Evoking the Spirit of Wood

 

Painter Larry Nielson Makes The Most

of Old Barn Scraps



By Joshua Kors

 

St. George, UT - The third graders of East Elementary stood and stammered. How could they not? Their fieldtrip to the Rosenbruch Wildlife Museum had swept them through African savannah, desert and swamp. But behind the bontebok, impala and chacma baboon lay a series of creatures so strange, so enchanting, they are cordoned off into their own room in the back of the building.

They are the creatures of Larry Nielson. And unlike their brethren in the museum's main display, they were neither shot nor stuffed but painted on pine slabs with a fine-bristled brush. Nielson, one of Utah's most accomplished wildlife painters, is currently the featured artist at the Rosenbruch Museum. His work is so powerful it makes noisy kids mute
- and turns others into seasoned art critics.

"You can see how he outlined the dolphins," noted Riley Pullman, 8. "He outlined them in white
- and only on the top - because the light is coming from the top. That's really cool."

"It's really cool how he painted it and drawed it on wood," opined Meghan Fessia, 9. "It looks like (the animals) are real. But they're not. They're just on wood."

       

                          December 2, 2001

 
 
   
 

 

Larry Nielson's paintings of cheetahs and other wildlife will be on display at the Rosenbruch Wildlife Museum till Jan. 1.

 

   

 

 

Or are they? As titters of fascination swept through Kay Small and Karlee Davenport's third grade classes, theories of every ilk began to take flight. Some said the animals were painted on top of the wood. Others said no, they were injected into it somehow. Still others insisted the pine slabs naturally had the animal images on them, that the wood had been hung without artist's ink.

Nielson delights in such debate. More than awards and government honors, he says, the confusion of museumgoers is the highest complement his wood animals can receive.

A classically trained artist, Nielson spent half a century painting on paper and canvas along with the rest of the world. His work in such conventional mediums had earned him accolades: He secured a teaching position at Brigham Young University-Hawaii and was commissioned by the government of Tonga to paint the official portrait of the late Queen Salote. He even carved out a career designing posters for Tinseltown rock stars, like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles.

Everything changed four years ago. Nielson discovered the call of wood. He has never turned back.

"I grew up in Ephraim County, and I'd always gone up to the ranch and seen the incredible wood
- how it weathers and the textures and personality that come out of different wood surfaces, especially when it gets ancient and craggily," Nielson said. "About four years ago I saved some pieces of wood like that because I was able to see things in there, like the way people look at clouds and see images in them. The wood spoke to me. I could literally feel when I looked at some of the pieces an essence of something just beyond the wood."

Evoking that essence quickly became a full-time obsession. Nielson dropped the standard art surfaces to devote all his energies to the medium of wood. Today he speaks passionately of red pine
- and of the collection of pine bears, owls, monkeys and tigers that will run at the Rosenbruch Museum through Jan. 1.

"Painting on pine is like dancing with a partner where you feel there's a bond between you and the wood, which has a lot of different hues, different configurations," Nielson said. "Even rusty nails and knot holes, they add to the spirit I'm trying to express."

Nielson expresses that spirit by incorporating the oddities of the wood into the painting. A rough patch in the pine becomes the tussled coat of a black bear; a white rift in the wood become the wake in the water left by two dolphins.

It's that unity of the surface and the image that wows museumgoers.

"I've never seen art work like this before," said Syndee Jolley, who accompanied her daughter Jaycee to the exhibit. "I just think about the wood and how hard it is, how much insight you really have to have to make the lines of the wood work. He uses not only the lines but the shades to create depth, like on the mouth of the bear
- the wood was dark right there, and he used that darkness to make the mouth."

Jolley isn't the only one who's impressed. When word spread about Nielson's pine paintings, art fans near and far leapt to lend a hand.

"I get a lot of people that will call me now," the artist said. "Somebody called from Lewiston, Idaho, not long ago and said he had a barn they were going to tear down. Then somebody called from Fillmore, then Fairview, then several places around here. People will just come sometimes and bring some boards over and leave them here. They don't even tell me who brought them."

Nielson's contributors may work in the dark, but his fans certainly don't. Dustin Hammer, curator of the Rosenbruch Museum, said that during the Huntsman Senior Games there was a visible rush to purchase Nielson's paintings. Hammer thinks he knows why.

"He's a fabulous artist, and his paintings are a unique form of art most people have probably never seen," he said. "They've got character."

Like Nielson.

 

 

Larry Nielson's wood paintings will remain the featured exhibit at Rosenbruch Wildlife Museum till Jan. 1.  For more information, call (435) 656-0033 or visit the museum on the web at www.rosenbruch.org.

Many of Nielson's paintings are on sale. To view his oeuvre, check out his website, www.windandwings.com.

 

 
Tel.: (646) 456-7738                                                   joshua@joshuakors.com