Harold Nelson
Collage Artist


(posted on 19 Aug 2009)

Snip, cut, glue. Repeat.: Collage artist Harold Nelson lets the scissors be his guide

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

“The Tower and the Mountain (2001-2009),” collage 19 inches by 32 inches by Harold Nelson
Harold Nelson worked at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., before he retired in Port Townsend and began to pursue collage in earnest. Photo by Kathie Meyer
"It's kind of like a Jackson Pollock process."

Harold Nelson

collage artist

Out of mere paper, Harold Nelson creates two-dimensional fantasy worlds so easy to get lost in that it could be hours before you come back out again.

So seductive are his paper collages that Nelson won a best of show award in an August 2008 Northwind Arts Center exhibit titled "Alchemy of the Abstract IV" for his piece "Snake Mountain." Remarkably, it was the first juried show he'd ever entered. The juror was Gunnar Nordstrom, who runs a contemporary art gallery in Bellevue, Wash.

"It's been nuts," says Nelson, who has since won two merit awards and a people's choice award at two other Northwind shows.

Nelson and his wife, Patti, moved to Port Townsend in 2005. Before that, he worked as a civil servant in Washington, D.C., right off the mall near the National Gallery of Art, which he visited often. Not a big fan of the Bush administration, he created his art in isolation to "keep sane," he says. When it came time to retire, it was his wife's desire to move here, so Harold reluctantly agreed to leave the East Coast.

Beecher's studio

He couldn't have landed in a more auspicious place. The home that Nelson and his wife purchased was built in 1887 for one of Port Townsend's earliest artists - Harriet Foster Beecher - and her husband, Capt. Herbert Foote Beecher. Mrs. Beecher designed the home, which included her second-floor studio - a large angular room connected to two smaller spaces that were once part of a water tower. It was here that Mrs. Beecher established Port Townsend's first art school. After the Beechers sold the home, the next two owners used the studio as a master bedroom; when Nelson moved in, he began using it for its original purpose once again.

Today, the spruce-paneled studio contains Nelson's impressive throng of action figures along with an art library of equally mammoth proportions. Like his art, there's a lot of color and even more to soak in here. One thing's for sure: This guy isn't afraid of volume.

"I'm an information junkie," he says, "so I subscribe to a lot of magazines." That's where he gets his materials, of course, and one of his latest pieces, "Martha's World," is made solely of images from five issues of Martha Stewart Living.

Nelson doesn't necessarily sort out images by color. "If you do that, you're almost like a quilter," he reasons. Sometimes he starts with a concept, other times not, since each piece is an exercise in improvisation.

He starts a new collage by flipping through a magazine and beginning to cut at random. There is no need to be precise with the scissors, as many things will end up covered as the process proceeds. Using Nova Color matte gel thinned with water to a skim milk consistency, he begins to apply some images to a sheet of Masonite coated with acrylic, using his fingers to keep the surface smooth. Occasionally he turns the board so that he isn't considering any one particular direction.

"The first layer is like an under painting," he says as he continues. That part takes five to six hours to complete, he says, but "once you get the first layer glued down, then the fun begins." Even floor scraps may be scooped up and put back into the game.

"It's kind of like a Jackson Pollock process."

Major influences

Nelson gets a lot of his inspiration from abstract expressionism. A close look at his work reveals the details, but if one backs away, the view blends the smaller images and emphasizes the color patterns. Other influences are the great American collage artist Romare Bearden; Britain's Peter Blake, the man responsible for the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover; and Germany's Dadaist Kurt Schwitters. Although he didn't know of him until after he began creating in his own way, Nelson describes his work as most like that of Jess Collins. Nelson's piece "The Tower and the Mountain (2001-2009)," a commentary on American capitalism and politics, was inspired by a 16th-century oil painting by Pieter Bruegel titled "The Tower of Babel."

But it is the work of Maryland collage artist George Sakkal that has had the biggest impact on Nelson. When he first saw Sakkal's work on exhibit and someone told him it was a collage, Nelson was awestruck.

"I was stunned by it," he says. So stunned that Nelson wrote Sakkal an email that went unanswered. Two years later, Nelson received a postcard announcing a new Sakkal show opening. When it turned out to be at a venue located next to a restaurant where he and Patti were planning to have dinner, he finally had the chance to meet the artist he so admired. As a result of the meeting, Nelson was able to take a class from Sakkal, and the two of them remain in contact. In Nelson's home, two Sakkal originals hang in testament to the profound influence of teacher on student.

Most of Nelson's pieces take him 40 to 50 hours to complete, he says, and he tops off each piece with a slightly thicker solution of glue as a finishing agent. People look at his work and think the process must be tedious, he says, but he varies the process enough each time so that it's not, and artist's block is a rarity for him. "It's very intuitive. That's one of the reasons I like it."

Harold Nelson's collages are on view in the Artist Showcase at Northwind Arts Center, 2409 Jefferson St.

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