The cover of this year’s Health Issue, by the artist Kenton Nelson, is his fifth for the magazine. Nelson, who worked for years as an illustrator, was born in Pasadena, where he still lives and produces his paintings, which elevate the common man and woman into gleaming American icons. We recently asked him about how he got into painting, and why the past is so present in his work.
You’ve said that you’ve been inspired by New Deal-era painters. Who are your main inspirations? What about them appeals?
Thomas Hart Benton, Edward Hopper, Grant Wood, and Millard Sheets, to name a few. One of the things I admire most about the W.P.A. artists and Regionalists is that their work was intended to inspire and uplift people during the Depression. The work is heroic, idealistic, and positive, in a distinctive American style.
Nelson’s previous New Yorker covers explore a range of topics.
The people you portray seem to radiate a traditional ideal of health. What does “health” mean to you?
To me, health to me is doing the work necessary to keep fit, both physically and mentally. Maintenance. I suppose it’s also trying to hold on to the health of our younger days—a visit to the proverbial “fountain of youth,” if even for a sip. If I can’t achieve it, at least I can paint it.
You started out as a musician, then moved to illustration. What led you to pick up a brush?
Music was a dream of youth. Making art felt like a hobby, and still does. And the idea of doing it to make a living was even better. My love and enthusiasm for it allows me to do it for eighteen hours a day; it’s still always what I would rather be doing. I’m on holiday now, and am supposed to be relaxing, and I’m working on a watercolor.
Your style and subject matter, which is often deemed “retro,” hasn’t shifted too much over the decades. Has the meaning of “retro” changed for you?
I think of Gabriel García Márquez: “the charitable deceptions of nostalgia.” My painting draws on my youth, growing up in the nineteen-fifties and sixties; on my parents’ stories about their lives; and on what I saw in advertising and movies back in the day. It’s idealistic; life the way I imagined it would be. It does seem a more elegant time, when a person would dress up out of respect for another, when social graces were alive and thriving. In regard to fashion, as always, everything old is made new again.
See below for other covers about fitness:
“Early Start,” by Carter Goodrich
“Golden Hour,” by Frank Viva
“The Finish Line,” by R. Kikuo Johnson