Interior landscapes: In conversation with Kimo Nelson

Landscape art, once chiefly the domain of the picturesque, has gained a new urgency and political charge in recent times as the world grapples with the escalating climate crisis. Now, this previously benign classical subject matter has become loaded with new meanings and metaphor. For New York based artist Kimo Nelson, wild places and the great outdoors offer a doorway into himself. Spending time in nature is for him akin to a form of meditation and reflection, which through his art, he hopes to invite others to share and experience. The landscapes in Kimo’s work, while meticulously executed, are more than representational ‘windows on the world’. Through his paintings, Kimo aims to evoke the sensory experience of being outdoors and in nature—the awe we experienced in places of natural beauty. His colours are vivid, almost psychedelic, challenging the viewer to look again, open their mind, be receptive to the sheer wonder of the natural world. Without personifying the landscape, Kimo hopes his art will convey some of the preciousness of nature and therefore the importance of caring and protecting it.

Kimo’s luminous and detailed paintings resemble topographical maps, where layers of paint are built up, like sediment in a landscape, to create the composition. Using a process that resembles screen printing, Kimo deconstructs the elements of a landscape and reassembles them layer by layer, colour by colour, building the composition gradually, much like the geological process of erosion and formation itself. Kimo spends a lot of time outdoors, particularly in the Pacific Northwest and Grand Canyon National Park. On trips he makes drawings, takes photos and records the environment to take back to his studio. Then begins the process of sifting and sorting the source material, looking for clues to the start of the next work.

photo by Brad Ogbonna, used with permission from the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program

AMM: Hi Kimo! Your art is very much focused on the natural world; are there any parallels for you between your understanding or approach to the role of painter and ecologist?

KN: My focus comes from personal experience in wilderness, and the importance I place on spending time in the natural world. In that context I think of these two perspectives as, not so much parallel, but as a duality and I am most interested in where I can find a point of intersection. The perspective of an ecologist is more analytical and objective. This mindset drives the act of collecting and recording when I am out in the field. I make archives of these trips consisting of drawings, photos, audio recordings and found objects when appropriate. The painter is much more reliant on intuition, spontaneity and experimentation. When I am back in the studio and processing what I’ve collected I become more subjective with the material. As I am sifting through my archive I’m looking for a point of departure, usually something seen and experienced. It tends to be something as innocuous as a single observation. It’s usually those details that stimulate the intuitive mindset and I begin the process of making work.

AMM: What are the broad ideas and themes that you explore in your work?

KN: I’ve always been interested in the dynamic aspects of landscape and the larger system of nature that are at work. I don’t anthropomorphize the landscape. I think about its affect on the psyche. I’m interested in how the external space affects the internal space and I try to paint where that intersection is. From that broader mindset and intention each series reveals different themes. For this Canyon series I was most interested in the actions of accumulation and erosion, which speaks to themes of change and flux. There is a constant process of additive and subtractive forces at work that shape the landscape in a geologic sense. There is a connection there with my working process, which we can talk about in more detail. I also thought about that in relation to this push and pull of collected data versus memory, and where there was overlap in what I could see objectively and where there was invention in my memory. Landscape and direct connection to nature can feel like a mirror in the sense that how you experience it and what you remember speaks to where your mind is at that moment. The recent canyon series also started from a personal connection, so my focus became how an individual is having a direct experience by being immersed in a wilderness landscape. The vertical aspect of the compositions, the single point perspective of the viewer, and the portraiture format came out of thinking about that connection.

AMM: What are you currently thinking about in relation to your work?

KN: This is an interesting question in light of current events. I’m constantly thinking about issues around protected wilderness and other current environmental concerns. Much of the protections around public lands are being retracted or removed with the current administration. I’ve also been interested with the resurgence and re-examination of esoteric thought within modern and contemporary art, first with the Hilma af Klint show at the Guggenheim which had a massive response, followed by the Agnes Pelton show which I saw at the Phoenix Art Museum and is currently at the Whitney. This comes out of my interest in internal space and dynamic energy as it relates to the external landscape. However with the current pandemic and the disruption it has caused I think everyone is in a moment of examination and re-evaluation. For artists, I think that means how we look at the work we’ve made might change and most certainly how we make work moving forward will change. Trying to come to grips with that when everything is evolving day by day has been challenging to say the least.

