Kenton Nelson brings vintage sex appeal back to the beach

By Chase Maser

Nelson’s narrative realism paintings convey larger stories through observations of small moments

Nelson’s narrative realism paintings convey larger stories through observations of small moments

Walking up the driveway of Kenton Nelson’s pastoral estate feels like a journey into the idealized past. An 1893 farmhouse looks like something from a picture book — neat and cozy, nestled among green trees. Succulents bloom between each paver stone leading to a sundeck enveloped by shade. In a blue button-down shirt and jeans, Nelson smiles and waves from the courtyard.

It is in this artistic sanctuary that Nelson creates his evocative oil paintings of a world that time forgot. In a narrative realism style invoking the aesthetics of Southern California in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, observations of ordinary moments — a woman mending the hem of her hiked-up skirt, a man loosening the top button of his tuxedo — become imbued with nostalgia, intrigue and a subtle suggestiveness all at once. They’re part Norman Rockwell, part Raymond Chandler and part something unique to Nelson’s imagination.

“I’m trying to paint a place I’d rather be,” he says. “I wrote in my journal before I started painting that if I could hold and intrigue and inspire a viewer for even just 20 seconds, just do something where it demands their attention, then maybe I’m doing something.”

Nelson’s work has appeared on the cover of The New Yorker five times and anchored gallery exhibits throughout Southern California and central Europe.

Now he’s taking his singular style to the beach.

For “Splash,” a collection of paintings on display through June 26 at the California Heritage Museum in Santa Monica, Nelson’s gaze falls largely on bathing beauties in various states of repose under beach umbrellas or alongside backyard pools. Like his other works these paintings convey small, ordinary moments, but with details rich enough that they begin to form a larger world in the viewer’s mind.

“No one does realist paintings like he does. There is a haunting aspect to his work, a teasing sexuality about his art,” says California Heritage Executive Director Toby Smith, who had reached out to Nelson to do a beach-themed show.

Smith isn’t the first to speak to the underlying sexuality in Nelson’s paintings. Nor does Nelson play coy about it.

“Being a product of advertising and growing up in the ‘50s and 60s, I liked that women back then were very, very provocative. Even women who were fully dressed still made suggestions that weren’t too overt, but definitely intentional,” Nelson says.

A native of Pasadena who still lives and works there today, Nelson’s fond memories of summers spent at the beach made the works in “Splash” a natural fit.

“I spent my whole life in Southern California. I know what life here is all about, and I love it. I can smell the water. I can feel the sand,” he says.

But finding his own artistic vision came relatively late in life for Nelson, who only started painting professionally in his 40s.

Nelson spent his youth “chasing a little bit of a music career,” he says, speaking to a restlessness that continued through his college years.

“I went to Long Beach State and Otis Parsons [now the Otis College of Art and Design] to get the information I could, but I didn’t want to wait to graduate. I just took classes I was interested in — architectural design and graphic design,” says Nelson, who wound up doing commercial design and illustration work for Push Pin Studios in New York and other national advertising firms.

“They would call me and say that Pepsi needs an illustration, and I would say, ‘OK.’ I loved doing that, but with the economic downturn of the early ‘90s the whole industry sort of lost its romance for me,” Nelson says. “Some of my favorite illustrators were brilliant painters, so I went to the art store and bought some paint and some brushes and I started painting to keep my hands full. I figured if someone’s hungry enough, they’ll learn what they’re passionate about and not waste time on the other stuff.”

With his Sable brushes and Winsor paints, Nelson started with what he knew best — the stately homes of Pasadena.

“I thought they were beautiful and I liked how rectilinear they were, how permanent they were; I could pick their weeds and design their hedges,” he says. “After I did 400 paintings of architecture, I thought that if I could paint a figure like I did a house, then maybe I could pull it off. I’m still getting better with each one.”

But Nelson didn’t toil alone, waiting to be discovered. He talked to people about his work— most importantly to Ted Mendenhall, a Pasadena gallery owner with an eye for discovering new artists (including Mark Ryden).

“I walked right into his gallery and said, ‘Hi, I’m working on my first three paintings,’ and he looked at me like I was nuts! Right? I go in there and say, ‘Can I just ask you for some advice?’ And then I’d get to talk to some people, and then we were off and running.”

In 1993, Mendenhall hosted Nelson’s first gallery exhibit.

“If felt like I was 20 years old again,” Nelson recalls. “Everything was new
for me.”

Another profound influence on Nelson’s work was his great uncle, the famed Mexican muralist Roberto Montenegro. (Kenton is Nelson’s middle name — his legal first name is Robert, after Montenegro).

“Roberto was pals with [Jose Celemente] Orozco and [David Alfaro] Siqueiros. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were married in his backyard. I got to hear all those stories growing up, and we inherited some of his work and grew up with it in the house. His work influenced me totally, totally,” Nelson says.

But Nelson’s style isn’t so much a response to Montenegro’s as it is to the American Scene movement of painting, specifically the work of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood — artists he felt had been unfairly relegated to museums and art history books.

“Their voice was distinctly American. When I started painting, there just wasn’t anything like that. There was a lot of conceptual art going on, but painting was totally out of fashion; I just thought that I would do what I wanted to do,” he says.

As our interview draws to a close, it’s almost time for Nelson to get back to work. He gets up from a picnic table in the courtyard and heads inside to grab a soda. His studio walls are lined with books from floor to ceiling. The furniture is antique, and an old record player rests under a sunlit window. He doesn’t just paint a place he’d rather be; he exists there.

“I get here at 7:30 a.m. and I work until 5:30 p.m. I usually eat a Trader Joes burrito at the easel, and that’s it. I gotta get this done,” he says.

“A lot of guys are out here doing this, and I want to be the best. We are preceded by so much greatness. If you look back historically — all of our influences and the people we study — not in my lifetime do I think that I’ll be able to create a painting like those guys, but I can try, and I can have a blast doing it. That’s fun, that’s neat, to be 60 some-odd-years old and still be excited about that.

“Dad worked for General Motors. At the end of his life I asked him, ‘If you could have done anything that you wanted to do, what would you have done?’ He said, ‘I would have been a tenor sax player.’ Thankfully, I’m doing what I want to do.”

“Splash” is on view from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays through June 26 at the California Heritage Museum, 2612 Main St., Santa Monica. Museum admission is $5 to $8. Call (310) 392 8537 or visit for venue information, and see more of Nelson’s work at