Jerry Nelson: Artist friends

Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum
Jerry Nelson

I recently wrote about art festivals and how, when I was a young man, I saw such events about as useful as warts on a gourd.

A reader emailed me about that column. He defended the arts community, saying that art and artists are essential elements of our culture.

I totally agree. Art gives piquancy and depth to our culture, much in the same way that a culture transforms milk into yogurt. I can’t draw a decent stickman, but that only means that I would definitely starve if I were an artist.

I attended the 2021 Brookings Summer Art Festival and chatted with a couple of artist friends whom my wife and I have known for many years.

Virginia Coudron is a painter who grew up on a farm a few miles east of Marshall, Minnesota. I asked Virginia how she got her start in art.

“I always liked to draw, so after high school I enrolled at an industrial design school,” she said. “I then worked at South Dakota State University for 45 years as a graphic designer. I spent most of my spare time honing my artistic skills.”

Many of your paintings depict wildlife or the Old West. Why is that?

“I’ve always loved nature and history and western life. We are all part of this world, and I like to portray wildlife in its natural setting. My painting of Longhorns being herded across a river by a pair of cowboys was inspired by the Artist Ride that’s held each year on the banks of the Cheyenne River. I take a ton of photos during the Artist Ride, which includes models who are dressed as 1800s cavalry, pioneers, cowboys and Plains Indians.”

Tell me about a painting that’s special for you.

“That’s like asking a parent which child is their favorite. But my painting of a Native American chief in full regalia was recently named Best of Show at the Western Wildlife Art Show held in the Historic Vet Hospital at Fort Robinson State Park in Crawford, Nebraska. It’s wonderful to know that my art has touched the hearts of others and has given folks pleasure.”

I told Virginia how deeply I admire her artistic talent. “I couldn’t draw a straight line if you gave me a ruler,” I said.

“I understand,” Virginia replied with a smile. “There are days when I can’t draw a beer!”

Another artist friend I dropped in on was Russ Duerksen and his wife, Rhonda. Russ, who was born in Freeman, South Dakota, has had several of his wildlife paintings selected to be state waterfowl stamps.

I asked Russ how he got into art.

“I was able to draw ever since I can remember,” he said. “There must be a genetic component to this ability; two of my four siblings can also draw. As a boy, I got interested in wildlife when I spent time on my grandparents’ farm.”

Did you receive any formal art training?

“When I was young, I saw one of those Draw Me ads in a magazine and thought, ‘I can do that.’ I sent them a sketch and they accepted me as student. The correspondence course was actually quite helpful. But it only involved line drawings, so it didn’t help me when I began to paint and started mixing and laying down colors. I had to figure that out by trial and error. Lots of error.”

What did you do before you became a professional artist?

“I worked as an electrician. Dad had an electrical contracting business, so I learned the trade from him. I also learned that working in a swine barn can be a smelly proposition.”

When did you decide to become a fulltime artist?

“We began to sell some of my art in 1988. I couldn’t see myself being an electrician for the rest of my life, so in 1993 we decided to try to make art our livelihood. We had saved up a year’s worth of salary. If things didn’t work out, we would simply get jobs and resume working for paychecks.”

Do you paint from memory, or do you use photos?

“I use elements from a variety of photos. For instance, my painting of a snowy owl in flight is a composite. The snowbank comes from a photo that I took, and the owl is from a photo sent to me by a friend in Wisconsin. The most challenging part of that painting was getting the snowdrift right.”

I could empathize with Russ; I also dislike working with snow.

I don’t understand how artists do what they do. But art, like a yummy strawberry yogurt, certainly adds depth and pizazz to our lives.

If you'd like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at jjpcnels@itctel.com. His book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at Workman.com and at booksellers everywhere.