I dont know if eyes are really windows to the soul, but I suspect faces are mirrors of both the heart and the soul, as well as road maps of experience. Bill Nelson has spent much of his life studying faces and then re-creating them in a fashion so memorable that they become more real in some ways than the human faces they represent. He is both sculptor and illustrator, working with Prismacolor colored pencils, Super Sculpey polymer and oil-based clay. What he does is not caricature, which much too often is highly exaggerated and, more often than not, outright cruel. Bills pieces, which he calls push portraits, are categorically respectful of each and every subject.
Bill Nelsons living room is decorated in Arts & Crafts style furnishings, some authentic, others reproductions. Which is fitting, because the house he occupies in Bellevue is a classic Craftsman bungalow and from the back yard you can pretty much see the house a block away where Bill grew up and made his first attempt at the art of reimagined human faces.
Though born in a house on Avondale, Bills parents, Sandy (William Nelson, Sr.) and Olive, moved the family over to Fauquier a couple years later. My mom and dad told me that when they first had me they couldnt afford a crib so I slept in a dresser drawer, he says.
As soon as Bill was able to hold a pen he began to create art. He was just four years old at the time.
It was my very first drawing, he says with broad, beard-trimmed smile. I took my mothers graduation year book from John Marshall and I got a black ballpoint pen. I put moustaches on all the guys. I blacked out the eyes and the teeth of everyone in her entire graduating class, including her.
He pauses, his smile further widening. And I got my first critique from that, too, he says. I got spanked, but from then on, drawing is all I ever wanted to do.Bill
attended Ginter Park Elementary, Chandler Junior High and John Marshall High. What he could not fathom is why he had to learn things he sensed were superfluous. I couldnt understand why I had to learn Math and English and History and nobody ever explained why to my satisfaction, says Bill. I said, Im going to draw; why do I need to know all this stuff? And my father said, Well youll need math if you take measurements in your drawings. And I said. Im not going to take any measurements. I was a hard-headed little bastard. I learned history on my own. You could not force feed me history. And, you know, biology, for instance, why did I need biology except for the obvious reason which I leaned on the street and through on the job experience.
In school he took every art class that was available from first grade through senior year. It was like recess to me and I was encouraged to the point that I thought I was really good.
After graduation, Bill was accepted by Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University). I went in thinking how good I was and, oh brother, what a rude awakening that was. Because there were people there that were so much better than me. It was a real eye-opener, but I needed to learn it.
Bill learned technique and excelled and he noticed something about a number of his fellow students in the arts school. They lacked the drive I had, he says. You can teach technique, but the stick-to-it-ness you cant teach.
Bill had already tried his hand as a cartoonist for The Monocle, John Marshalls student newspaper. At RPI he became the college papers cartoonist and his work was universally liked. Except, as it turns out, for some of the art faculty there, who saw such efforts as low-brow and not quite ethereal enough. I found out years later when I taught at VCU that my instructors were having meetings at night to try and get rid of me because they didnt consider cartooning an art form and they were embarrassed that somebody in the art department was doing cartoons, Bill tells me.
For a time there, Bill really thought he would become a political cartoonist. That is until my father said, Bill in order to be a political cartoonist youve got to understand and know all about politics,͛͟ Bill recalls. And I thought, well forget that.
Instead, Bill decided to go the free-lance route with ad agencies and magazines, and create movie posters and record covers. In college he was already employed in creative services at the Richmond newspapers, doing paste-up and ad design. And when the Richmond Mercury, a heavily funded but short-lived independent tabloid, appeared on the streets, Bill went to work for them. I worked full-time with them for a year and it was grueling and they couldnt afford to keep me on, he says.
But one of the Mercurys former employees, Frank Rich, went to work for New Times magazine in New York, a biweekly that featured great writing by many of the leading New Journalists of that era. I asked him to get me an interview and he did and I flew up to New York and met with the art director and started working for them, says Bill. I ended up doing eleven covers and interior drawings for them, and that was the nucleus of my career.
When Bill was 18 he wandered into a pharmacy in downtown Richmond and behind the counter saw a cute, bubbly, and lovely young woman who happened to be the owners daughter. Her name was Linda and she was just sixteen at the time. Bill was smitten.
