Anne Nelson’s studio in New Orleans’ 8th Ward has 12- or 14-foot ceilings and plenty of light. It’s small—about 15 by 15 feet, and cluttered with canvases. Paintings and sketches hang on the walls.
She is looking at two abstract canvases hanging side-by-side. Each painting is about 3 feet tall and 3 1/2 feet wide.
Nelson is trying to explain what comes next. She points at the left-hand painting.
“Is this one finished?” she asks. “Probably not. Two days ago, I put a lot of black outlines around this mass. I want to bring blue and gray on top to make the surface. A couple of marks that keep it from being finished.”
Making abstract art is a conversational process, she says.
“What I love about it—I don't have complete control over it. I’m going to make marks that I didn’t anticipate. I'll have to react to that. Fun and interesting to do,” she says.
Nelson studied art at Bethel College in Minnesota, near her home in Minneapolis. She began painting representationally—often landscapes. But that began to change as she struggled to make sense of some of her life experiences.
After graduating from Bethel, Nelson moved to New Orleans to be Artist-in-Residence at St. Roch Community Church, a member of the Presbyterian Church in America. During her nine months in that position, she made many paintings. She applied to the Master of Fine Arts program at Tulane University, was accepted, and graduated in May 2013. Since then, she’s been a member of the Staple Goods Collective, where she has her studio—and where she is puzzling over the two canvases.
Nelson said the forms on the canvases aren’t symbols for anything, but they are connected in some way to faith. She rarely paints Christian subjects, but her faith is part of who she is and what she values. The two paintings she’s working on are her first attempts to deal with her faith directly.
“That’s really the first time I’ve deliberately dealt with my faith life as being subject matter,” Nelson says. “It’s slightly terrifying.”
There’s a small gallery at the front of Staple Goods. Nelson has shown her art there and curated shows for other artists. She says trying to make a living as an artist is difficult. She teaches at Tulane, works for Habitat for Humanity, and sells paintings.
“For a couple of years, I was only living off of sales and my grad stipend,” she said. “And then the grad stipend ended, and I went back to work in the real world over the summer just for a few months. But you’re just basically constantly pulling together a variety of ways to fund life.”
She said she loves teaching and hopes to keep doing it. It offers stability and helps her afford art supplies. Canvas is $300 a roll, but it can last 18 months, depending on how much she buys. Paint is $45 a tube. But her biggest expenses are two rents, one for an apartment and the other for her studio. Still, despite all the juggling, Nelson can’t imagine not painting.
“It’s just part of how I think,” she said. “I’m going to respond to something visually. I’m going to be looking at art. It gets really stressful to be constantly tracking down the next job and the next grant and the next residency and the next show. But even if I were to burn out on that for a while, I would still be making stuff in the meantime.”