Like any artist who has enjoyed a long and successful career, Robert Lyn Nelson has mastered a wide variety of disciplines and explored a myriad of themes as he’s followed his vocation. A contemporary artist with an extensive body of work, his imagery has not only been shown in hundreds of exhibitions and become part of many public and private collections but has even made its way onto currency and album covers.
Discovering Nelson’s vast portfolio is to wander through many of the traditional byways of both art history (abstract expressionism, cubism, impressionism, surrealism) and contemporary art (environmental surrealism, photorealism, collage, monotypes, and conceptual art). Along with his deep spiritual ties to the natural world, his art is anchored in an ongoing exploration of – and veneration for – the post-Renaissance canon of painting.
His current work continues to explore different techniques, emphasizing the versatility in method that has underpinned his long pursuit of our relationship with the natural world.
Though only in his 60s, he is nearing the semicentennial of his public career. He held his first solo show – which sold out – at age 14 and was the youngest artist ever to have a solo exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (2001). His From Sea to Shining Sea – a work of significance to the environmental movement – was the official painting for the U.S Pavilion at Expo ’98 (Lisbon World Exposition).
Originally from California, his formal academic training began when – at age thirteen – he was awarded a scholarship to study at Mount San Antonio College. Considered a child prodigy, he began painting when he was five. His teen years were spent exploring technique and studying the artists who would play essential roles throughout his career, including Wyeth, Dalí, Rockwell, Parrish, Picasso, Leonardo, and Rembrandt.
Eventually, the abstract expressionism of Hockney, Richter, and O’ Keefe became a guiding influence. His subsequent career took him down many other paths – including exploring saturated color palettes that jump from the frame in ways akin to Parris – but recently Nelson has returned to darker hues and
kinetic canvases that bring him back to his roots. In addition, he has continued explorations in what he calls Musical Surrealism – interpretations of composers as widely diverse as Mozart to The Beatles. This latest phase of his career has produced powerful, nature-themed abstracts and his Beatles Tribute Series, a collection of surreal interpretations of some of the band’s expansive songbook.
Having lived and worked in Hawaii for decades, it is there that he found a direct and overwhelming connection to nature.
Nelson has a relatively high profile beyond the formal art world due to his playing a pivotal role in the founding of the contemporary Marine Art Movement. Driven by his deep bond with the natural world – a theme that cuts across his work regardless of style – Nelson’s concern about the health of the planet and climate change is intrinsic to not only his art. He has served on the board of directors of the National Marine Sanctuaries Foundation and lent support to many environmental groups including Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society, Greenpeace, World Wildlife Federation, National Geographic Society, and The Cousteau Society.
In 1997, Vice President Al Gore awarded him the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Environmental Hero Award.
The former vice president is one of many high-profile collectors of Nelson’s work. Others include or have included Bill and Hillary Clinton, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, George W. Bush, Barbara Bush, Clint Eastwood, Willie Nelson, Bruno Mars, Marlon Brando, Jimmy Buffet, Leonard Nimoy, Paloma Picasso, Sir Paul McCartney, and more.
His work has been featured in a wide range of galleries and exhibitions. One of his paintings graces the cover of the Beach Boys album Summer in Paradise, while the Republic of Palau used his imagery on its Marine Life Protection commemorative coins. The United Nations has also used his artwork in a number of publications.
Nelson continues to explore the boundaries that are possible within modern painting. He is simultaneously deeply rooted within the contours of the medium’s history while confronting the realities of the contemporary world.