Chad Nelson: Art Educator

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Chad Nelson’s roots in art and craft are well grounded. His father is an accomplished woodworker and studied art in college. His mother works needle point, quilting, and sewing. Nelson, himself, is an art teacher at Brandon Valley High School, and is also a skilled printmaker. However, printmaking was secondary, Nelson wanted to be a teacher. It is a passion he attributes to the strong role models he has had in his life – from his mom and dad, to his high school art teacher, to college professors.

“Not only did they teach me how to be an artist, they taught me how to be a person, too,” said Nelson. “They were all very caring, and usually went beyond their roles of just a teacher, [et cetera]. It very much affected me, and I wanted to do that for other people, too.”

teaching a student how to operate the press
teaching a student how to operate the press

Nelson has built up his program at Brandon Valley High School over the last 11 years, and structures his curriculum to start small. Gradually, he will add more variables, building on the students’ knowledge base, instead of jumping into something big right from the get-go.

Like many high school art courses, students taking the classes are not always artistically inclined individuals. Many come into Nelson’s class intimidated that they can’t draw. To which Nelson replies, good, let’s learn; explaining that they are not there because they are a great artist full of knowledge, they are there to acquire that knowledge. Nelson is also sure to express to his students that no matter the level of experience as an artist, there are always obstacles. By showing them his own struggles and progressions as an artist, he hopes to put them at ease. With hard work and practice, struggle will always be followed by progress.

BVHS Homecoming
BVHS Homecoming

Though he would not say it is easy to teach, it is not as difficult as it was when he first started. The most difficult thing, he notes, is a student who has a very challenging lack of work ethic. The fact that sometimes kids do not value what art has to offer can be an obstacle, as well.

“We’re not all going to go out and be artists,” Nelson tells his students day one. “You need to think about what you learn in this class, and how you can apply that to other things.”

Utilizing something he calls active looking skills and visual literacy, Nelson teaches students to look at a problem and solve that problem through his/her own experiences, ideas, and creative problem solving skills (called divergent thinking skills). One of Nelson’s favorite pieces to look at with his students is Andrew Wyeth’s painting, Christina’s World. They use visual literacy to really look at the work of art and decipher the artist’s intent, and the story behind the piece. Through active looking, they observe how things work in great detail, from perspective to angles.

progress shot of the Burlap Wolf King album cover
progress shot of the Burlap Wolf King album cover

“Those things help with other areas academic-wise,” said Nelson. “Art may not be something they’re going to use vocationally, but it’s definitely something that they can put in their toolbox to apply universally in their lives.”

If they have a work day in class, Nelson might work on some of his own work with the students. However, getting to know the students is one of his top priorities as a teacher. It is something, Nelson feels, is key to helping a student succeed. On days when he is not lecturing or giving direction, he likes to make a point of spending time with all of his students at each table on a rotating basis.

“If you don’t know your students,” said Nelson,” you don’t know how to raise the level of concern [should they be struggling].”

working on mezzotints
working on mezzotints

Next year, Brandon Valley will have the highest enrollment they have ever had, with one quarter of the entire student body taking the art intro class.

“[Brandon Valley] is a wonderful, wonderful place to teach – the people I work with are amazing, the administration is amazing. I’m just a lucky guy that way.”

In addition to being a full-time teacher, Nelson is the artist in residence in the printmaking studio at Augustana. There, he assists Professor Scott Parsons and his students, while also working on his own projects. With family his number one priority, much of his work gets done at home by the kitchen table, yet on a Friday or Saturday night he might find himself at work in the studio until two in the morning.

Nelson is known for his prolific production of prints – producing 10 editions in a single semester (his record still standing at 23). He never really knew what printmaking was until his sophomore year of college at Augustana. While Nelson liked work by artists like M.C. Escher, his emphasis was actually in ceramics. He had no idea what the process for printmaking was. With some influence from his college advisor and mentor, Carl Grupp, and eventually after a few years teaching and deeply investigating his own art, he found that the 2-dimensional plane was where he belonged.

"Fire Above, Ice Below"
“Fire Above, Ice Below”

Nelson’s process starts out with a sketchbook, much like any other artist. He collects images, and photographs he has taken, and will juxtapose two separate ideas together to create a narrative. Sometimes he will separate a single image and put them together in a new way to create dialogue. Much of his work tells a story.

Printmaking is largely traditional. Some of Nelson’s techniques go back about 300 years, another close to a thousand years. In mezzotint, he uses an English technique. In woodcut, he combines old European and Asian techniques. Still, print has seen some influence of technology, particularly with the use of Photoshop, as well as in screenprinting.

605 Print Squad
605 Print Squad

Photoshop is a tool Nelson uses to his advantage in preparation for print. It allows him to look at different contrasts, essential colors, and ways of simplifying things down. However, that is as far as it goes. As he says, “I’m going after a human experience.” Something technology does not always translate.

Nelson’s work has always been influenced by nature and science. Some might say there is a darker element to portions of his work. Nelson would agree that in his younger years, that was the point. However, now if there is a darker element, it usually has something to do with the cycle of things – one thing dies, another is born. More recently, he has incorporated a lot of Scandinavian elements into his work, indicative of his Nordic heritage and the core of his brand, Vinland Prints.

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Check out his work!
Nelson is a part of Blood Run Artworks of the Big Sioux, a local artist collaborative. He, along with a roster of fellow artists, are currently set to open an exhibition exploring the history of the Hiawatha Insane Asylum that once operated in Canton. The exhibition titled, I have the Honor to Report, opens January 25 and shows through April 9 at the Center for Western Studies on the campus of Augustana.
Looking ahead, in June, he will be doing a show at the Pearson Lakes Arts Center in Okoboji titled, “Voyages and Variations,” which will feature prints about his travels.

See more on his website, or on Facebook,


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