Brad Nelson often thinks about his Southern Baptist upbringing in a small town outside of Louisville, Kentucky. Those beliefs cast shadows that Nelson still sees. “For me, it comes back to religion,” he says. “Growing up, that was truth. It was something I couldn’t see, but I believed. It’s faith . . .that something is right, or something is good. You have to have faith regardless of what you believe in.”
Nelson puts his faith in painting, investigating the difference between artifice and truth. In graduate school at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, his work, which often intertwines sculpture and painting, circled around ideas of truth, mainly through representational painting. In 2005, his thesis exhibition featured carved and painted sculptures that mimicked gallery features: an electrical outlet, a wooden stool, a piece of lined paper. Only upon close inspection was it clear that each item was a construction—a canvas or a piece of carved insulation foam, painted with oils. It is still an object, just not the object that one was expecting.
“Paint has so many faces,” says Nelson. In his recent series of paintings, titled “Even Mountains Cast Shadows,” Nelson uses nature as a jumping off point to talk about intangibles. “The mountain pieces were more about the beliefs that I have and how I affect people,” says Nelson. “We all create these things that other people have to contend with. Symbolically, that’s the mountain.”
After graduate school, Nelson spent three years teaching art in Sedona, Arizona. Influenced by the beauty around him, Nelson wasn’t interested in landscape painting. “There’s no way I could sit down in front of a vista and paint it and do it justice,” he says. “It’s too grand. I started making these models, and I began to understand the vastness—what I enjoyed about those vistas. It was more the light and how it hits those shapes and rocks. The models were the rock formations.” Nelson’s models are small dioramas made from piles of crumbling, raw pigments placed on paper surfaces. Nelson constructs the walls and then lights the scene, then paints from observation with the model as his subject. The paintings resemble strange, otherworldly landscapes. “The viewer has a role to play,” Nelson says. “They are confronted by these things that are realistic and believable.” Or unrealistic and unbelievable. Nelson is after ambiguity.
Nelson has recently looked to the Cape, where he lives in West Falmouth, as fodder for his work. “I’m starting to think about connection to place,” he says. “Taking ideas of the beach and the water and the sky and how they are extremely abstract things in a certain context.” Nelson and his wife, who has deep Nantucket roots, felt drawn to the region. They have settled into life here, both developing careers as painters, raising young children and teaching—Lucy at Falmouth Academy and Brad at Rising Tide Charter School in Plymouth. “It feels like home,” says Nelson. “I think this is where the new series of work is coming from. Finding balance. A new perspective.”