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All in the family art

Three generations of Nelsons, including an artist-in-law, exhibit their work at Walters Center


by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Larry Nelsons kiln-dired clay tea pots look like theyve been welded together with metal slabs, nuts and bolts. Nelson and his wife, a fellow potter whose work has appeared at Forest Groves Valley Art, work out of a log cabin on the slopes of Chehalem Mountain.Isabel Nelson might have dropped one of her carefully painted China plates in shock had she lived to see the artwork of her great-grandson.

Chris Nelson’s fleshy stick figures being crushed by giant colorful gears are a long way from the delicate, graceful leaves and flowers his great-grandma painted on China plates during the 1950s.

But that’s what happens when the art gene takes over a family tree.

“Full Nelson: A Family Affair with Art” features three generations of Nelsons, including one “artist-in-law,” at the Walters Cultural Arts Center in Hillsboro through Jan. 29.

At 85, Dell Nelson — Isabel’s son — is drawn to the majestic decay of old buildings. After a career in advertising, the Beaverton man rekindled the artistic passion that drew him to the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts 60 years ago.

Now he uses a charcoal pencil to capture the fine details of old buildings, down to the rust, peeling paint and individual splinters. Using hundreds and hundreds of tiny lines, Dell creates blue ribbon-winning, multi-toned drawings.

“It's quite amazing to watch him work because it's not very fast,” said Dell’s son, Loren, whose own art career was sparked by a picture his father drew specifically for him.

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - The Realm of Man Lies Between Heaven and Hell is one of the less shocking paintings by Chris Nelson, 28, an audio visual technician living in southeast Portland and the youngest of the Nelson family artists.

From father to son to son

The picture was of a crumbling mill, Loren said, “a beautiful piece” that inspired him to get behind the camera lens in 1970.

The Tigard artist used an old-fashioned 4-by-5 camera (imagine a heavy tripod with a cloth draped over the photographer's head) to shoot plastic-wrapped buildings under construction. “I'm fascinated with the idea that there are these changes occurring under the plastic,” said Loren, who shoots landscapes as well.

In past shows, Dell and Loren have collaborated, using separate mediums to interpret the same dilapidated barn, for example. Their joint showing at the Sitka Center on the Oregon coast drew their whole family.

“To have your family behind you and cheering you on is really something special, especially when they have aesthetic sense,” said Loren, who’s glad his son, Chris, also decided to pick up the family tradition.

The gruesome, racy content of Chris’s art may raise some relatives’ eyebrows, but the family still supports his efforts, said Loren, adding that, “I really love his work.”

Chris, 28, shares the family taste for worn-down industrial and mechanical structures but with a twisted take: His oil and mixed-media paintings feature pale little humans clinging to giant, colored gears.

“My work is thematically dark, but I try to approach it with a sense of humor and bright colors,” said Chris, an art major from Evergreen College in Olympia. “It's easier to accept bad news when it's funny.”

Chris, whose figures are partially inspired by the X-Men and other comics of his childhood, said a few galleries have refused to hang some of his work due to the nudity and gore. Even his roommates have final say in which pieces go on the wall. The Walters show features his least racy paintings.

“It may seem a little strange for a whole family to show art together, but it really doesn't feel weird to me at all,” said Chris. “It feels like something we should have been doing before.”

Firing in the forest

Larry Nelson — Loren's brother and Chris’s uncle — creates tank-like tea pots that look like they've been melded together with metal slabs, nuts and bolts rather than kiln-fired clay.

An Information Technology specialist who creates online catalogs, Larry and his wife, Debra, run Chehalem Mountain Pottery from a log cabin in the woods outside Hillsboro.

Debra, who teaches ceramics part-time at Chehalem Elementary School, draws on her interest in gardening and Japanese-style symbols to mold and glaze lanterns useful indoors or outdoors. Her work is displayed in several galleries, including Valley Art in Forest Grove.

Their studio's website sums up the Nelson family tradition: “In the grand scheme, life needs to be an adventure. And for many of us, life's adventure is strongly encouraged by the need to discover and create.”