Exclusive Interview: Artist CT Nelson–Darker Side of Light

Denver artist CT Nelson brings his captivating phantasmagorical work to Knew Conscious Gallery this month. An opening reception for ‘Darker Side of Light’ will be held on Saturday, June 9th from 8—11:30pm, with musical guest Ultraviolet.


I’m aware you were born and raised in Nebraska. Tell me about your life there, and how you developed creatively.


I’m from Lincoln—which is a college town—and my parents were fairly sophisticated, as were my extended family (my uncles and my grandma and grandpa). Growing up, my step-mom was very supportive. She was of German stock—her family was from the farm, and pretty strict—and so instead of watching T.V. on Sundays, she would have us draw. She knew I could draw…and I was pretty good at it—even as a little kid—so she encouraged me to practice. In the winters we couldn’t go outside. I think she was afraid we were going to get a cold, so when our friends were outside playing in the snow we were stuck inside…all winter long. So what did I do? I drew.


Critical Mass

Going back into my family history, my great-grandfather was an artist. Well, let me take that back: he wanted tobean artist. He was a farmer around the turn of the century, and he went to The Art Institute of Chicagoin 1912—at thesame time Pablo Picasso was doing his cubism—but his family called him and said, “We need help on the farm, and you have to come back.” So he went back and farmed for the rest of his life. He never went back to art. He did do one drawing for my great-aunt. The teacher in her one-room schoolhouse required the students to bring in a photograph of a Native Indian from a magazine. But my family was too poor to have magazines. So my great-grandfather ripped off a portion of wallpaper and drew on the other side: a picture of an Indian [in a beautiful wooded nature scene with a camp and stream], and he even put a little Nazi symbol [on the teepee]—because that meant ‘peace’ back then, in 1923. My great-aunt took it to class and submitted it to the teacher, and the woman failed her because it wasn’t picture of an Indian. But my great-aunt loved it, so she kept it and framed it. That painting is the only thing that I have of his work.


He also did portraits of his mother and father that I’ve seen, because my uncle has them. They are just spot on drawings in charcoal. Really boring—the kind of things that you would do in the 1890’s, simple portraits—but what else would he know? He was from the farm, and not exposed to any other art. But he had really good potential. He had the bare bones to be—I think—a really good artist, but…time and place. It was wrong time, wrong place. And now I feel lucky that I am part of this new age where I can work and be comfortable and not have to toil in the fields. So that really drives me to make it as an artist, because he wasn’t able to do it. There’s no one else in my family that picked up this artistic gene, but me, and it’s directly from him. I know it. That’s why I work really hard at it, because I feel it’s a second chance. I use that as my mantra: that I should succeed in this…no matter what.


You studied design and art history at the University of Nebraska. What were some of the influential courses you took, and how did your collegiate experience shape you as artist?


Well, the only art classes that I took at the University of Nebraska were two life-drawing classes. I transferred from design college, and enrolled in only art history classes. I think because I was scared to death of taking any painting classes…I’d never painted. I did attempt to take a painting class, but I was kicked out because I hadn’t taken 101. Although I had all the credits…I probably could have kept my mouth shut and gotten through the course, I was silly enough to raise my hand and say, “I didn’t take 101.” And the instructor kicked me out. It was like I had dodged a bullet, at that point. Instead, I took a lot of art history classes. I was a huge fan of art, but I knew nothing about it. I had my favorite artists and knew what I liked, but I wanted to know more. I had a thirst for knowledge.


And that was the most important thing that I could do, was learn what came before me. Later on, I would try to figure out what I could do in my place, with this art. How could I be unique? If you don’t know the past, you’re doomed to repeat history. I knew this going into the search for myself. I tried telling my grandpa—when he was still alive—why modern art is more that just splashing paint on a canvas. I said, “You have to know what was before that.” You go all the way back throughout history, and learn about the art movements and what they were.


I’m glad that I didn’t take any art classes, because now I’ve done all the technique research myself. Through the Internet! I typed in ‘glazing’ for painting, and I learned how to glaze. I’ve been using transparent glazes, and building up color. How to mix and use mediums…I learned it all online. So I’m self-taught, from curiosity and the desire to learn. I’ve developed my own style, and I feel proud about it. Perhaps I’m doing something a little bit different with my paints that may have been discouraged. But I’m also torn about my ‘un-education,’ because I do wish I’d started at a younger age. I didn’t start painting until I was twenty-five, and that’s way late. I feel like I have a lot of catching up to do.


A design job brought you to Denver a decade ago. In what ways has living in Colorado transferred into your creative expression?


