A Painting Pioneer: Bennie “Yellowman” Nelson
As a child I grew up with the smell of acrylic paints in the air and often fell asleep to the Hi-Fi playing some really good rock or gospel mixed with the sound of brush strokes on paper. You see my father, among many things, is an artist. A painter to be exact. I have many fond memories of watching him create, painting for hours on end stopping only long enough to leaf through his vast record collection to choose some music that would suit his mood and propel his inspiration. My siblings and I knew very well not to play with my Pop’s brushes or paints, but sheer curiosity always won out. I loved the feel of the brushes against my fingertips and the scent and viscosity of the paint as it poured out of the many colorful tubes onto my Pop’s stained painter’s palette. My father never appeared to mind that we played with his tools though I’m sure he did. Instead he always said, “if it gets you kids curious enough to pick up a brush and paint something then it’s worth it.” He did the same with his guitars and you see where that got me.
That said, it started me on my journey and fascination with Native American painters. Rarely am I placed in a situation where I’m totally at a loss for words but such was the case meeting SWAIA artist Bennie “Yellowman” Nelson. His name is synonymous with RC Gorman, Fred Kabotie, Jerome Tiger, Woody Crumbo, Rance Hood, Pablita Velarde, Quincy Tahoma and many more noted artists from different tribes. He is a pioneer of Native painting and his works are recognizable at a glance. All my fears dissipated with a firm handshake and the biggest smile I’d seen in a very long while. His laid back demeanor, willingness to share some good stories, and be part of the Shumakolowa family was indescribable. It is obvious he is very proud of his family and his sons and both of their artistic aspirations.
I had a chance catch up with him recently and here are a few excerpts from our conversation.
Ira Wilson: What inspired you to create art?
Bennie Nelson: As a child, one of my best friends, he was part Navajo and part Taos Pueblo, his grandpa had a dance troupe and they performed at the Gallup Ceremonial and all over the States. One summer his grandparents took us all over with the dance troupe. They said we would be gone for two weeks but we ended up being gone for a month and a half. His grandparents knew a lot of people along the way so we stayed at their homes. They had modern homes but a lot of them would set up teepee’s outside, you know, for visitors and such. It usually ended up the adults stayed in the house and us kids would set up out in the teepee (laughter). In the evenings the old ones would just sit around, you know, visiting and having coffee and what not and I used to soak it up and just listen to the stories looking at the scenery. I would also look at the dancer’s regalia and weapons and would imagine what it was like in the old days when Natives were truly free. I had a notebook and what I’d do was sketch little scenes and also the same time I would make little notes here and there about the colors and such. Later, I would read them and the images would come back just like that. Many times we would stop at different at gas stations and the kids would go inside and buy chips and stuff and here I would come walking out with a notebook. All these things play a part in the way I started painting.
IW: I can see how this influenced your current style, subject matter of your paintings and your fascination with plains Natives.
BN: Yes. I became pretty proficient drawing and Art Menchego is the guy who kind of encouraged me to start painting. I still look at his work and think “wow”! I've always done watercolors and have always been drawn to adding color to my works. When I was a kid I won my first contest when I was about five or six. We are living in Utah I did a colored pencil drawing of a forest fire scene. All the trees were burning and stuff and my mom helped me with it. I remember winning first place which was a Bozo bean toss game, or something like that from a TV station there and from that point on I have always been drawn to doing artwork. When I first started painting I started painting scenery. I've always been painting the style I have, I guess. It has just been evolving and refining itself over the years.
IW: Sounds like you could’ve been just as successful as a pencil artist. Why painting?
BN: Why painting? Well, it was stated once, “A picture is worth 1000 words.”, and I’m trying to convene that message. The challenge is trying to convey a moment or an idea… an instance in so much space. Trying to get this idea across and trying to get the expressions right or trying to capture the moment gets people to think about what's going on with the artist. They start surmising about why things were titled a certain way or why the coloration or lighting is a certain way. It generates an instance of enlightenment for the viewer. I've had I've had people cry over seeing one of my paintings before. I wasn’t used to it at first and it kind of shocked me but afterwards I realized it moves people to certain degrees of emotions and now you’ve achieved what you started out to do. That's what I try to convey with my paintings.
IW: Are there any younger artists that inspire you?
BN:No, not really. Not to knock any up and comers, I just find inspiration comes from everywhere in different forms especially in interacting with people. When I find a chance to talk to some people they don't realize it but when I talk with them and kind of kick around ideas with them, it brings on inspiration. The conversation inspires me to push on and keep going. One of the guys I like to talk to is a young Comanche guy named, Nacona Burgess. Nacona does some really nice work, and I really like his work, but I like talking to him more (laughter).
IW: Any advice to up and coming artists?
BN: First of all find out who you are. Once you settle the matter of who you are then you'll find out what you need to survive. Get a job and do your best to make that really work for you. If you’re doing something and start thinking of doing something else that makes more money, then by all means do it. Find a secure job keep it keep it and use your time to develop your talents and use the resources you get from your job and put it towards your supplies and stay real. Stay real to yourself and don't let any achievements you make go to your head. You're only as good as you think, only special as you think, you need to realize that the only way that you can achieve satisfaction and be happy with yourself is to be humble.
It was a pleasure talking to Yellowman. We’ve only just scratched the surface of our conversation and I wish there was enough space here to go into the details. He is such a wonderful person to converse with and I hope to do a follow up blog in the near future.