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Jim Nelson has a unique approach to marketing his art. “I give my paintings away,” says the contemporary painter of American Indian subjects. “I sell the spirit I paint into each piece.”

Those familiar with his work know exactly what he means.

His vivid color palette, the patterns and symbols he incorporates, even the direction a subject faces—all have spiritual significance rooted in Lakota and Nez Perce cultural traditions. Collectors of his work also know that beneath up to 10 layers of acrylic on each of his paintings Nelson has incorporated hidden symbols—perhaps a medicine wheel or a bear paw print—integral to the spiritual dimension of the piece.

The Anglo artist’s respect for Indian culture is so deep, he is certain the spirits of the subjects he paints ultimately guide how he will render the image. “I paint the eyes first,” he explains, “and they impart what they want to see around them. The image flows out of my body into the brush and onto the canvas.” He often finds himself “pulled into a piece” to the point he cannot speak or eat. “Once I am ‘in there,’ I cannot get out until I am done.”

He acknowledges that explanation may be difficult for some to comprehend. “I could talk about the symbolism and spirit and culture represented in one of my paintings for days. Red represents the sun, which to a native American controls the universe. Blue represents Father Sky, green is Mother Earth, and yellow is the color of the cold stone left after everything has been created.”

Representing wisdom, Nelson explains, are stars, as in his work Bring the Buffalo, in which blue stars cascade down the right shoulder of an Indian figure scanning the horizon for bison. Broad checkerboard patterns call to mind past generations, while smaller checkerboards signify generations to come. Antlers on the headdress of a Lakota hunter represent the deer that died to feed his family—placed there so the spirit of the animal can continue to look over the land and roam free.

‘I paint the eyes first, and they impart what they want to see around them. The image flows out of my body into the brush and onto the canvas’

“The spirit of my paintings cannot be contained,” Nelson says, explaining why his art flows off the edge of a canvas and why he frames pieces with a simple quarter-inch black wooden border.

Nelson’s path to prominence as a self-taught painter had inauspicious roots. Diagnosed with dyslexia in early childhood and notably unable to contain his writing within prescribed lines, he was given crayons and blank paper. That freedom to create fostered his passion for painting.

His fascination for Indian culture took root at age 10 when he first joined his grandmother, a Christian Science missionary, on visits to Indian reservations in South Dakota. “I would just listen and talk to the elders,” he recalls, “and attend as many ceremonies as I could.” He soon learned to speak fluent Lakota and developed a circle of close Indian friends. An elder ultimately adopted him into the tribe and gave him an Indian name.

After returning from service in Vietnam, the former Marine worked construction jobs by day and on his painting technique every night. He initially remained so uncertain about his work, he hid the canvases inside a closet. Then his daughter persuaded him to enter an art show, where he won first prize. He followed that up by entering a juried show, at which a judge told Nelson his was the only true art entered.

Realizing he might be able to make a living at what he loved, he turned to painting full-time.

Native Americans identify with Nelson’s work. As some approach his paintings, they make a scooping motion with their hands to pull the spirit of the works toward them. Years ago popular Pascua Yaqui artist Amado Pena purchased two of Nelson’s canvases and kept one on either side of his easel for inspiration.

Others question how and, indeed, whether a blue-eyed white man can represent Indian culture. “Merle Locke, the renowned Native American ledger artist, once asked me, ‘Why do you paint my people?’” Nelson recalls. “I talked to him in Lakota about my knowledge and respect for his culture. Later he returned with a gift of a buffalo robe. It was a wonderful compliment.”

Though his spirit remains in Indian country, 72-year-old Nelson is now a resident of Whidbey Island, Wash., and enjoys an entirely different view from his studio window—a panorama of Puget Sound and the snowcapped Cascades. His works remain as popular as ever.

For a quarter-century Betty Wilde of Wilde Meyer Gallery [] in Scottsdale, Ariz., has shown Nelson’s paintings and championed his work. “Artists traditionally use color as an element in their painting,” Wilde says, “but Jim has always been about telling a story with his colors.” She believes his work has gotten more vivid over the years, and demand for it has been correspondingly strong. “We take as many canvases as we can get.” WW