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Tim Nielson paints heroes—iconic, historic, contemporary and real

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In his series "Towards a New American Mythology," Missoula painter Tim Nielson reimagines the assassination of Black Panther member Fred Hampton. The image on which the work is based, a black and white photograph taken just after Chicago police raided Hampton's home on Dec. 4, 1969, shows his dead body sprawled halfway out the doorway of his bedroom, one arm stretching forward and one arm at his side, blood pooling from his head. Nielson rotated the image and painted Hampton as if he were launching upward, arm raised to the sky. It's a small tweak, but it changes the story.

"I was trying to reimagine him as a superhero, and so I turned the picture upside down," Nielson says. "I think art is a way to take some of those facts of life—negative facts of life—and turn them around a little bit."

The series also includes a portrait of songwriter and union organizer Joe Hill, who became famous after being convicted of murder on questionable evidence and executed by a firing squad. A photo of Hill after his execution shows his closed eyes and pale face and bullet holes in his chest. Nielson recreated the image from the neck up. In his portrait, Hill has the same closed-eye visage as in the photograph, but he looks warm and peaceful painted in yellow, blue and black.

"I started a picture of him, but I quit painting before I normally would have," Nielson says. "I'd gotten to the point where it seemed like he was not unhappy. In this picture he's not dead, he's dreaming, so I call it 'Joe Hill Dreams.'"

Nielson has made other conceptual paintings, such as his "The New Army" series, which imagines military and police officers as agents of peace. In one piece, inspired by an iconic 1960s photograph, a soldier's weapon sprouts sunflowers. In another, a policeman approaches a group of demonstrators to give them a megaphone.

Lately Nielson has been making more straightforward portraits, mostly of revolutionaries and historical martyrs that intrigue him. His painting of Canadian revolutionary Louis Riel is part of the upcoming auction exhibit at the Missoula Art Museum, and will go up for bid on Feb. 4. Riel, who founded the province of Manitoba and led two resistance movements with the native Metis people against the Canadian government, fled to the U.S. and lived for a time in Fort Benton. Nielson was born almost a century later in Havre, just north of Fort Benton, near the Rocky Boy's Reservation, and as an adult he became interested in their shared landscape.

"There was always a lot of knee-jerk racism about natives," he says. "There was a lot of contact with people who are connected to that history, but also people who have no sense of the history at all other than knowing there's a reservation there."

Nielson chooses people he admires as subjects, but he tries to depict them without glorifying their mythology too much. Sometimes he chooses his subjects obliquely. Rather than painting Dred Scott, the enslaved African-American man who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom in 1847, he painted Scott's wife, Harriet.

Tim Nielson’s portraits include Native American activist Eloise Cobell, left, and Canadian revolutionary Louis Riel. The painting of Riel is part of MAM’s benefit auction exhibit.
  • Tim Nielson’s portraits include Native American activist Eloise Cobell, left, and Canadian revolutionary Louis Riel. The painting of Riel is part of MAM’s benefit auction exhibit.

"The Supreme Court decided that he wasn't a person of standing because he was of African descent, and so therefore he couldn't sue—because he's not considered a person," Nielson says. "But if he wasn't considered a person, his wife must have been—in the eyes of the Supreme Court—not even remotely a person. That's the ideal for what I paint: getting to someone who's deeper in our history."

Nielson grew up as an athlete and studied at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, where he played football and baseball. The school didn't put sports on a pedestal, which Nielson says helped him see other opportunities in his education. He was inspired by the activist Paul Wellstone, who had been fired and rehired by the college for siding with food service workers in a union dispute. (Wellstone would later become a U.S. senator and die in a plane crash during his re-election campaign.) Eventually, he found a mentor in art history, which is where he landed. Still, he found political activism and history creeping into his work.

One of his first paintings was an exercise in bearing witness to history. He sat down in front of a photograph of Nagasaki after the bomb—an image replete with charred bodies—and tried to recreate it.

"I was trying to deal with the very worst things about the world, and then deal with them aesthetically—make them into a picture," he says. "I wanted to see if I could remove myself just enough and be functional and make these superficial decisions about something that's really terrible. After that I decided that's not what I want to do, but I do want to paint subject matter that is reflective of the not-great nature of the world and its history—and then sort of try to reconcile my love for it."

Nielson taught art at Big Sky High School for 15 years, and has since taught at Sentinel High School for seven. Throughout that time he's amassed a few hundred paintings of only-human heroes, dead and alive: Kurt Vonnegut, Gwendolyn Brooks, Harriet Tubman, Eloise Cobell and Winona LaDuke among them. Tubman's portrait is 10 feet tall.

"It's cool because it's so big," he says. "I don't know that it's cool because it's so good. It's straightforward. I wanted to make Harriet Tubman as big as she deserves to be."

Some portraits aren't that successful, he admits, but the process of painting them makes him feel like he's participating in a larger conversation and paying tribute to people who deserve it. In the future, he wants to create more portraits of lesser-known heroes and of heroes-in-the-making.

"There's all this potential waste of effort in making these paintings, and yet I keep doing it and I get some satisfaction out of it," Nielson says. "Especially in Donald Trump world there's an importance to recognizing people who don't subscribe to the crybaby nihilism that he supports ... who are out in the streets making things happen."

The Missoula Art Museum opens the art auction exhibit Fri., Jan. 6, with a reception from 5 PM to 8.

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The original print version of this article was headlined "Bold strokes"

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