Nelson Boren | Western Watercolors

By Norman Kolpas

Few artists can pinpoint the precise moment when they resolved to pursue the creative life. For Nelson Boren, however, that turning point came one evening in 1988 at Arizona State University.

Mind you, Boren wasn’t an undergrad at the time. He was 36 years old, a respected architect in the city of Mesa, AZ, and the father of seven children when it occurred to him that he should begin a new career as a painter. “Everybody thought I was crazy,” he recalls with a still-astonished laugh. “I thought I was crazy!”

But strokes of insight can sometimes masquerade as craziness. In Boren’s case, starting again as a watercolorist turned out to be one of the most inspired decisions he ever made, leading to a highly successful, deeply satisfying career as a painter of large-scale, tightly cropped images that capture western life while vividly engaging the viewer’s imagination.

That’s not to suggest, however, that art had never before been part of Boren’s life. His architectural career alone clearly demonstrates he had always possessed a strong aesthetic sensibility, and those leanings can be traced back to his early childhood.

He was born in Arizona to Argentine immigrant parents. Back in Buenos Aires, his father had been a professional soccer player, and he eventually became an accountant here. His mother was an accomplished amateur oil painter and ceramicist, depicting beautiful flowers on china she fired in her own kiln.

Both parents encouraged Nelson, his older brother, and two older sisters to enjoy and participate in art. “The rule in our home,” he recalls, “was that you could only hang on your bedroom walls art that you drew. Being a teenager in the 1960s, I drew a lot of peace symbols and psychedelic stuff.”

At Westwood High, his art experience was limited to one ceramic class. The teacher “made me feel like an artist, like I could do it,” says Boren, who went on to win a Scholastic National Gold Key Award for his work in clay.

That one aesthetic achievement aside, however, his strongest subject was mathematics. “Together, math and art said architecture to me,” says Boren, succinctly explaining the logic behind the career path he determined he’d follow after serving a two-year Mormon mission in Uruguay and Paraguay.

Back from South America, he enrolled in ASU, graduating in 1978 with a master’s degree in architecture. During his studies, he also had a fleeting glimpse of the career revelation yet to come.

“You took one elective class,” says Boren, “and I decided to take a painting course taught by Bob Oliver, an architecture professor who was also a watercolorist in the California style.” Oliver’s classes were demonstrations, in which he completed a painting in 30 minutes on a table at the head of the classroom, while students watched in an angled mirror suspended above him. “I was fascinated,” Boren recalls. “This guy had magic coming out of his brush.”

Fascinated, yes. But at the time, Boren was more focused on building his architecture practice. Soon after graduating and gaining professional registration, he set up shop in Salt Lake City, where he developed a thriving practice specializing in energy-efficient buildings. He also lectured on environmentally responsible design for the U.S. Department of Energy.

In 1982 he moved back to Arizona and set up his practice in his hometown of Mesa. His many commercial and municipal projects went on to receive numerous awards for their innovative designs. “My philosophy,” Boren says, “was that a building ought to be inhabited art.”

Perhaps that flowering of artistic expression through architecture is what eventually gave rise to an unexpected yearning: “I started getting this drive to paint,” he says. So it may well have seemed like divine providence when, one day in 1988, Boren saw a small newspaper ad for a night class in watercolor to be taught by Bob Oliver, his old ASU professor.

Boren signed up for the class, and, once again, magic seemed to flow from Oliver’s brush. After class, Boren approached the teacher and half-jokingly said, “Bob, how about I just buy that brush from you?”

“Nelson,” Oliver replied, holding up the brush. “This is just like a violin. Have you ever heard Itzhak Perlman play the violin? You know why magic comes out of his instrument? Because he practices eight hours a day. If you practice watercolor eight hours a day, magic will come out of your brush, too.”

Most people would have been daunted by such a challenge. But the words struck Boren like a revelation. Almost instantly, he told his business partner that he planned to stop work every day at noon to go home and paint; he also volunteered to take a 50 percent pay cut. With his wife Jeanne’s blessing, he remodeled their home basement, transforming it into a studio. And he began painting six days a week for at least eight hours a day.

Star Chaps by Nelson Boren.

