Rees Nielsen started writing poetry in the late 1960s, found his first short story lurking in his brain in the 1970s, and has been painting seriously for the last twenty-five years. A former farmer, he has followed his own advice to "follow your passion, no matter how absurd that way may seem to everyone else," for which we at Agave Magazine are thankful: his 'Moonlit Woman' and "Yab Yum' both appear in the most recent issue.
AGAVE MAGAZINE: Why did your wife originally encourage you to start painting?
REES NIELSEN: We had moved into a new house. Riina didn't care for prints; she preferred original pieces. Of course we couldn't afford to collect, but we did have a few paintings. Rollin Pickford, the great San Joaquin Valley watercolorist, was a family friend. When we were first married, Rollin and his wife Glenna brought over a stack of paintings and said, "Pick one." We spent hours going over those paintings.
Years later my wife walked up and said, "Paint me something I can hang on the wall." You have to understand, this wasn't a request, this was a challenge. She was saying, paint me something I think is good enough for my wall. It became something we collaborated on. Sometimes she might ask for certain colours or a certain style. She had natural sense of colour and form. Also she knew when to quit. I was always adding one more thing. Riina would look at what I was doing and say, "Stop right there." She taught me much of what I know about painting, just from her own instincts. Coupled to that, my children were a captive audience and as children they were less critical. If I painted them something for Christmas, they were excited whether it came out or not.
You've been painting for the last quarter-century; you also write poetry and prose. Is there one medium you prefer?
I don't know that I prefer one to the other but there are different challenges and rewards. Prose is work. It's fulfillilng, but its a task. It's building a house. Everything has to fit in a logical manner. The plot and characters have to come up to code. You have to have a foundation. You have to frame out the shell. Poetry is more like a journal, a witness that follows you around. Poems are a conversation you are having with yourself.
Painting and printing are the most fun. Writing you can tinker with forever; painting has a life cycle. It has a beginning and an end. It is completely inspiration-driven. There is this image you have in your head, followed by the struggle to bring that image to life. Once you put down the brush it's over and if you like what you have created, you give it to somebody who appreciates it or, if you have the space, you hang it on the wall. If it doesn't come out, well, that can be painful.
What are the easiest and most difficult aspects of your artistic process?
The easiest part of the process is that rhythm of purpose you develop while taking on a project. The hard part has always been stealing the time. By the summer, my cousin Alfred Hanson and I were working 70 hours a week. We were on the road to the farmers' market three days a week, packing our own fruit and running water at night. The summers were consumed by work, but in the winter the pressure wasn't as bad. We were up by 5, I got Riina's coffee going, took a quick spin, if we had crews in the field, then headed home where I could work on something for an hour or two before the kids had to go to school. At lunch I was through the door, ate quick and worked for 45 minutes or an hour. On the weekends, if I could snatch a moment, I worked on whatever was currently at hand. Needless to say I worked very very slowly. At that time my goal was to paint 150 canvases that I was satisfied with, finish my novel and short story collection and keep writing poetry.
How does your background as a fruit farmer inform your art?
The great thing about farming is it forces you out the door before the sun comes up and you are out there till it goes down. In the summer you have water running and you're out there fixing gopher holes at midnight. You become a functioning part of the changing seasons. Alfred and I worked that land for years. I grew up on that land. I played there as a kid. I hunted there. I did every task there was to do on that ranch. It was a way of life. I still remember the roll of thunder and the hail from a passing cloud that destroyed our apricot crop in less than a minute. I remember the price dipping so low we let the crop fall in the field. It was a humbling experience. However on those spring mornings when the orchards were in bloom and the bees were working and those first shafts of light struck through the trees, it was like a walking into a cathedral.
My high school friend and later boss, Harold McClarty, put it like this, "Farmers are clod kickers." A farmer just wants to be left alone by the world so he can roam his land from sunrise to sunset. Similar to artists in that way.
'Moonlit Woman' and 'Yab Yum' were created at around the same time. What sorts of things were inspiring you at the time, and how does your incorporation of curves fall into your portfolio?
Both 'Moonlit Woman' and 'Yab Yum' were created when I first started out. I was attempting to suggest form by using line and silhouette. My figures were usually stylized. The idea of 'Moonlit Woman' is that the line hints at the woman, whose form is filled out by light. If you look at [my son] Nathan's "Syncronicity," that is a different road. It's intricate and complex. I couldn't do something like that.
I have wanted to capture a feeling of movement in a lot of my work, as if there was a sense of wind moving through. Linoleum blocks were easy to cut and I could capture that feeling of motion. I was happy with the play of line on the blank page. The mediums you use do influence your work. I can still see the lino cut influence when I'm painting. When I moved out to Indianola, Nathan built me a bookcase. There was a bunch of wood left over so he constructed a series of wooden canvases. All the painting we have done on these panels have come out differently somehow, darker and more vibrant.