You’ve probably seen “Two Worlds,” a painting that simultaneously shows what’s above and below the ocean’s surface.
Like the Apollo photographs of the Earth from space, “Two Worlds” made people see marine life in a new way: beautiful, colorful, fragile.
Its painter, Robert Lyn Nelson, grew up in landlocked Ontario. A resident of Hawaii since the 1970s, he’s back in his hometown this weekend for an exhibit with the playful, self-referential title “The Many Worlds of Robert Lyn Nelson.”
There are a few marine paintings, of course, but the show is meant to give a broader view of what he does: landscapes, still life, pop art, impressionism, cubism and surrealism.
This is the first time the enormously successful artist, many of whose paintings fetch six figures, has exhibited in Ontario.
“I feel quite honored to be back here. It’s very exciting,” Nelson tells me Friday morning in the Chaffey Community Museum of Art, crediting Mayor Paul Leon, a personal friend, with making the show happen.
The show opened Jan. 13. The artist reception was postponed until COVID-19 case numbers fell sufficiently. A VIP event Saturday will be followed Sunday, March 6, by a chance to meet the artist from 2-4 p.m. at the museum, 217 S. Lemon Ave., to which the public is invited. The show closes March 19.
Dressed down and wearing a cap over his wild COVID hair, the artist is personable and modest. A resident of Maui, he’d arrived Thursday — his first plane flight in more than two years — and leaves Monday.
Air travel was halted for a year to and from the islands. The effect was dramatic. “It was like Hawaii, 1920. Skies empty, hotels empty, beaches empty,” Nelson says. “I got to paint seven days a week without interruption.”
We walk around the exhibit as he remarks on paintings done in styles reminiscent of Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Picasso. Some Euclid Avenue scenes in an impressionist vein look as if Claude Monet had set up an easel in the median.
A few interpret Beatles songs like “Come Together,” “Goodnight” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
“They’re just my homages to the Beatles and how they changed the world when I was a kid,” says Nelson, 67. He’s done 45 such paintings so far. Are the surviving Beatles aware of them?
“Paul owns ‘Blackbird,’ the original to ‘Blackbird,’” Nelson offers.
That’s a big leap from Ontario.
His grandfather drove here in the 1920s in a Model T and bought a lemon and orange grove in Upland off Seventh Street.
Nelson’s parents, William and Irma, settled in Ontario off Euclid. Nelson recalls an idyllic childhood with playtime in citrus and avocado groves and frequent trips up to Mount Baldy.
“I grew up surfing and going to the mountains, going to the desert,” Nelson says. “Surfed constantly as a kid.”
Nelson began drawing at age 3 with pencil and charcoal. He was painting at 5 and winning awards from second grade on.
“I still have a lot of them,” he says of his childhood art, pulling up two on his phone from his Instagram feed. A clear, precise drawing of a Medieval scene is signed “Bobby Nelson, age 5.” “That’s a castle,” he tells me unnecessarily.
At age 13, he was not only attending Chaffey High, where he graduated in 1973, he was accepted into college, taking afternoon, evening and weekend classes at Chaffey College and Mount San Antonio College.
Accepted into the San Francisco Academy of Art, he first went to Hawaii, where he planned to surf for a month. Instead he became so enchanted with the islands that he stayed.
Any regrets about skipping formal training? “Not at all. It’s been the best life imaginable. To be influenced by Hawaii and all its bright colors, it’s like Gaugin and Tahiti. It just changed my work,” Nelson says.
“Two Worlds” came to him in the late 1970s when he was living in Lahaina, Hawaii, and seeing whales as he went diving.
“I was about 22. I thought, Nobody’s ever painted whales underwater,” Nelson recalls. “I did a few paintings and it caught on quickly because it was new. A whole new school of art.”
The Modern Marine Movement, it’s called. He gained celebrity clients such as Ronald Reagan, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Marlon Brando, went diving from the Red Sea to the Barrier Reef and co-founded the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation with Jean-Michel Cousteau. He got an award as an environmental hero from Al Gore.
Heady stuff. Eventually, the Modern Marine Movement that defined him began to seem limiting.
“Not to sound egotistical, but I must’ve been the world’s most imitated artist at the time. I wanted my work to be unique. I didn’t want it to be so mass-marketed,” Nelson says. “I never wanted to be one kind of artist.”
He’s been a commercial success, not a critical one. “I’m pursuing that now,” he says. “I spent 30 years trying to save the world, trying to save the oceans specifically, and probably didn’t go deep enough into academics.”
Museum recognition might cement his legacy, he says. Or perhaps it’s been cemented already.
“I started something new with marine art. The artists who are remembered are the ones who did something new,” he muses. “Maybe I’ll be remembered.”
What does it mean to the small museum to have Robert Lyn Nelson here?
“A lot. The connection to Ontario is the most special thing,” says Nancy DeDiemar, the museum’s president. “The number of paintings in the exhibit and the breadth of the styles really showcases an enormous artistic talent, and really reflects back on all of us who live in Ontario or work in Ontario. Here’s our guy!”
I hope it all goes swimmingly.
A microchipped cat missing from Jurupa Valley since wandering away from home in 2015 was found recently in downtown Riverside. Eight-year-old Ebi was delivered to her rightful owners, Joe and Leanna Drnec, even though they now live in Tennessee. The chief of Riverside County Animal Services, John Welsh, flew with Ebi to Nashville on his own dime. Welsh told People magazine: “The logistics were basically me asking my wife, ‘Can I do this?’”
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