But what to paint, he wondered? “During the four summers I was in school, I worked on a ranch between Scottsdale and Mesa,” says Boren. “We ran cattle and bucked hay. I knew the cowboy life.” Then, flipping through a magazine, a photograph caught his eye: a cowboy walking away from the camera, cropped to show just his knees to the middle of his back.

That image captivated Boren, particularly the way a tightly focused detail engaged the imagination. “I started taking pieces of cowboys and cowgirls—boots, jeans, skirts—and letting them tell stories, the way a really good book draws you in.” He explains the effect as a sort of “gestalt,” like the way the human brain, when presented with a simple line drawing of a partial circle, will mentally complete it.

Several months went by as Boren painted more and more such watercolors, until it dawned on him that the eight-hour-a-day strategy, effective though the results were becoming, wasn’t bringing in any income. “So Jeanne and I packed up two or three of these paintings and started knocking on gallery doors on Main Street in Scottsdale. Among the few that showed some interest was Legacy Gallery, where co-owner Jinger Richardson took in two pieces. Within a few weeks, both had sold—for $l,600 apiece.

“That got me motivated,” Boren laughs, “and I started painting more.” Soon, other galleries began to represent him. “The gestalt cowboy paintings just took off.”

Success instilled in the Borens a yearning for even greater changes. “Around 1989, my wife and I started getting wanderlust. We got tired of the urban sprawl in Mesa and started traveling, looking for someplace new to live.” They settled on the idyllic town of Sandpoint, ID, midway between Coeur d’Alene and the Canadian border, and in late July 1990 they moved the entire family to an 18-acre farm there. Boren set up a studio in an old barn shed, and by summer’s end he was a full-time painter.

“Our oldest kids thought we had gone absolutely hippie on them,” he remembers. “Almost everybody thought we had flipped out. But my parents thought it was the neatest thing.” Soon, everyone in the family agreed it had been “a good move, out of the rat race and into heaven,” with hiking, fishing, water skiing, and snow skiing just minutes away.

Texas Duststorm, watercolor, 42 x 84.

At the age of 58, Boren has been a full-time artist for two decades now. His large-scale watercolors possess a depth and texture far beyond what most people expect of the medium, the result of the artist painstakingly applying layer upon layer of transparent watercolor glazes. “I’m not a big student of art history,” he notes, “but I love the depth the old masters got through glazing techniques in oils. You can do that in watercolors, too.” In his painting TEXAS DUSTSTORM he used as many as eight layers of glazing—along with hammer blows and razor and wire-brush scratches—to capture the cowboy’s well-worn leather chaps.

For all his success, Boren is not content to rest on his laurels, and he continues to explore new means of expression. Recently, in works like SMALL RIVER, BIG FISH, he’s begun to bring his passion for fine detail, rich colors, and a gestalt sensibility to fly-fishing themes. And, as one of 120 select artists, he was recently honored with a commission to contribute a piece in his signature style on a Star Wars theme for a book being put together by George Lucas.

Small River, Big Fish, watercolor, 34 x 44.

He’s also branching into public artworks, having just completed WELCOME TO JACKSON HOLE, a 4-by-24-foot watercolor mural due to debut this month in the town’s airport. And, utilizing his architectural background, he’s now at work on the SANDPOINT ARCH, a colorful, kinetic assemblage of more than 90 large trout cut from discarded reflective road signs that are set to swim across a downtown intersection on an arch of recycled I-beams. “I won’t quit painting,” Boren says, “but I’d like to do more big, three-dimensional projects like this.”

Whether the works are grand-scaled or relatively small, Boren’s aim for them remains the same: “I hope that when people look at my works,” he says, “it stirs a memory or emotion or impression for them, something that makes them reach into their imaginations and complete the story.”

Altermann Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY; Whistle Pik Galleries, Fredericksburg, TX; Joan Marcus Fine Art, Scottsdale, AZ; Morris & Whiteside Galleries, Hilton Head, SC; Big Horn Galleries, Cody, WY, and Tubac, AZ;

Upcoming Shows
Fall Art Classic, Altermann Galleries, October 15-December 31.
November Art Auction, Altermann Galleries, November 14.
Christmas Miniatures Show, Whistle Pik Galleries, November 22-January 15, 2011.
Merry Little Christmas Show, Big Horn Galleries, Tubac and Cody, December.

Featured in November 2010