At the time my sister had acne so that was my excuse to talk to Linda, Bill says. I must have bought about eight hundred dollars worth of acne stuff just so I could talk to her.
The two later married and ultimately bought a house on Wilmington Avenue where they would live together for more than thirty years.
Not long after his interview with New Times magazine, Bill got a call at five one evening. It was the art director at New Times and they wanted me in New York that night, he says. So I got there and the whole staff was waiting and they told me they wanted me to do the cover. What they wanted was a portrait of Richard Nixon who was on the verge of impeachment. Whats more they had no references in the office, not a single photograph. The staff left him there alone and through the long night, Bill worked away with his Prismacolors. I had to make it up out of my head and I sat there and drew all night and in the morning they came in to see the finished cover, says Bill. I was scared to death. But they liked it. That Nixon cover, that first national cover, was the hardest one I ever did. It was full color with no references. It was frightening, let me tell you.
A few weeks after he finished the Nixon cover, Bill was again called to New York for another assignment. As he sat in the office waiting for the assignment editor, someone showed him a letter New Times had received about Bills depiction of Nixon. The writer of the letter had taken the cover and folded it up about twenty times and had written something really nasty about me and I was really hurt, Bill says. But just then, the publisher came out and gave Bill some truly sage advice:Bill, you dont understand. Any response is good. Just realize that today, and never forget it.
Armed with his first national cover, Bill began sending copies of it to Newsweek, Time, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal and just about any other periodical you can think of. And over the years he would free-lance for all of them, many of them, time and again. I did so many drawings of famous people for The Wall Street Journal, tons of full-color illustrations, that it was almost a weekly assignment, says Bill. That is, until Rupert Murdock bought the paper. He fired the editorial staff and I went right along with them, Bill says.
When I ask him his favorite portrait subject of all time, he says, without a thought: Alan Greenspan. What a face. Ive drawn him three or four times. I just love that fish face and those Coca-Cola glasses and the few strands of hair he tries to comb over. There are just so many planes to draw. That is a face that has character.
Not so with more perfect faces. Right now Ive got to do a ventriloquist figure of David Beckham, the soccer star, and Ive got to make it look exactly like him, says Bill. Ill tell you this, Im not going to have a good time doing it. I love doing craggy faces. And I use a different word than caricature for what I do. I call them push portraits because some caricatures can be rather cruel and I just simply change things a little bit. I lean toward the respectful. Everybody thats earned a station in life had to go through some kind of hell and so I leave them alone. Theyve lived a life, theyve paid their dues. I dont tear them apart.
The biggest challenge Bill ever faced was doing a portrait of one of the most beautiful women of the 20thcentury. I was up for the postage stamp of Marilyn Monroe, Bill says. And the post office art director said, I want you to make this thing so sexy and beautiful that people are going to want to kiss the back of it when they lick it. I did my best, but I didnt get the Marilyn Monroe stamp. That was my biggest challenge, to make her that luscious.
He did create other stamps for the United States Postal Service, though, including a Big Band series, and a 1950s series that featured the tailfin of a Cadillac on one stamp and a vintage jukebox on another. The art director lived outside of DC and he just liked my work and we got along great, says Bill.
Bills also illustrated books, including one he also wrote, a lush coffee table book on Lon Chaney, titled The Man of a Thousand Faces.
For many years, Bill Nelson created many of Richmonds most popular theatre posters. One of the best remembered was the one he did for the Barksdales production of Sweeney Todd. It turned out, though, Bill had misspelled the playwrights first name. I got Sondheim right, I spelled Stephen with a V instead of a PH, he says. So I decided that I should write Sondheim and I sent him a copy of the poster with an apology and I got back the nicest letter from him. It was typed and he had misspelled almost every word and circled each misspelling in red ink and then he wrote at the very bottom of it, Youre not the only one who cant spell. That was awfully nice of him.
He remembers the production Theatre IV did of Little Shop of Horrors and the poster he created for it.
