Native Arts | Benjamin Nelson

They Have Much Honor by Benjamin Nelson. painting, southwest art.
They Have Much Honor by Benjamin Nelson

By Dottie Indyke

When Benjamin Ahn-Hia-Ohm Nelson’s father claims that his son “knows people in high places,” it’s not just a parent’s prideful boast. The 18-year-old Nelson has met movie stars and presidents. In 1997, when then-President Clinton was visiting Nelson’s Albuquerque school, the young artist gave one of his paintings to a Secret Service agent as a gift for the president. Clinton insisted on meeting the boy, promising him that his painting would hang in the front hall of the White House.

Perhaps it’s all in a day’s work for this gifted youngster, who’s been painting since the age of 7. Nelson swept his Santa Fe Indian Market category in 1994, winning best of division; first, second, and third place; and the Patrick Swazo-Hinds Memorial Award for Excellence in Painting. He graced the cover of Indian Artist magazine at the ripe old age of 13 and was one of the youngest artists included in the Biographical Directory of Native American Painters.

Nelson’s success stems from his captivating pen-and-watercolor paintings, which are inspired by Native American ledger drawings. “Back in the 1800s when the Plains Indians were put on reservations, they started to become restless,” Nelson says. “Soldiers gave them ledger books and asked them to draw accounts of certain battles and war parties.”

In Nelson’s paintings, Indian life is portrayed through gaily colored tents, men riding on horseback, and lines of women carrying flags. Shadowy, airbrushed images mirroring the painting’s subjects provide the backgrounds. Highly stylized, almost cartoonish, the intricately detailed figures are charming and spontaneous and illustrate a competence with color and composition that belies the artist’s age. His ideas come from studying his people’s history and listening to his grandparents’ stories. Recently Nelson began making portraits, such as one of a Mandan warrior dressed in black headdress and leather leggings and carrying a staff.

Nelson’s dad, Navajo Bennie “Yellow Man” Nelson, is also an accomplished painter. His mom Diane, a poet, is Kiowa, Taos Pueblo, and Delaware. The extended family includes sculptors, jewelers, painters, and weavers. To Benjamin, this artistic Native American heritage “gives me a sense of belonging and having a history—not only being Indian, but also knowing I’m a part of something and that I represent not only myself but also my parents, my tribe, and God.”

Certainly his talent is God-given. Nelson showed an aptitude for art very early in his life and to this day is self-taught. “At 7, he came to me with a black-and-white drawing of horses on typewriter paper,” recalls his father. “I gave him a few pieces of watercolor paper, and hours later he brought drawings to me that were even better. And they got better and better from there.”

The younger Nelson, who also uses his Kiowa name, Ahn-Hia-Ohm (“he knows”), credits his father as his primary inspiration. “Just watching him and seeing how he loved what he was doing and how he impacted people’s lives with his artwork made me want to do it,” Nelson says. “When he paints, it’s more than just paint on a piece of paper—it’s emotional. The way he is able to touch people is kind of amazing to me.

“I paint because I enjoy it,” Nelson continues. “But mainly I don’t do it for me. When people tell me my paintings make their day less stressful, that they’re esthetically pleasing to the eye, that makes me keep wanting to paint.”

The boy who once aspired to become a professional football player, an environmental lawyer, and the first Native American president of the United States is now poised to attend the University of Oklahoma on an art scholarship. He continues to win awards wherever he shows; he received two of the three youth awards given at the 2000 Santa Fe Indian Market.

“When he first started out people said he’d lose interest,” says Nelson’s dad. “Instead he’s accumulated accolades. Ben has superseded me in so many ways. I’m very proud of what he’s accomplished.”

Benjamin Nelson’s work may be seen at Kiva Fine Arts, Santa Fe, NM; Golden Gecko, Sedona, AZ; and Wright’s Collection of Indian Fine Arts, Albuquerque, NM.

Look for new works by Nelson and hundreds of other leading Native American artists at the upcoming Santa Fe Indian Market, August 18-19 on the Santa Fe Plaza.

Featured in “Native Arts” April 2001