In everything! I wouldn’t be doing what I do now if I hadn’t moved to Colorado. They call it a “cow town.” No…I’m

Wings are Chains

from a cow town, this is no cow town. This is a beautiful, wonderful, progressive, young and gorgeous city. It’s the best-kept secret in this country. Boulder and Denver, both, are amazing. And you’ve got the yin and yang, there, too. You can go to Boulder and cut loose, and experience that lifestyle; then you come back to Denver and it’s more corporatized, but it’s still forward thinking. If I were living in Nebraska, I’d probably be painting landscapes. Ducks. Waterfowl. Trying to get a wildlife stamp. I probably wouldn’t be doing anything interesting. But making babies, getting fat and wishing I was somewhere else.


Where do you find inspiration? Tell me about some of the places you like to go when you’re feeling creative.


I love being here in my studio, with music. I just bought a subscription to Pandora, and it’s totally worth it. No advertisements…it’s great. So I’ll sit here, with my Runts candy, and listen to music or watch Battlestar Galactica…and then I’ll just draw. I also feel really comfortable outside. I live close to Cheeseman Park, so I can walk over, sit beneath a tree and draw. I’ll listen to Stuff You Should Know podcasts on my iPod, and draw for hours. And I’m always looking for new little nooks and crannies in the parks where I can be by myself, in nature, and draw.

Traveling to Europe was inspirational. In Rome, I went to see as many Caravaggio’s as I could. Back in the day he was like a rock-star, because he used real people in his paintings of Christ and different religious subjects. Everybody went gaga over it. And the church loved it. All the other art of the time was stale. And he used great contrast in his paintings: the dark darks, and people coming out of shadows, made for fantastic drama. His art is obviously a direct inspiration to some of my present work.

I also enjoyed seeing Egon Schiele and the Klimts in Vienna, because Gustav Klimt was I was very young my he was first favorite artist…before I realized that there were any other artists out there. I’d seen ‘The Kiss’ in print a million times, but until I’d seen it in person, I couldn’t appreciate the fact that you could actually see pencil on the canvas and see could see a figure of the head that’s been painted over, but in a book you don’t see the pencil or the paint-overs. You don’t see that the black and gold squares are all uneven. They’re just painted in, and the edges are curved. That’s the work of a real hand. It was inspirational to realize that these guys were just humans, too. They had desires, and they had they’re faults. They weren’t perfect. And although you think their art is perfect…it’s not. It takes a lot of pressure off of me, personally. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes traveling thousands of miles to see the artist’s soul. Even though you feel like you understood before, you know it when you see it in person. That was my biggest revelation from that experience.

I have to mention going to the Vatican Museums, and seeing the Sistine Chapel. There’s nothing like it. It’s like in ‘Good Will Hunting’ when Robin Williams says, “When you can tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel, that’s when you know.” I always took that to heart, because it’s true. You may know everything you’ve read in books about the Sistine Chapel, but until you can tell me what it smells like…you don’t know what it’s all about. So that’s the first thing I did when I went in, I took a deep breath. Unfortunately I smelled 100,000 tourists…but it’s the thought that counts.

I :HEART: Harpees

Seeing all of the sculpture was great, too, as I use a lot of sculptures in my subject matter—16th,  17th and 18th century sculptures—that give it this classical feel, which I’m a big fan of. In the Vatican Museums, the very first hall that you walk down is filled with thousands of Roman busts; the most magnificently sculpted faces you’ll ever see. And I was looking at every single one. I was entranced by these faces that were so real…and they had expressions, very subtle expressions. You could see they’re personalities, that’s how amazing it was. I wanted to capture that, just even in the slightest. For instance in “I :HEART: Harpees,” the expression she has as she’s digging into her breast is not a typical glazed over look on a young woman that you see nowadays. I wanted a real face that had a little bit of torment, and was someone middle-aged to upper/middle-aged. In that hallway you see these real people…and they’re not pretty. They were commissioned, but they were the real deal. They’re beautiful in their honesty, which is very lacking right now. Beauty, but with strangeness around it.

 Your exhibition is entitled ‘Darker Side of Light.’ How did you come to choose the phrase?


If you look at a lot of these paintings, they have this weird light to them. It’s this strange, ethereal glow. Because it’s not actually light…it’s atmosphere. It gives the image depth. But sometimes it swallows the piece. And sometimes the light—although it is bright, and usually a positive thing—devours some of the characters in it. I think that’s where the darkness comes through. I’m allowing myself to not paint the pretty things. It’s still beautiful, but it’s not obvious beauty.


Another part of that idea is that even in your darkest times, you still have glimpses of light. My light is painting. I’ve been through tough times, and for me that has translated into a darker subject matter. Light is not dark, but there is a lighter side of dark and a darker side of light. It just made sense to me. It felt real and honest.


What advice do you have for aspiring artists?


Try to be yourself, if you can. It’s really hard to do. Be inspired, but know where that inspiration comes from and how you can grow with it. Take it as a step in your own development. Work your ass off. If you want to be good, you’re going to have to work at it. There’s no other way around it. Be patient. And do what makes you happy. In the end, that’s all that matters.


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