There’s been much debate, in the past few weeks, about whether President Biden’s emphasis on infrastructure, public spending, and government support merits comparison to the New Deal. For the cover of the Money Issue, Kenton Nelson evokes one of the hallmarks of that program: the Works Progress Administration, or W.P.A., which put millions of Americans to work in a time of staggering unemployment. We recently talked to Nelson about how he was inspired by Depression-era muralists, and about his experience during the pandemic.
This painting evokes much of the art created by and for the W.P.A. Do you draw inspiration from any particular artists?
I’ve always been inspired by the design of J. C. Leyendecker’s Arrow Collar ads, and by Maxfield Parrish’s mural works, especially “Old King Cole” at the St. Regis Hotel, in New York. Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, with their distinct American voices, were also influential. Benton’s murals at the Met are something to behold! Lastly, I couldn’t help but be influenced by my great-uncle Roberto Montenegro, and by his friends Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
You often depict the formal beauty of everyday America. Do you travel in the U.S. a lot? Where do you find that small-town feeling preserved?
I was born and raised in the small provincial town of Pasadena, California, which is full of beautiful architecture and charm. But I do travel a lot, as I’m intrigued by how people live. The intimacy of some of the outer boroughs in New York is fascinating. Every person has a remarkable story, which can be found in the fabric of their neighborhood.
You’ve been a working artist for decades. Have you ever had another job to support yourself?
No, I started doing graphic design and illustration while I was going to college. In the early nineties, with the advent of the computer and desktop publishing, I decided to teach myself how to paint, and have been working at that ever since.
If you hadn’t become an artist, what other jobs would have attracted you?
I have always been jealous of good jazz musicians, vocalists in particular.
Did COVID-19 change your work patterns much? Did you begin any new projects as a result of the shutdown?
My studio is a couple miles from my home. I missed one day of work in the last fifteen months, but that was because of a hip replacement. I love what I do, and tend to be a little compulsive.
See below for more covers on the theme of money: