Karin Nelson: Discovering the Artist Within

(above) Karin nelson sits in front of a collection of her paintings on display at Lafontsee Gallery in Grand Rapids.

by Kim Gill | photography by Two Eagles Marcus

For artist Karin Nelson, the adage, “God works in mysterious ways” certainly rings true. Only eight years ago, the thought of becoming an artist was totally unimaginable to her. She worked full-time on staff at Grand Rapids First. Nelson never really dabbled in art as a child, never took a formal art class and only occasionally did anything crafty while raising her three children with her husband of 41 years. Her artistic revelation and all of her subsequent successes can only be explained, Nelson says, “As a real God story. There is just no way to account for all the crazy things that have happened to me.”

One day in 2009, Nelson had the wild idea to create a painting for her office by copying one she admired in a magazine. Pleased with the result, she showed it to her “artsy friend” Christi, (now dubbed her “Fairy Art Mother”) who was quite impressed by the quality of the piece. She challenged Nelson to use her artistic intuition to interpret photos that she shared with her. Nelson’s next attempt was a simple painting of pears.

“It was like magic; I thought wow, ‘Where did that come from?’ I put this paint on a canvas, and it really looks like something!”

It wasn’t long after that people at work started asking her for paintings.

“One of the best ways of learning, for me, was to deeply analyze paintings that intrigued me.”

After discovering her artist within, Nelson became curious about the potential of this emerging talent. She began her very own art education program. Nelson expanded her knowledge of the art world by visiting museums and galleries. She looked specifically for artwork that appealed to her and really studied it.

“One of the best ways of learning, for me, was to deeply analyze paintings that intrigued me,” Nelson said. “I’d observe the brush strokes, markings and the layering, as well as the emotion that’s expressed by the artist. It’s a common saying that we can only paint what we can see, so I make it a point to look deeply.”

Nelson read a couple of art books and watched art demonstrations on YouTube and public television to develop her skills, learning the basics of handling paint, the brushes and tools and how to create exciting compositions. Most importantly, Nelson painted. Whenever she’d get stuck about how to move forward to the next level of accomplishment, Nelson looked for answers from up above and most often by the next day she’d have an epiphany, an “a-ha” moment, bringing her more insight.

Nelson uses acrylic paint to create her dynamic series of abstracted landscapes, cityscapes, and lakeshore scenes. Buildings are often included in her paintings because she loves the strong contrast of value that they offer. She’s able to accentuate the bright light on one side of the structure to another in dark shadow, providing a sense of drama to the viewer.

“As most every artist says, it’s all about the light,” Nelson explained. “My painting process is fast, high-energy and intuitive: an intense three-way conversation between the scene, the canvas, and me. The mystery and intrigue of this addicting process is, in itself, as deeply satisfying to me as a resulting painting.”

Nelson enjoys being in the “zone:” creating a sense of freedom and yet restraint at the same time. One Last Good-bye is one of Nelson’s favorite paintings because it exemplifies this type of contradictive work (freedom and restraint). She entered it in Artist’s Magazine and became a top finalist, validating her own growth as an artist. In 2014, her painting, Resilience, was chosen for the Holland Tulip Time poster. These successes brought additional unexpected opportunities for Nelson, including a full 10-page cover story about her art in the 2016 fall issue of Acrylic Artist magazine. She has also been featured in articles for the Artist Network about her technique, design and later, “How to make a plan for full-time painting and pay your bills.”

Having also worked as an executive assistant for a CPA for many years, Nelson was able to take a business-like approach to her artwork. What baffled many of her friends and family was her uncharacteristic sales confidence.

“This is a big part of what I describe as the God puzzle,” Nelson said.  “Selling is not my nature, and yet I’d walk into a gallery with my little business card and inquire about displaying my artwork.”

Her tenacity paid off, and by the end of 2009, she began selling her paintings in a high-end boutique. In February 2016, Nelson’s artwork was accepted by LaFontsee Gallery in Grand Rapids and most recently at the Somebody’s Gallery in Petoskey. She’s now contemplating galleries out-of-state to sell her work.

Nelson credits the encouragement of her husband with her new career. “He gave up the entire lower level of our home so I could have my studio; that’s just how supportive he is,” she said.

Working from home provides Nelson with freedom and flexibility.

“I’m not a morning person, so I typically begin painting later in the day after a pot or two of green tea and a bit of dark chocolate,” she shared.

When she’s not painting, Nelson is photographing scenes as references for future paintings. Although she aims to paint 3—6 paintings a month (she works large), Nelson understands the value of a balanced life, particularly when it comes to her family— especially her two granddaughters  with whom she enjoys spending time.

Reflecting back on these last eight life-changing years, she shared a memory of what her brother-in-law said to her one day while standing in her doorway.

“‘Karin, maybe you’re supposed to really go with this thing.’ I chuckled because I hadn’t really taken it seriously at that point, but I’m certainly grateful that I went for it.”

Art has transformed her life in many ways, as Nelson expressed, “I see the entire world now as a mixture on my painting palette. You know, what colors should I mix to get that cloud, that tree, that sidewalk?”

People often ask Nelson, after hearing her story, if this was a “Dare to Dream” type life-goal as if this was something she always wanted to do.

“I literally fell into it, and things started happening,” Nelson revealed. “I truly feel God has a purpose for all of this. I believe we all have creativity in our veins and that it will eventually come out in different ways.”

She wishes for others to find that same excitement when waking up in the morning. Nelson explained, “I can’t wait to discover what I’ll paint next. I’ve never lost that same thrill I got the moment I completed my first painting where, honestly, it felt like I just did
some magic!”

Nelson’s 2017 ArtPrize entry, Trees in the Park, will be on display at the Women’s City Club this fall. For more information about Nelson and her work, please visit her website knelsonart.com and or visit Lafontsee Gallery and their website lafontsee.us.

“I see the entire world now as a mixture on my painting palette. You know, what colors should I mix to get that cloud, that tree, that sidewalk?” 


Kimberly Grace Gill is an independent fine artist specializing in portrait painting typically with a social justice orientation. She is a graduate of Aquinas College and lives in Byron Center with her husband, Pat.


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