When Dan Nelson ’77 transferred to Calvin College in the mid-’70s, it was for three reasons: to get a degree in art (his previous school did not have such a major), to run cross country and to play the trumpet in a music ensemble.
He got to do all three. What he did not expect is that, 35 years later, he would align himself with the college theologically—and visit Grand Rapids again as a public artist.
“I’ve been on a journey,” said Nelson, while taking a break from a massive 65-portrait piece titled “Points of View” for ArtPrize 2012, the major public art contest in downtown Grand Rapids each September.
“Especially the last dozen years or so,” he said, “it has all been a journey into grace. I now see every person’s work as a calling that is holy—a breakdown of the clergy/laity divide.”
After Calvin, Nelson pursued a ministerial degree and served as a youth pastor and head pastor in a variety of churches and ministries. He thought the pulpit was the only way to spread God’s message of salvation and reconciliation.
Today, Nelson believes that holy callings reach artists, too—a very Reformed thought, he says. While he uses his gifts for many forms of artistic endeavor, he is particularly energized by the outdoor, large-scale public art experience.
His ArtPrize work has paintings suspended on a framework that is 25 feet wide, 8 feet tall and 4 feet deep. Depending on where one stands when viewing the piece, background scenes of Grand Rapids and Michigan become visible. Many of the frames are portraits of persons who stopped by his work, young and old, from a variety of cultures.
“Artists shift the culture of cities. They alter the atmosphere—and they’ve been doing so for centuries,” said Nelson. “The steering wheel of the city is in its center, in the heart of the city, outdoors in the streets. That’s where I want to do art.”
Nelson has been an agent of change in his home city of Raleigh, N.C. He was in the forefront of a downtown renaissance that turned an unused pedestrian mall into a community space where residents want to linger. Because of his numerous festival appearances and civic art projects, he’s regarded as the most recognized artist in the city.
“God has a destiny for every city,” said Nelson, “a glorious destiny. I want to be a part of that in my city and help bring beauty, joy and peace to Raleigh. It comes one chip—chink-chink—from the artist at a time.”
As a public persona, he calls himself an “art entertainer,” but there is a serious goal behind his beautiful work and banter with people as they watch him work on his canvases.
“I know what I’ve done when I finish a monumental work like the one at ArtPrize, 65 paintings in two weeks,” he said. “I feel as though I’ve climbed Mount Everest. And God is working in it all.”