Art Beat: Painting Big

Aug 6, 2020

Ellen Nelson at work on the grain silo near Tecumseh, Michigan
Credit Leonard Swanson

It's hard to miss the bright and colorful art of Ellen Nelson. It’s big. So, you’ve probably seen her murals in and on the outside of buildings throughout Kalamazoo.


You may have caught one of her exhibits at an area gallery or visited her studio in the Park Trades Center during an Art Hop. Recently, we convinced Ellen to climb down from a grain silo in Tecumseh, Michigan, where she’s putting the final touches on some sky-high flowers and butterflies, to talk about her work.

“I received a phone call a few months ago from someone who wanted to commission this project,” Nelson says. “The owners of the property are moving to Tecumseh. They were originally going to tear down the silo, but they decided to go the other way and refurbish it and turn it into something everyone can enjoy.”

Paintings by Ellen Nelson
Credit Leonard Swanson

Nelson benefited from the Kalamazoo Promise scholarship to fund her college education. That made it possible for her to pursue her passion for art. If it hadn’t been for the Promise, Nelson says, she might not have been able to choose art as a career.

“It’s hard to think about,” she says. “I got 100 percent of the Promise, an absolutely tremendous gift, so I got to go to University of Michigan, my school of choice. And you know the art world is not easy. You don’t necessarily make a lot of money, at least to start. Maybe I would have still gone to art school, but my career path would have been very different.”

Earning commissions and other sales, Nelson is now able to work as a full-time professional artist. Many of her murals appear on or in buildings around Kalamazoo, including one on the Ambati florist building — a mural she painted right out of high school. Another commissioned by the Vine Neighborhood Association appears on a building on the corner of Westnedge and Vine streets.

Recently, Nelson participated in a citywide project organized by Kalamazoo artists to paint on boarded-up windows downtown after a Black Lives Matter protest. Nelson says the work commemorates the causes the movement fights for.

“I definitely don’t want to minimize the pain and suffering that have brought about these protests, but the idea was that life goes on, and out of hurt and suffering there can be beauty. We have to keep moving on.”

Other Nelson murals appear inside the Park Trades Center building, where she keeps a studio.

Listen to WMUK's Art Beat every Friday at 7:50 a.m. and 4:20 p.m.

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