back to Kalamazoo in the spring of 2013. She moved home that August “to get my feet under me,” she says.
“I had 100 percent of The Promise,” says the graduate of Loy Norrix High School, “so I went to school for free. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t have gone into art, because it would be difficult to pay off student loans. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do this right away.”
She credits not only The Kalamazoo Promise and her parents, but also the Park Trades Center for all she’s been able to do so far. “This building was a big draw,” she says. She rents a small, spare room — “my 9-by-9 box” — and shares a common area, where she paints, with another painter, a couple who makes and sells T-shirts, someone who fixes and builds computers and a photographer.
She says a lot of research goes into her work. “Each series is just, like, eight or nine months’ worth of thinking about these things, trying to weave it all together. Hopefully it makes sense.”
Arguably, it makes a lot of sense. Nelson’s traditional series, no matter their subject, all have mesmerizing qualities similar to the radial arrangement of Animals. Whether she’s painting piles of differently colored hands in her series The Sum of One’s Parts or luxury products and America’s favorite foods in her series For Display Only, Nelson begins paintings in the middle of the canvas and works out from there, piece by piece, object by object. The effect, despite the hard edges of her square and rectangular canvases, is circular, almost mandala-like.
In fact, the series she’s working on now, so far untitled, embraces mandala qualities head-on. While the objects featured are luminous flowers, Nelson considers this series a departure from realism and hopes these paintings reflect not objects but “states of being.” She says her approach to these paintings, with names like Joy, Despair, Generosity and Selfishness, has been a little different from the way she has worked in the past.
“Whatever I’m working on affects me and my daily life, whether I realize it or not. The current series is more obvious, because it’s a practice that I’m trying to maintain that informs the paintings.
“We all have seeds. Seeds of love, hate, generosity, stinginess, despair, joy. We choose to water them in certain ways. We cultivate some. We let others shrivel and die.”
Every summer, Nelson takes on an experimental series in which she plays around with techniques she’s curious about. Works in these series tend to be more whimsical, and they vary in size and style.
Nelson also paints murals, like the one she did just out of high school for Ambati Flowers, at 1830 S. Westnedge Ave., in Kalamazoo, and the Lakeside Business District mural on the side of Nelson Hardware, at 9029 Portage Road, in Portage, completed in the sweltering August heat of 2016. She illustrated a children’s book called Wings of Courage for children with brain tumors at U of M’s Department of Neurosurgery and painted butterflies, animals and other colorful details in exam rooms at Lutheran Social Services in Kalamazoo.
She admits she’s “still tweaking” her current painting series, which she expects to complete by May. She says that while her earlier pieces were more calculated, there’s room for surprise in her current works.
One of those paintings, Joy, which Nelson was working on before a trip to New York, was going to be completely different. She visited multiple museums on her trip, and when she returned home, she had completely new ideas for the painting, she says. Inspired by the Islamic art section of one museum, she decided to add a labyrinth to the background.
“I guess my subconscious had been working on it when I took a break from it.”