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Conrad Nelson: Synthesis in Printmaking

Article by Clint Driscoll

Local Artists – May 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

Walking into Conrad Nelson’s Buena Vista studio is like walking into a workshop whose owner has not quite decided what business to go into. Chainfalls, chop saws and mechanic’s tool chests sit next to etching presses, drawing tables, computers, and clotheslines of drying prints.

Work surfaces are scattered with pens, brushes, etching plates, and cameras. Pieces of raw marble cover the floor while partially finished acrylic paintings and brightly colored collages share wall space with framed black-and-white photos being readied for a show.

Conrad definitely belongs here. She darts from one corner to another showing finished work and pieces in progress, providing a running narrative on each while simultaneously explaining her outlook and what she tries to portray. Her cheerful, rapid-fire delivery and sudden changes of subject make her seem haphazard; yet a glance out the window reveals a beautifully designed and well-kept garden and her alcove office is as orderly as a sea captain’s cabin.

The seeming contradictions make sense as she begins inking plates for her current project, a series of Edition Variable solar etching prints. This is the studio of an artist whose work requires a full range of subjects, materials, and methods.

The solar etching process epitomizes the eclectic combination of techniques, tools, and media which Conrad delights in using. The process begins by scanning multiple black-and-white, color or infrared photographs into a computer. Graphics can be added and the finished composite is produced as a transparency.

Texture and variation are added to the transparency with an Exacto knife or Stabillo pencil to darken areas or to accentuate lines or particular images in the picture. Then the transparency is exposed onto a light-sensitive plate in sunlight, which etches the image.

Finally the plate is inked and wiped, and the image is imprinted on various types of paper with an etching press. The print can then be colored using acrylics or any other color medium. The coloring is what produces the variation. The basic prints are identical, but the final works differ depending on the color application and the paper used. From many disparate steps comes a final, composite piece.

Conrad began her working life as a corporate banker. She had minored in art and continued studies in drawing and printmaking in Philadelphia. She finally quit the business world and earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts at Millersville University, focusing on printmaking with secondary work in painting and drawing.

“Originally I concentrated on drawing, using no colors at all. But after taking a series of illustration courses with David Passalacqua, I became fascinated with color.”

She began painting and experimenting in sculpture when she moved to Buena Vista. She enjoyed success in both and studied at the Marble Symposium and with Steve Quiller in Creede in acrylics as water medium. But her real passion is printmaking.

“I enjoy painting but have moved away from it and back to photography and printmaking. For me, painting is very intense and requires large blocks of uninterrupted time. Right now, there are too many things going on in my life. Printmaking requires time but each step in the process has a definite ending. I can develop a negative then move away from the project for awhile. Painting forces me to work through to the end — demands too much. Plus, when I’m done, put all that energy in, there is only one piece which I’ve grown very attached to. It’s very hard for me to give up one of my paintings.”

Her work, including most of her photography, is abstract. She may begin with a subject from the real world, natural or human-made, but concentrates only on a small part of it, or alters the viewer’s point of reference. She tries to find, and portray, the essences of subjects, or illustrate an emotion through a “vignette.”

Thus a moon over hills in Death Valley is combined with infrared foliage, tombs in a French cemetery, and graphics. A single chair surrounded by thick grass and a tree in full leaf is photographed in infrared. In both the viewer can see the transition from real to intangible, or experience an emotional response to a form.

“I don’t believe a person needs to go through an intellectual process when viewing abstracts. A reaction is sufficient–especially at first. Later, I hope the viewer will try to understand their reaction or see the part I abstracted in relation to the whole. But first I want to make them feel, then they can relate to it. I guess that’s why I call my work `abstract expressionism.'”

Whatever she chooses to call her work, she is gaining a reputation regionally and nationally. Her next one-woman show will be “Photography: Small Abstractions” at the DeMuth Foundation in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Locally her work can be seen at Town Hall and the Old Courthouse Gallery in Buena Vista, the sculpture garden at the Salida Steam Plant, and the Morlan Fine Art Gallery in Manitou Springs.

Clint Driscoll of Buena Vista is a retired Aurora fireman and an active supporter of the arts.