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Visual artist Ment Nelson garners attention for depictions of rural life

Visual artist Ment Nelson garners attention for depictions of rural life
January 2020
PHOTOGRAPHER: 

The Varnville artist debuts new works at Charleston show in February





(Left) Visual artist Ment Nelson near his home in Varnville, where he paints on his front-porch studio; (Right) Backwoods Baptism (9 x 12 inches watercolor on cotton paper)

“No one’s ever heard of it, but everyone’s seen it.” That’s how visual artist Ment Nelson describes his hometown of Varnville, South Carolina, a rural dot on the map about an hour-and-a-half west of Charleston that served as the backdrop for many scenes in the film Forrest Gump. While the town hasn’t grown much since 1994, Nelson is determined to prove that location doesn’t dictate success. A painter, illustrator, and collagist, the self-taught artist with social media savvy, has gained a national following working from a “makeshift studio” on his front porch.

Last year, Nelson sparked Internet chatter when he priced his watercolor of Donald Trump and Kanye West at $1 million. The piece is still for sale, but he says the high asking amount is intended to start a conversation about how aspiring artists should value their work.

In 2018, Ment collaborated on a series of portraits that were displayed at the Museum of Modern Art PS1’s Artbook shop in New York. Through 2023, the traveling Smithsonian exhibit, “Crossroads: Change in Rural America,” is showing his ink-to-digital work Old Sheldon, inspired by his grandmother. We caught up with the artist as he prepares to release a new series of Lowcountry watercolors for an exhibition next month at downtown’s Meyer Vogl gallery.

Born for This: I credit my mother and my teachers for being my support system and seeing my potential. I was always drawing and creating, but they’re the ones who would tell me, “You’re going to be an artist one day.”

Powerful Namesake: My mom grew up in the same neighborhood as the Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Ridgeland, South Carolina. She was close friends with his mother and was on the phone with her when it came time to deliver me. My mother really admired Clementa, so knowing that I’m named after him changed my perspective. At birth, there was already a purpose to my life. That’s why I take what I do so seriously.

On the Map: A lot of people assume their success is attached to their location, but I never believed any of that. Living in rural South Carolina, the narrative has always been about getting away from this place. I want to reverse that. I started researching more about my town and discovered all these interesting facts about the area and people from here. (Did you know that former baseball player, Dwight Smith, who is from Varnville, is the only rookie to sing the national anthem before a game?) For me, that was confirmation from the universe that I was on the right path. As an artist, a place like Varnville is a blank canvas. There’s so much competition in places like Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York, whereas here, there’s an opportunity to create things that are missing.

Creative Process: I go with the flow. I used to try to stick to one particular style or medium, but my interests would go somewhere else. After a while, I learned that I’m most creative when I get everything out and make all my pieces coexist. That’s how my mind works; my art is a reflection of me and what I care about—from capturing older generations to what’s going on in politics and our culture. As a conduit, it’s almost impossible for me not to dive into that.

Family Legacy: One of my proudest accomplishments has been the collaboration with my grandmother for the Old Sheldon piece. I drew a picture of her crabbing, and on the surface, it’s art, but underneath, it’s documentation—recording this moment in time. I wanted to be able to preserve her legacy so future generations who don’t get to meet her can still feel connected. We made stickers and hats with the drawing, and I had her model the lookbook.

Staying True: I can’t dictate what people take away from my work, but I can make sure what I’m creating comes from a genuine, sincere place. Ultimately, I want people to view my work, and me as an artist, and realize that location doesn’t necessarily determine potential. I hope I inspire others to use everything that’s at their disposal. If they see me doing something with what I’ve got, then hopefully they’re motivated to keep going.

Ment Nelson: New Works Exhibition featuring Lowcountry watercolor paintings by artist Ment Nelson

Opening Reception, February 7, 5-8 p.m.

Meyer Vogl Gallery, 122 Meeting St., meyervogl.com

Resources: 

Photograph Courtesy of (painting) Ment Nelson