North Dakota League of Cities, CITY SCAN, by Cathryn Spryncznatyk, November 2004

Remembering our nation’s veterans isn’t something that just happens on
Veteran’s Day for Scott Nelson.  It is something the farmer/rancher from
Solen does continually through his paintings and depictions of WWII.
For Nelson the inspiration came from a desire to paint a North Dakota
flyer and a realization about North Dakota’s aging veteran population.
“I was always kind of interested in WWII aircraft,” Nelson said.  “About 5
years ago I realized that these veterans were getting older and the
stories were going to be gone.”
Nelson had heard about WWII veteran Noble Peterson’s stories from the war
and contacted Peterson to interview him.
Peterson told Nelson many stories, but one story stuck with Nelson.  While
Peterson was flying his P-51D “Dakota Kid II”, he shot down a German
aircraft in an air fight.  After the German pilot bailed out of his
smoking airplane, Peterson flew around and gave a friendly wave, which the
parachuting pilot returned.  It was a moment of humanity in the war; both
men knew their air fight was nothing personal.
Nelson chose to depict that scene and set to work researching the type of
plane Peterson and the German pilot had flown.  After painting the first
version of the picture, Nelson showed it to Peterson and asked for any
suggestions that might make it more accurate according to what Peterson
“I was going to stop with that [painting] but people kept saying you
should do this one and you should do that one,” Nelson said.
From there Nelson began the series.  “I listen to their stories and the
pictures just sort of pop into my head.  I do a lot of research to make
sure everything is as accurate as possible.”  Nelson spends an extended
amount of time researching the planes through books and the Internet.
Usually when he finishes that stage, the hard part is over.
“Once I start the painting it doesn’t seem to take that long,” Nelson
said.  “The planes can vary so much.  There are so many versions of the
same plane and the markings on them.  Research can last for months and
months where just the painting itself might last for a few weeks.”
After the first version is completed, Nelson shows the painting to the
veteran who told the story.  The veteran makes suggestions to make the
painting more like the memory.  After Nelson gets final approval on the
artwork, both the artist and the veteran sign the painting.
“That sort of signs off on the authenticity,” Nelson said.
The paintings aren’t done to show off skill.  They aren’t created to
showcase composition or technique.  They have been painted to record
memories from North Dakota veterans of WWII.  Nelson said some of the
veterans are reluctant to tell their stories because they think no one is
interested.  Once he coaxes them into reliving the tales, Nelson said he
finds they appreciate having a chance to share.
Nelson said Buck Cleven, co-creator of the painting called “Our Baby,”
used to get in contact with all of his former crew members on October 8,
the anniversary of the date their airplane went down in 1943 and were
captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp.  Cleven is the only
crewmember still alive, but has sent prints of the painting of his old
plane, “Our Baby,” to the families of his crewmates.
Nelson has been creating art all his life, even though he was never
formally trained.  His family sent him to Bismarck for art classes but
that didn’t last long.  Nelson said he was too stubborn and didn’t want to
draw what he was instructed to draw.  Now Nelson does oil painting,
watercolor, ink and Illustrations for cowboy poets in his spare time.
Recently Nelson created the illustrations for “Wilbur’s Christmas Gift” by
cowboy poet and North Dakota rancher Rodney Nelson (no relation).
Nelson does most of his art in the winter because farming and ranching has
to take priority during the rest of the year.
“I don’t think I could be just a full time artist, if I had to get up and
do art all day.  If I had to choose, that would be pretty hard,” Nelson
said there wouldn’t be any artwork if I didn’t do farming and ranching
because that kind of inspires me.”  Nelson said he likes to create art
that draws a reaction from people rather than letting them just pass by.
He said he hopes his painting of a cowboy walking in the middle of the
night to an outhouse full of skunks elicits a laugh, while his painting of
homestead family burying a baby encourages a more solemn reaction.  “I
like doing something that when somebody looks at it, it touches them in
some way,” Nelson said.  “I like it when someone walks by, they show some
sort of emotion—sadness or a giggle or something.  I’ve had people look at
something I’ve painted and tell me they would never hang it in their
house.  That’s OK because at least it made an impression on them.”
Scott Nelson is a farmer and rancher from near Solen N.D.  He lives with
his wife, Lori; 8-year-old daughter, Majalisa; and 5-year-old son, Levi.