Evoking the Spirit of Wood
Larry Nielson Makes The Most
Old Barn Scraps
By Joshua Kors
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.