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New York artist returns to Kandiyohi County country roots

For five decades Roger Nelson lived in New York City where he created large oil paintings of rural landscapes and urban cityscapes. The Willmar native has returned home and is painting again.

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Roger Nelson shows his draft paintings hanging on his studio wall March 3, 2021, in Atwater. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

ATWATER – After spending nearly 50 years in a New York artist’s loft creating massive landscape and cityscape oil paintings that were displayed in galleries in D.C., Chicago, New York and Minneapolis, Roger Nelson is getting settled in his new studio in Atwater.

Nelson has traded his time working in the middle of the New York art hub for working in the middle of a quiet little town surrounded by farm fields.

About the only noise he hears now is the occasional freight train that passes through Atwater on the other side of Atlantic Avenue, where his quiet and spacious studio is slowly taking on the work-worn splatters of an artist at work.

“This is a nice big space,” he said. “I just got to get painting.”

Despite the change in scenery and atmosphere, Nelson is very much at home in rural Minnesota.

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The 1963 graduate of Willmar High School taught art at what was then known as Willmar Community College before taking the advice of an accomplished sculptor who told him he “belonged” in New York City.

“I said, ‘OK. How do I get there?’” said Nelson.

And without anything resembling a plan, Nelson went to New York in 1970.

But he took a lot of Minnesota with him.

Spiritual place

“For me, I have to paint,” said Nelson in a recent interview in Atwater, during a rare occasion when he welcomed a non-artist into his studio.

Like most artists, Nelson, 76, prefers to preserve his studio space and time for himself and his art.

“This is a very spiritual place,” said Nelson, extending his arms out to his side while standing in the sunlit studio.

“If you’re not painting, you’re thinking about painting,” he said. “You’re here and you’re not open to any other conversations from anyone else, unless you invite another artist in and you sit and talk about your paintings.”

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During his long career, Nelson took short breaks from full-time production of art – sometimes out of frustration with the business side of the art world – but it never lasted long.

“If I’m not in the studio creating something I start to go nuts,” he said. “You realize there’s this creativity that’s in you that has to come out. It’s not about money. It has nothing to do with money. It’s just the act of creating.”

But Nelson admits it took him a while to figure out what to create when he was a young artist.

When he first arrived in New York in 1970, Nelson produced abstract oil paintings while living in a whirlwind of new experiences.

He went to art galleries in a bustling SoHo neighborhood, met artists who were “big names coming down from the Upper Eastside,” ate sushi and lived in a sixth-floor walk-up on a Manhattan street surrounded by tall buildings.

“It was great. You’d go down there (SoHo) on Fridays or Saturdays and it’d just be packed with people going to galleries. New York was into the art world,” he said.

“It was totally exciting and totally opposite of what was here,” he said. “It was a total cultural shock.”

But the thrill came with a dose of reality.

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“I realized I was in the heart of the art world, and I didn’t know anything.”

So after 10 months he came back to Minnesota.

“I had to decide what I wanted to paint,” he said.

Country road art

Back in Willmar, surrounded by farms and lakes, Nelson started driving down lonely country roads and taking photos that became his inspiration: painting large landscapes.

While he found his focus, after four months of being back in Minnesota Nelson knew he couldn’t stay. An artist friend sent him $100 for a plane ticket and he returned to New York, where he initially worked on abstract landscape paintings and later on representational landscapes, which is still his primary focus.

“It’s a representation of a landscape,” said Nelson. “I’m always changing color around. Making stuff pop and move.”

There’s a particular blend of deep purple and blue colors that frequently show up in tree shadows in his paintings.

With relish, he recalls a New York art critic’s review of one of his shows.

“He said, ‘This landscape painter’s colors are very garish.’ And I went, ‘yes!’ because it’s not landscape color. It’s my color.”

New artists “borrow” styles and techniques from other artists while developing their own perspective, he said.

“It’s taken me a lot of years to create my own style. My own way to paint,” he said. “That’s what painting is all about.”

Over the decades, Nelson returned to Minnesota for visits with family and to take road trips with friends to find more landscapes to photograph for new inspiration.

“I think I’ve been down every country road in Kandiyohi County and all the other counties around,” he said.

“My camera is my sketch book. I shoot a ton of slides and get ideas,” he said. “Drive 20-25 miles an hour down roads. Just looking at stuff.”

Nelson also drew inspiration from the big city streets and spent about 14 years painting large cityscapes before returning to Minnesota landscapes.

He’s not exactly sure what he will paint now.

“I won’t know until I start painting,” he said.

Coming home

Nelson left New York for good in late 2019 to be with his brother, who later died in Willmar.

Living in a small apartment in Spicer, Nelson said there wasn’t space to paint and, other than some small watercolor pieces, he hadn’t painted for over a year.

With the urge to create new art growing, Nelson began renting his current studio space in February in one of Atwater’s historic brick buildings.

Tubes of paint and brushes are set up in the room that is ringed with colorful examples of his past work. Some canvas paintings hang on walls, others are on the floor leaning against the wall and boxes and boxes of painted paper studies are stacked on tables.

He has more pieces in storage in Willmar and even more are in New York, where they may remain because it’s too costly to ship them back and because the art market has changed, he said.

Some of his paintings are 6 by 9 feet, or larger.

Before he left the city he literally sliced finished canvas paintings into strips and threw them away.

“It’s the way it is,” he said.

One of the hardest things for an artist is stopping and starting “because you’ve got to reorientate your mind, your eye and your hand,” Nelson said.

“When you’re continuously painting, you don’t even have to think at times anymore. Your mind knows what to do.”

Nelson is ready to go and ready to start painting again full-time.

“Artists turn their life over to it. There’s something inside you, “ he said. “You just have to do it.”

Related Topics: ARTATWATERMINNESOTA
Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at clange@wctrib.com or 320-894-9750
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