Heidi Nelson’s painting, Wedding Zig Zag, a watercolor of her son Tim and his wife at their wedding, won second place in Class Three of the fine arts competition in this past summer’s state fair.
Nelson is known for her family portraits, but the subject matter is more one of convenience rather than sentimentality. “It’s really become hard to find other models to work from. ... Family are handy models. They don’t usually say no,” Nelson says.
Nelson has entered paintings in the fair before, “at least six times,” she says. The fair hires a judge for each division who chooses the winners. There are also awards given by organizations like the Minnesota Watercolor Society, of which Nelson is this year’s president.
When did Nelson become interested in art? “You know how everyone buys their kids watercolor sets? My mom bought me a set, and I just never stopped painting,” she says.
“My mom was sort of an artist, though she would say she wasn’t,” says Nelson. “She had tubes of paint, good paint, and she gave them to me. I used them and I kept going.”
Nelson has a fine arts degree from Murray State University in Kentucky where she studied oil painting. She still does some painting with oils, but it’s clear that Nelson loves watercolors, in which she is mainly self-taught.
"In school, kids are handed watercolors and told, Here, paint.' They’re not taught how to paint, the way that they are taught other subjects,” says Nelson.
In addition to being a practicing artist, Nelson also teaches. She holds art classes for adults through St. Paul Public Schools Community Education. Nelson also teaches in her home.
“I call my home Heidi’s House of Art and Respite,” she says. “So many students have said to me, ‘Thank you so much—I’ve been going through—a divorce, cancer, caregiving my husband who has dementia’ and they can come for a couple of hours of creativity. When people are focusing on the art, they don’t think about their problems. So I’m teaching art, but I’m also providing a service where people can come in and have fun for a couple of hours.” Nelson’s classes allow people to connect back to themselves when they are stressed by life’s challenges.
Most of Nelson’ classes are for beginners, but she also works with those who are more advanced.
Nelson says she is semi-retired, but the classes she holds in her home fill up with students. In summer, Nelson holds landscape painting classes outside.
Nelson wants art to be accessible to everyone. “I design my classes so that students can be successful,” she says. “I try to be an encourager.”