Untitled (GC-25), acrylic, pine needles on canvas, 36 x 32 inches

AMM: Please tell us about your process or working. Are you quite structured and meticulous or do you follow a more spontaneous approach?

KN: I work to find a balance between the two. I always start with drawing. As the drawings move into paintings each body of work develops its own process or structure within which moments of experimentation and spontaneity occur. When I first moved to New York, about eight years ago, I was making abstract paintings that relied much more on chance to make work that felt flat but topographical. I would make layers of paint skins that I would transfer or collage onto a painting. The chance accumulation of paint dictated the final composition. Representational elements started to come into that working process as I started to use more specific pictorial elements to make the paint skin layers. I made a big transition about three years ago by embracing the image and representation but retaining the working process of the transfer and collage. This current body of paintings started with drawings and photographs taken on sight. I used litho crayons and china markers to do quick sketches that I continued to work on back in the studio with the aid of the photographs. From these drawings I would separate out different layers of information much like you would with a screen print. Each layer would be its own paint skin or collage element. In that sense the process for this series has a very specific structure. Within production of each layer I allow myself the freedom of spontaneity and quickness. Depending on the image there tends to be a good deal of material collaged onto the surface, under, between or on top of the paint skin layers. Figuring out how to stack the layers or weave them together is where I get to experiment the most with acrylic mediums and materials.

AMM: What’s on your easel right now? What’s working about the picture and what’s causing a challenge?

KN: As I write this I have begun a new body of work with a different landscape and an expanded idea of what kind of collected material goes into this archive. That is still in the drawing and research stage. I am still deep in that part of the process so what is on the easel is actually a blank canvas that I am not sure how to start. This is a moment of being invested in the drawings and letting them dictate a way forward into the paintings. The challenge for me in these moments is not getting overexcited and trying to push things into production mode before I’ve grasped what this body of work is going to be. That doesn’t mean not working, and waiting for inspiration to strike, I don’t really believe in that. It means trusting this stage of the process and working through it to come to something new, challenging, and unexpected.

AMM: While you’re not necessarily able to paint en plein air, gathering imagery first-hand and making sketches of scenes is an important part of your process. Please tell us about your relationship with nature and the scenes in your art.

KN: My relationship with the Southwest landscape is significant. In addition to studying painting I have a background in Environmental Studies. I also used to work as a professional river guide. Most of my guiding career was based in the Colorado Plateau, a geologic distinction for an area that covers most of Southern Utah, Northern Arizona, Southwestern Colorado, and Northwestern New Mexico. More specifically I guided in Grand Canyon National Park, also in and around Canyonlands National Park. Both parks are part of the Colorado River basin, which includes the Colorado, the Green, and the San Juan Rivers. I spent fifteen years living and working in this area so I feel a very personal connection to this place. I’ve also spent some time doing river expeditions in SE Alaska, and around the Pacific Northwest, where I did my undergraduate education. I recognize the significance of having a unique level of access and experience with these places, which is why I keep coming back to it as source material.

AMM: You use really vivid and saturated colour palettes in your paintings that lend the scenes an almost surrealness. Can you tell us more about colour in your work, how you develop the palettes and also what you aim to achieve with these choices?

KN: Coming back to the idea of personal experience in the landscape, the color palette evolved out of a sense of trying to reconcile the feeling and impact of being in a landscape with the tactile, visceral experience you have viewing a painting. I wanted to avoid illustrating the landscape or illustrating a statement about the landscape and started to think instead about how do you make a painting that approaches what it feels like psychologically and emotionally to be in those places. I feel I am at a disadvantage in the sense that being in a landscape is a full body experience where all five of your senses are engaged and shaping your understanding of the place. However, I take that disadvantage as a challenge and an interesting problem to solve. It becomes an obstruction that helps dictate how the working process comes together and evolves. Being removed from that landscape and trying to get back to that experience vis a vis the painting, I started to play with color relationships and material tactility as a way to evoke that visceral experience. Each painting has a color palette related specifically to the record or the memory of that place. In most cases I start with the local color, the light, or the weather of that day in that place, and in every case the final color palette for each painting ends up somewhere new and unexpected. I also work with a limited palette and mix all my colors from three or four base pigments. No matter how far afield each painting gets color wise the color relationships resonate with each other and avoid getting too muddy.

Untitled (GC-24), 48 x 36 in. acrylic on canvas

AMM: Your art doesn’t put forward an overt ecological statement, yet within a time of wide-spread environmental degradation, landscape painting becomes politically charged. Is this the case for your art? Please share some thoughts about landscape painting in a time of environmental crises.

