Matthew Nelson can best be described as both an artist and a man of faith. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting and drawing from St. Cloud University and followed that with a Master’s in Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis. His work used to be abstract, but now he focuses on very real people trying to find their place in the community. Besides the obvious pop art influence, Nelson draws inspiration from his social justice training and his desire to create change.
Nelson said, “I trained as a chaplain, but I’m not a chaplain. I went through Seminary, but I decided this is where I can get hold of more people.”
From Paint to Prayers and Back Again
The place where Nelson reaches people is not a church; it’s Pops Art Studio, the most recent home for this workshop and gallery.
Nelson traces the shift in his art, and his life’s path, to a time when he saw a homeless woman pushing a cart, walking in yellow flipflops with McDonald’s napkins stuffed under her feet to ease her sores. The fact that he couldn’t change her condition frustrated him. Paired with a visit to a Picasso show, Nelson realized he didn’t want to just create beautiful things; he wanted to make art that helps people.
“When I left, it struck me that the one thing I could do is I could start a conversation. I could put it in front of people’s faces and say, ‘OK, now we need to at least look at this and see there’s someone here,’” Nelson said.
Soon after, he started studying theology. Part of his training as a chaplain at Luther Seminary included learning about racial and social justice. Nelson spent a lot of time counseling and advocating for individuals who came out of prison struggling with mental illness and chemical dependency. He saw the courts ignore them time and time again.
“Most of them were standing there thinking, ‘Can you at least see me as a human being?’ And most couldn’t. That kind of triggered some of my ideas,” Nelson said.
Who Is Beloved?
Nelson creates one piece every day. To keep that momentum, he works in series and often focuses on places or sayings. His current series has a social justice spin. Many of the faces featured in The Beloveds belong to people Nelson has known in his life. The series includes Beloved Drunk, Beloved African American, Beloved Down Syndrome, Beloved Bipolar, among others. It can be jarring to see an individual in a full burka in the same series as a skinhead, but Nelson believes each person belongs.
“They don’t think they’re seen by anyone, don’t think they’re valued. To be calling them beloved and to put the little saint symbol behind them, [I’m saying] they’re both saint and sinner at the same time. Saying we are everything.”
Nelson is in the series, too, as the Beloved Drunk. Being in recovery for 29 years, he has an idea of what it means to struggle and how to let go of blame and hurt. He plans to have a big show featuring all his “beloveds.” At the end of the show, visitors will face a mirror.
Nelson said, “So, you walk through and see all these labels put on people. You’ll find people you want there and people you don’t want there, and then you get to the mirror and think, ‘What do I label myself? Do I fit? Do I belong?’”
Giving Back to the Community
Part of Nelson’s recovery involves making amends to those he’s harmed, but it’s not always possible. Instead, Nelson donates one of every 10 paintings to fundraisers. When profitable enough, Nelson hopes to take on apprentices and teach a trade to those who are struggling.
As the dream expands, Nelson wants to open his studio to support groups in the evenings, and eventually have an artists’ coop so people can learn how to do their own work and have a place to show it. Until then, his focus is making people feel worthy of being looked at.
“Usually when there’s art and sculpture, you do these perfect forms. You train yourself, you have to study all the anatomy underneath. The perfect form, I find, is whoever is in front of me. They’re exactly the way they should be at that moment,” Nelson said.
Nelson has given sermons for hundreds of people, but he truly believes he’s having a larger impact in his tiny studio. He gets to speak to different people and tell them that they are loved, that they have purpose, and that they have something to contribute. They’re often the people that need to hear it most. If you look at Nelson’s workspace you’ll see different religions and philosophies represented, because he doesn’t care what you believe in; he just wants you to believe in something. Mostly he wants you to believe in yourself.
Pops Art Studio is located at 425 SW Madison Avenue. Nelson will officially open it in August, but you can get a sneak peek at his studio during the Corvallis Arts Walk.
By Anika Lautenbach