Portrait Artist Gets Into Your Head

Musician Rich Nelson saves his soft side for art.
Photo by Will Crooks

“I just keep banging away until it seems to be what I was shooting for,” says Rich Nelson, painter and rock musician. “It really is a bit of a mystery how it goes from being a mess to a work of art,” he admits.

The Detroit-born maker says he seeks “painterly realism” in his canvases. And that’s a lot different than photorealism: “The natural inclination in representational art is to render every little hair or blade of grass, [but] this is not how we see,” he explains. “If you are five feet in front of me, I am looking at your eyes most likely, and the edges of your shirt or whatever is behind you are probably out of focus. So one can get that visual truth into the work.


“You can hopefully tell if I’m painting a head or a tree … but it’s nice to see that it’s still a painting with brushstrokes and other painting effects, which actually mimic the way our eyes and brain see the world.”


Predating his interest in art, music was — and continues to be — a huge part of Nelson’s life. He began playing in bands in high school and performing in bars and making recordings after graduation. “I hit the music thing pretty hard in Detroit, New Jersey, and back to Detroit.” He played in that city with Bitter Sweet Alley, a popular rock band, starting in 1982. By the time he was in his mid twenties, however, he knew he needed something a bit more solid, and so he enrolled in Detroit’s College of Creative Studies, where he earned a BFA in 1988. Following graduation, he worked as an illustrator and, from 1995-’97, returned to CCS as an instructor, teaching anatomy and figure drawing.

Burns Farm

Over the years, his work has transitioned toward portraiture, landscapes, and figurative art. Nelson began getting more and more commissions in the Southeast, leading his wife, Kim, to suggest they move there. “I was on a long trip from Nashville to Greensboro when I first visited Hendersonville and drove through Saluda and Tryon,” he recalls. “I had been painting landscapes for a year, and, though it was February, I loved the way it looked around here.” They ended up moving to Tryon, where they founded Skyuka Fine Art Gallery, a business they ran for five years. Nelson later opened a studio at 362 Depot Street in Asheville, which continues to serve as his primary gallery. And he didn’t shelve music, either, starting the Rich Nelson Band, where he sings lead vocals and plays guitar and keys. 

Anne Louise

The COVID-19 pandemic has, of course, impacted his art career, but he says the situation is slowly beginning to improve. “I had some portraits to work on and have gotten a few more in the last few months, and I’ve gotten to have the first sittings.” Nelson put the Wednesday Night Head Study, a weekly program at Tryon Painters and Sculptors, on pause, starting it back up on June 17. And he recently accepted visitors back to his studio in the River Arts District: “The door is wide open, with sanitizer and masks available, and generally it’s just a few people here and there.”


Nelson lauds the work of his fellow RAD artists and predicts that things “will be rocking again.” 

Rich Nelson, Tryon. Nelson’s studio/gallery is located at 362 Depot St. in Asheville’s River Arts District. (His work is also for sale at Portraits, Inc., 2706 Greenville Hwy., Flat Rock.) For more information, visit richardchristiannelson.com.

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