Photo by Ann Nelson
Esther Nelson and Fred Nelson at their Three Generations show at Walter's. The charcoal drawing at left is by Esther Nelson. The painting behind them is by Fred Nelson. The two paintings on the back right are by Gunner Nelson, the other participant in the show.

At Large in Ballard: Three Generations

I suppose I knew when I said goodbye last summer to a lifelong family friend that it was probably forever. My husband had been trying to warn me, and also prodding me to finally talk to Bill about purchasing one of his paintings. “I don’t like to sell them to my friends,” Bill said. It was the first summer in my life that he wasn’t in his art studio.

“But it gives us such pleasure to have your work on our walls,” I told him. “Shouldn’t we be able to have that?”

He died three days after, but not before quizzing his daughter and granddaughter who went right from the airport to his side about their own work. He worried whether his granddaughter could make a living as an artist.

Throughout our home we have works from all three generations of their family on my walls: Bill’s watercolors of me as a child; his daughter’s silk-screen of grey whales. Now granddaughter Katherine has also sent me a piece, a wood block carving of my mother’s Heavenly Blue morning glories, as a thank you for the obituary.

When I glimpsed the Ballard Artwalk December exhibit at The Scoop at Walter’s on 32nd NW, the bold colors and varied styles drew me closer. The artist statement revealing that it was the work of three generations hooked me like a fish wanting to be caught.

Father, son, granddaughter ... Gunner, Frederic and Esther Nelson. Gunner Nelson works mostly in oils, always in vivid colors, painting landscapes and what he sees in front of him. His son Fred’s paintings are abstract, his father says, “Fred paints larger than me,” even when the actual canvas size is the same or smaller. Esther, a senior at Ballard High School, prefers to work in charcoals on brown paper, “Because it makes it seem like less of a sketch.”

Fred Nelson lives with his family in the neighborhood. The Scoop has always been a destination for ice cream and more recently a morning ritual for Fred on his way to work. Thinking about the connection created with his dad, and now with his daughter, through a mutual love of creating art outside of their professional and student lives he conceived the idea of a family show.

Fred said about his father’s work, “He paints what attracts him. His credo is ‘keep it simple.’” He had hoped to be able to get his parents up from Florence, Oregon to see the show, which is on display through December 31st, but the 350 miles are prohibitive.

“When he’s not painting, he’s thinking about painting,” Fred said of his father, 91 year-old Gunner Nelson. As for his oldest daughter Esther, who completed the Biotech Program at Ballard last year and will graduate this spring, “She loves Genetics, I hadn’t really encouraged the art.”

I spoke with Gunner Nelson by telephone, fetched by his wife from his studio. “When I don’t paint,” he said, “Something is missing.” When Fred and his family visit, “We all go out sketching together, unless the weather is bad.” He recounted a snowbound visit in Ballard and how he and his son set up easels together overlooking Shilshole. As for granddaughter Esther, named for his mother, “She’s a natural,” he pronounced.

Gunner Nelson spoke of Christmases when four sons were still at home, or close enough to visit. “In the afternoon we would go out with our cameras, we all had cameras. We’d go 20-30 miles west and stay out there till almost dark. Back then we worked with slides. So back home we’d go to the basement and print up all these slides. Then we’d have our dinner and special Christmas drink…we’re Svenske! Then we’d watch the slideshow and do critique. Oh, we had so much fun.”

What Fred Nelson recalls as a child is, “Good conversations with my dad about the paintings he was working on. Forty years later I am having similar conversations with my kids.”

Fascinating for me about the exhibit at The Scoop is the contrasts and the similarities. Going from far left to back right you’re stopped in your tracks by Cave Painting by Gunner, led past Esther’s more classical portrait and still life charcoals, between Fred’s bold abstracts and Gunner’s landscapes. At the other end is a wall-sized Seattle triptych by Fred. The grandfather and granddaughter show simplicity and precision, the father and son share bold colors.

In the artist statement Fred writes: After I left home my father started encouraging me to try painting. I ignored that repeated advice for years. Then one morning an idea for a painting just popped into my head. That got me started. My paintings often have many layers of paint and can take a long while to evolve. When I get stuck, or think the painting might be done, I turn to my kids for an opinion.

Art exhibits are scheduled months in advance so I don’t know if it’s coincidence for the Three Generations show to occur during the holiday season. Even if they haven’t all been able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in front of their works three generations are nonetheless united for the holidays within the steamy quarters of The Scoop. I envy them, but their exhibit warms me. They know what they have together is special.

Three Generations will be on display at 6408 32nd Ave NW through 12.31.12. For more information on Artwalk and images from other Ballard venues visit

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