INTERVIEW by Youa Vang, Arts@MSP, Airport Foundation MSP

Holly Nelson describes people as stories floating around. The live illustrator captures these small snapshots of stories when they pass into her space as she sets up her easel. On sheets of paper, places and people come to life through charcoal and pastels. Nelson is always open to what transpires in her art, sometimes giving way to what’s in front of her and other times to Minnesota landscapes. While typical artists are introverts and pull inspiration from within, Nelson is the antithesis to the norm in that she is inspired by the people she encounters. Through communicating and finding their stories, she flourishes.

Holly will be creating live illustrations at the MSP Airport for Arts@MSP on June 12 from 11:00 AM-1:00 PM (CST).

A@M – What was your intention when you went to school?

HN – I did things backwards. I went to law school in New York and got a degree. I passed the bar and practiced for a few years. I dreaded going to work everyday. It was a poor fit. I did well in school, but it was the wrong path.

I did the Minnesotan thing. I was good at being stoic and forcing myself to do a good job, but it was eating me up inside. Quitting law was a progression. I would start dreading going into work on Sunday nights, then it moved to dreading it all day Sunday, then it moved into Saturday nights. I knew I had to leave.

A@M – How did you start drawing?

HN – While all of that was happening, I got married, and we started a family. I had time to do just one thing a week for myself, so I started taking a class at a local community college. It was a drawing class, portraits, I think. It lit a fire inside me. You have to do what you love.

I’ve been involved in the arts for 30 years. I graduated with a fine arts degree from the U of M. I’m a professional artist; I’ve exhibited, and I teach a lot. I’ve been on art panels and had open studio events. I was involved with Art-A-Whirl for 12 years. My most current project is a large mural I just finished with a friend. It’s in the basement of a senior housing complex. It’s about 165 feet long. The purpose was to enliven this otherwise dreary basement and to encourage older people to walk and get some exercise.

The mural is a chance to get them out in “nature,” especially in the winter when they can’t get out for weeks. It’s an imaginative foray into an illusion of nature. We had talked about having those motion-activated bird sound boxes, which may end up happening or not.

A@M – How long did that take to paint?

HN – It was about 125 hours of my time. It was a lengthy project, but it was so much fun, The theme of the mural was “Follow the Minnesota Trail, “ so that people would feel like they’re going around Minnesota landmarks. There’s lakes and waterfalls and people fishing and hiking along with wildlife — birds and fox and deer. It was so much fun to paint. It was one of those find and seek pictures. As I was working, people would walk by and point out the animals. They would stop and talk about their favorite places in the north. I’d ask them about their favorite animals and would try and put that in there somewhere. It was fun to interact with the people who were going to live with this thing. Another layer was the Minnesota flora and fauna. We had residents make their own paintings; these will be hung on a gallery wall along the mural. It’s a nice community project.

A@M – What do you enjoy about the interactive portion of your art?

HN – That’s the best part. I love people and demystifying the arts. I did a demonstration on Hennepin Avenue last year. People would walk by and say, “You’re so talented. How’d you do that?” It was really fun to give a mini drawing lesson. I would talk about how I measured the buildings and how I used my pastels to measure height. “That building is five charcoal sticks tall, but it’s only three charcoal sticks wide.” That was really fun and having little kids draw and be a part of it. It’s a great way to meet people where they’re at and invite them to this little world.

A@M – Do you ever have people who are reserved, but once they see what you do they open up?

HN – Yes, there was one guy in particular who walked up last summer on Hennepin Avenue with a friend and his dog. He stood there and watched for a long time. I asked if I could sketch his dog. He started talking about his dog saved his life ‘cause he had a traumatic brain injury. He fell off a motorcycle and as part of the injury, he had difficulty talking. He had to relearn how to talk, and he was very reticent to do that in public. Having his dog helped him overcome that. I don’t know if I would have gotten that out of him if he hadn’t had his dog. Everybody has a story.

I start drawing, and I allow people to draw on the piece if they want to. I like to show people that art does not have to be precious. It’s not something I’m going to keep and sell somewhere. It’s about engaging with people and celebrating the moment – especially in high stress environments. Art is very grounding. People always turn off that anxiety when they create.

I work in hospitals as an artist in residence. I sit with people getting infusions with chemotherapy, as well as kids in pediatrics. I sit with them at the bedside and offer art materials. It takes their mind to some other place.

A@M – What is it about creating something with your hands that transforms you?

HN – It’s very satisfying. I remember as a child just saying out loud, “I want to make something.” There’s this inner drive to make something, and I satisfy that with drawing. I know other people knit or sew or use any expressive means that they can to satisfy this inner need to create. I think it’s sad that some people don’t have the means to continue to make art due to time restrictions in raising children or supporting themselves. I also work at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts, and 90% of the people in my classes are recent retirees. They always wanted to draw or paint. Now they finally can do this thing.

A@M – When people create, they have an issue with wanting perfect work the first time they try something. How do you help them overcome that?

HN – I have a few tricks up my sleeve. I try to develop art games. I bring in a nice tablet of really expensive drawing paper. I ham it up and say, “I spent $18 on this paper. It’s so nice.” I’ll open it up and stroke it. I hand each one of my students a sheet like it’s very precious. Once everyone has a piece, we start to destroy the paper. We wad it up; they step on it on the floor. People get into it. We unwrap our wadded paper and discover that it has this beautiful texture on the surface that almost lends itself to a landscape. That’s one way to get past the preciousness of art.

I’ve got some other exercises that we share. They’ll have a large sheet of paper in front of them, and I’ll give them a prompt. “Scribble like you’re 5-years-old. Move your paper to the person on your left. Draw nothing but circles.” Eventually they get to their original drawing, and they don’t recognize it. It’s a big, smeary mess where you can’t even see the original paper. They hold them up one by one, and it’s like looking at clouds and finding a fish or light through trees. That tends to be a real eye-opener. They really remember that we had this huge mess, yet, it got even more interesting. It’s a parallel to life. The more we live, the more experiences we gather, but it’s also really messy.