KN: I don’t put forth an overt statement because if I were to start with a statement I think I would fall into trying to illustrate it pretty quickly, which is not a path I’m interested in personally. Having said that any kind of landscape painting today is viewed as political and I welcome that. I actually struggled with embracing the landscape and representation initially. I didn’t see a way forward that didn’t feel like a cliché. It took our last presidential election and the feeling that the value of public land and wilderness in the US was now under fierce threat for me to realize I couldn’t ignore the impulse to return to the landscape as subject. Another reason I avoid an overt statement is that I feel like they are easily dismissed, you see the political statement and you either agree or disagree and we end up with that polarization that is so hard to work through at the moment. I started to think about what was missing from that conversation. Where I ended up was thinking about why we need to value wilderness as individuals, what they do for us personally and how they affect us. Once we feel the value in that perspective my hope is that it becomes easier to connect and have the larger conversations around the politics and the climate crisis.

AMM: What can nature teach us? What have you learnt about yourself, and your art, from spending time in wild places?

KN: The answer to what it can teach us will vary depending on the individual, what they are going through and what they need at the moment. I think one of the greatest gifts wild places provide is how they function as sites of contemplation. Being in these places strips us bare of whatever we are holding onto psychologically and gives us the space to examine and decide what we want to leave behind and what we want to move forward with. It’s not a coincidence that every major religious or spiritual tradition has a story or myth describing a long period in the wilderness followed by a significant transformation or evolution. This is an important part of our shared human culture and experience.

Personally I had a very unstable childhood in the sense that I grew up in a foreign-service family where we moved every year or two depending on the assignments. By the time I was eleven, I had lived in six different countries. I also grew up between two cultures and two religions, my father being from Utah and raised Mormon, and my mother being from the Philippines and Catholic. My own experience with wilderness was coming to Utah for high school and having the opportunity to begin working as a wilderness guide. Through this experience I found the space to examine myself as an individual and build up an interstitial identity that speaks to all parts of my background. I think this is why I also avoid making too strong a statement in the work, I see a value in making something that is suggestive of beauty or political statement but also allows a viewer the space to become aware of what they are bringing to the experience.

Untitled (K-14), pastel on paper, 12 x 9 inches

AMM: How does living and working in Brooklyn, New York, influence you and the art you make?

KN: As much as I value being in and around wilderness, I also value the distance from that experience in terms of thinking about how to communicate those experiences to an audience who may not have the inclination or the luxury of getting there themselves. I’m also a painter who finds great value in the community of New York and being influenced by a wide variety of artists and processes.

AMM: When you’re not making art, what are some of the things you like to spend time doing?

KN: I try to get out of the City and go back West as much as possible. Anytime I’m back there I try to do some kind of extended activity that gets me back into nature, river trips ideally, or long hikes in the deserts and mountains otherwise. In recent years I have also taken up long distance running as a new passion. I didn’t grow up running and just started jogging when I first moved to New York. About four years ago I acquired a copy of Haruki Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I talk About Running, and was inspired by the connections he made to training, the running mindset and his writing process. In the past few years I’ve worked my way up to distance running and doing longer races. I ran my first marathon in Hawaii last December and am looking forward to doing more. The wilderness trips have a direct connection to the work where the running is not so direct, but I consider both to be very integral to my working process. I also like cooking when I can find the time.

AMM: What keeps you awake at night?

KN: Covid-19 related anxiety keeps me fully awake every other night for some reason at the moment. We will get through it, but not knowing when and what the other side of this looks like is particularly nerve-wracking. Otherwise anxiety about climate change and the future of the world in general are also present.

AMM: Do you have any exciting projects coming up? What’s next for you?

KN: I’m answering this in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic so all my upcoming shows and residencies have been postponed for the time being. I was invited on a river expedition on the Middle Fork of the Salmon in June, which is a very exciting opportunity if it happens. I’m also registered for the New York Marathon this fall, which I’m hoping can proceed as planned. It’s a strange moment to be thinking about what’s next when no one is sure when this crisis will end and how the world will be affected afterwards. I’m trying to be thankful in the moment and continuing to work as much as I can. Right now that looks like a lot of reading, thinking, and drawing.

Find out more about the artist: https: www.kimonelson.com

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

Untitled (K-1), pastel on paper, 12 x 9 inches