For the past 10 years, artist James P. Nelson of Highland Park has been concentrating on painting rather than exhibiting. But recently that has changed with the opening of his latest exhibit, “Worlds Within,” at Mendelson Gallery in Shadyside. And as visitors will see, he has invited a few friends to exhibit their works alongside his, filling up the space nicely.
For his part, Nelson displays several large oil paintings and smaller preliminary mixed media sketches that are rather autobiographical in nature, even though, at first glance, they appear to be straight-on landscape paintings.
Take, for example, the painting “Reservoir/Twins.” Featuring twin communication towers that can be spotted in the eastward view from the vantage point of the Highland Park Reservoir, they represent much more to the artist than a calm nighttime panorama pointed skyward.
“I run up at the reservoir,” Nelson says. “This was Dec. 1, 2010, around 6:30, and it was dark already. The moon had just come up between the communications towers, and I thought that was a very interesting thing. And it turned out that my friends Gary Huck and Tavia LaFollette, had just had their twins. So, I decided to do a painting of what the reservoir looked like the night that they actually had their twins.”
Several more paintings in the exhibit are based on scenery in and around the Highland Park Reservoir that has captured Nelson’s attention, but not exactly for reasons that are obvious. “A lot of the pictures of the reservoir are what it looked like when something happened,” Nelson says, pointing to “Reservoir/Election Day 2008,” about which the title is somewhat explanatory.
If not the reservoir, then places close by hold similar connections. For example, the painting “Sunday Night,” which predominantly features Waverly Church not far from Nelson’s house, has particular meaning, having made an impression on the artist one evening while strolling by it shortly after his mother suffered from a stroke nearly two years ago.
“The church is something that struck me on a night when I was thinking about her mortality, and mortality in general,” Nelson recalls. “That church looks a little bit like a tombstone. It’s kind of standing there with an almost grave appearance. And that was the point of it really. A kind of doorway to the next world.”
Nelson’s mother has since recovered from her stroke, but the event had a profound impact on the artist. Pointing to a mixed-media drawing of a large blossoming tree all white with blooms titled “A Note For You,” Nelson says, “This is a tree that looks like my mother.”
“It was in blossom at the time of her stroke, right around the time I came down to see her. It was early spring, when there’s a lot of blossoms but not a lot of green yet. So, it kind of stood out against the bare landscape.”
At the time, he saw the tree, Nelson sketched it on a notepad that his mother received as a gift for a donation to an Indian tribe. In this drawing, he kept some of the pre-printed elements found on the notepad, such as a dream catcher in the lower right corner and the words “A Note For You” that run up the left side of the piece.
“I left the dreamcatcher image because I was trying to include things that related to my mom and my family,” he says. “I was thinking about her, essentially, taking care of three of us — me, my older sister and younger brother.
“There’s a lot of latitude in the way I work,” Nelson says. “Things come and go.”
The drawing contains a taxi cab that the artist says relates to the afterlife, and an egg-shaped house in the background that relates to the dream he had about his mother many years ago. There’s also a little white Toyota her second husband once owned and gave to him before he died.
“These are some of the vessels, real or imagined, that I associate with her life,” he says.
In a way, it’s a quintessential piece.
“It’s me putting together the story a little bit at the time of the feelings that I was feeling. That’s what I do,” Nelson says. “I used to think that what I did was that I painted a person, experience, event, or even a condition, through the use of landscape, and that landscape was the vehicle. That was conscience. But I wouldn’t do this arbitrarily. Something struck me out there that looked like it would serve as this vehicle for that experience, or for that person. It’s not so clear to me anymore. Now, it’s more like I do something along those lines, and I don’t try to define it quite so rigidly anymore. I may make a picture of something just because I like the way it looks.
“What I do know is that painting is a way of thinking and processing for me,” he says. “A lot happens when I paint. It’s like I get correct with the world, somehow. It’s not an escape. It’s an activity that pulls information and information influences the painting.”
The remaining works on display are by painters Philip Rostek and Robert Qualters; photographer David Aschkenas; mixed-media artist Carolyn Wenning and sound artist R. Weis. All friends of the artist who, along with Nelson, will be at the gallery Saturday for an informal question-and-answer session regarding their respective works, from 2 to 5 p.m.
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.