The kids who were in it were still students at VCU and were cast in the leading roles and they wanted to come down to my studio and see me doing the drawing of them, he says. They couldnt believe they were going to be on the poster. If you know the play, the blonde always has a large bosom, well the girl playing that role didnt and she was going to have to wear a push up bra. Anyway they came to mystudio and when she saw the drawing of herself with this large bosom, she said: My hope chest.Nobody could stop laughing.In the late 1980s,
Bill began experimenting in a new medium. I started getting interested in three dimensional stuff and I think the thing that did it for me was Ive been faking a third dimension on a flat plane for so many years that I just had this desire to reach around behind a nostril or behind an ear and I thought, Wait a minute I can do that if I sculpt,͛͟ he says. I found my own medium, Super Sculpy, and at the same time I started subscribing to Doll magazine to see what other people were doing. He had mentors along the way, including Bob McKinley of New York, who died of AIDS.
Many of Bills sculptures are of elfin or hobbit-like creatures, minutely detailed with more than a little whimsy. I got the images directly out of my head, he says. They were dying to come out; I think they were always in there.
Newsweek even commissioned Bill to do a Super Sculpey version of President George H.W. Bush and though they paid him for it, they never ran it on the cover. They realized Bush was on his way out and they didnt want it on the cover, says Bill. But I sent a photo ofit to a Doll magazine and they ran it.Among those who saw it, was Demi Moore. She bought it for Bruce Willis who was a Republican and then she came to our house on Wilmington and commissioned a Barbara Bush and bought a lot of other stuff while she was there, he says. Shes a very nice person.
Over the intervening years, Demi Moore has purchased fifty-nine of Bills sculptures, which can run anywhere from three to five thousand dollars each. She commissioned Bill to create one of Bruce Willis as his character in Last Man Standing. And theres a coda to that purchase. After their marriage broke up I got a box in the mail and it was that doll of Bruce with the legs smashed to smithereens, Bill says. It wasnt done by the post office, either. Somebody had taken a hammer to it and smashed the legs. There was no note. I think she did it and then sent it back to me. As if the flawed being was returned to its creator for proper disposal.
Somewhere in there, Bill also began making ventriloquist figures. Ive always loved puppets and marionettes, he says. But Im no engineer, so I have a partner who does all the stringing. Ventriloquists buy them, but so do collectors. Theres a guy in England whos bought two or three from us and who just commissioned us to do God and I wrote him and said, Theres not a lot of reference material out there on that particular deity, and he said, God looks a lot like a sculpture you did years ago of Albert Einstein. Another guy just commissioned me to do a Donald Trump ventriloquist figure just for the heck of it. I do about three ventriloquist figures a year.
About 15 years ago, Bill and Linda decided to pull up stakes from Richmonds Northside and to head South for the Outer Banks. It was not the best of decisions.
They had a house—a la Frank Lloyd Wright—built on Roanoke Island and not long after they moved in, the couple separated. It was a hard time, says Bill. Manteo was a wasteland for me. Theres no art community down there, there are no art galleries. They call them art galleries, but theyre just gift shops. If you dont draw or paint boats, the sea or fish, they dont accept you and I wasnt accepted. And in the wintertime its even worse down there; its barren, there are no people.
He spent a lot of time with himself holed up in the house. In my house I was happy, but outside of my house there was nothing. I went to things, but I wasnt happy.
Whats more there had been a sea change in the industry Bill had worked in since he was just out of his teens. Computer illustration began to take over and my career was just dying so I didnt have any work, he says. It was a tough time.
And mainly, there was no Linda, the love of Bills life.
Finally, about a year and a half ago, Bill made another decision that would change his world. I had to get out of there for my own sanity and I missed my hometown, Richmond, Bill says.
We step out on the front porch and look up and down the street. The gutters are clean, cars rubber down Brook Road, but its just a slight murmur. Thomas Wolfe said, You can never go home again, but here I am, says Bill Nelson. Theres something quaint about this place and the old homes. Time hasnt touched any of it. You know the other thing about Northside: it doesnt seem to be as snobby as other parts of town. Everybody seems to be accepting of each other. I feel so much better now.
And then theres this: Linda and Bill are together again.