In the Press


(From an article published in the U.S. Marshals Monitor)

With his paintings now gracing the walls of art galleries from New York to Hawaii, this former Chief from the Eastern District of California has come a long way from making simple pencil drawings of disgruntled western marshals.

Michael Nelson retired from USMS after 30 years of service in 1999. And while he never exactly had a paintbrush in his holster, he did carry with him a strong desire to paint.

Cultivating a talent

So how exactly does a career gun-toter become an accomplished artist? Nelson says that when he was 40 years old, his wife figures he should work on developing his obvious artistic skills. So, she talked him into taking painting lesson at night at a local high school. But after going to a few of the classes, he soured on the whole situation. “I was bored to death,” Nelson said. They wanted me to paint these little brown bowls of fruit”. “So I quit”.

After this failed attempt at little brown bowls, the Chief set his sights on learning how to create what he really wanted to paint – landscapes and seascapes. In time he met Gary Langdon and it was this noted artist from Madera, California who helped Nelson accomplish his goal. “I remember showing him several of my poor attempts at oil paintings and my pencil sketch book.” “He took one look at the paintings and tossed them in the trash can” “ He then looked at the drawing and said if I can draw like that, I could paint”. He enrolled Nelson that night into his advanced oil painting class.

Once a week for three years, he soaked up as much of Langdon’s knowledge as he could. But then the teacher leveled with his student. “[Langdon] came up to me one night and said, ‘you know, all you do anymore is sit in your corner of the classroom and paint. I never give you advice anymore. There’s nothing else I can teach you so you’re just wasting your money plus my other students are starting to ask you for advice instead of me.’” Nelson clearly understood the compliment and stopped attending the class. He continued to paint on his own, and he still keeps in touch with Langdon.

Expanding his portfolio

Soon afterward, after meeting a nationally renowned marine artist and instructor named Robert Taylor, he turned his attention to painting the abundant and colorful life under the sea. Under Taylor, Nelson refined his color and glazing techniques, and he quickly mastered this foray into the underwater world. Recognizing his pupil’s talent, Taylor became his agent. He produced three of Nelson’s paintings as limited edition prints and he later landed 16 of his works in the Seaside Fine Art Gallery in Wailea, on the Hawaiian Island of Maui and his prints at the Center Art Gallery in Honolulu. “Hawaii is a hard market to get into,” Nelson said, in his typically unassuming manner. “They usually only take works from local artist.” But Nelson didn’t limit himself to painting picturesque landscapes and colorful marine scenes of whales and lush flora. He soon branched out, expanding his painting horizons to include majestic golf holes, seascapes and wildlife.

A recreational golfer who admits that he is getting “only a little better” now that he’s retired, Nelson painted numerous golf holes with astounding accuracy, including those of Augusta National in Georgia and Pebble Beach in California. In fact, after completing a painting of the California State Capital for a lobbying firm, he was commissioned to paint a golf hole at a local course that is being dedicated as a memorial to a local state politician who died of cancer

Nelson, who paints with oils and acrylics, is still amazed at how his forte – once just a pleasant pastime – has blossomed over the years. “I never had any blueprints for this side hobby of mine. Things just kind of fell into my lap along the way and door just kind of opened up.”

A poignant, Old West legacy

In 1988, then Director Stanley Morris contacted Nelson to create a painting for the agency’s bicentennial the following year. Nelson said, “I remember him telling me that he had looked all over for a painting depicting Marshal’s and couldn’t find any.” Morris wanted the painting to capture the essence of the U.S. Marshal’s frontier. The oil painting Nelson created now on permanent display in the Director’s lobby at Headquarters. Entitled “One to Bury, One to Hang”, it depicts three marshals, on horseback, bringing in a pair of wanted criminals from the mountains in the wintertime. One alive, the other draped over a saddle. Looking back, Nelson jokingly says that the painting was easier to create than the title. “After I finished it, I said, ‘What am I going to call this thing.’ I toyed with all sorts of names until I settled on ‘One to Bury, One to Hang. “And it’s interesting because some people say that they don’t much care for the painting but that they love the title.”

Eventually, 1,000 prints were produced, of which 700 have been sold to U.S. Marshal’s all over the country. Nelson, whose sole purpose in creating the painting was to honor deputy marshals, called many districts around the country to find out what price employees would be willing to pay for the prints. Even though the average price was over $150, with the U.S. Marshal’s Foundation suggesting $500, Nelson, whose originals sell for upwards of $8,000, set the price at $100 per print to keep it within the price range of rank-and-file deputy marshals. His “One to Bury, One to Hang” print has become a national symbol of the Service. The Smithsonian Institution prominently featured the original as part of a traveling display of agency memorabilia several years ago and reprints hand in 90% of Marshal’s offices around the country.

Still cranking ‘em out

Nowadays, this former chief deputy marshal spends roughly 40 hours per week enjoying his craft at his home and studio in Carmichael, Calif. Although Nelson is modest by nature, his paintings have not escaped the recognition of the experts. He has won First Place, People’s Choice and Best of Show honors at local art exhibits and his artwork has been published in calendars sold all around the world. Local television stations have aired segments on his artwork, and he has been featured in the Sacramento Magazine, Sacramento Bee and several art magazines such as Art News and Wildlife Art. “Unlike some things in life that you become attached to, I don’t get attached to my paintings,” he said “Basically, once I’m done with one, I’ll move on to the next.” Nelson added that every painting he does is his favorite – until he does his next one. And he admitted to being his worst critic. “I guess the day I become satisfied with my art is the day I’ll hang my brushes up alongside my gun.”

All text and images copyright Nelson Fine Arts. All Rights Reserved.