88 Sabrina Nelson


Born Detroit, 1967 / BFA, College for Creative Studies, Lives in Detroit

Every artist has an origin story—a tale of becoming.

Some artists remember, as Sabrina Nelson does, “like it was yesterday.” In fact Nelson’s moment dates back to 4th grade—around Valentine’s Day. “The teacher had asked us to draw a heart. So I did and this boy said, ‘You didn’t draw that; girls can’t draw.’” Nelson chuckles, recalling how swiftly she schooled the boy (“I was like, ‘Yes, I can.'”) But the humor in her voice and lightness in her eyes fade as she explains the moment’s imprint. “He really gave me my feminist wings and my artist wings. I’ve been drawing ever since.’’

All these years later, Nelson’s art is far more textured, socially inspired and multidimensional. She is a lover of work that ignites conversation, of muses who defy easy understanding, and she is a proud maker of imperfect figurative drawings and paintings that intentionally call viewers closer.

“I can draw with exactness, do a portrait that looks so real,’’ she says, “that it’s just the exercise of drawing the realness. But I don’t want my work to be that. I want it to be imperfect because perfection is a lie.’’

To Nelson, who also teaches drawing at the Detroit Institute of Arts, “the gesture of drawing has more to say. It’s about who’s drawing versus what, or who, they’re drawing. It’s harder too because you have to let go of all the things you’ve been taught and just feel your way through.’’

Nelson explores this idea to its extreme in Baldwin & Me (2017), a series of intimate ink and paper sketches of the iconic author James Baldwin. Rather than simply capture Baldwin’s well known features, the gap in this teeth, Nelson opted for a mix of heavy, spare, partial and even slightly exaggerated “essence” drawings.  The collection was a focal point of the College for Creative Studies’ group show, Evidence of Things Not Seen, works—including pieces by her son, Yale-trained artist Mario Moore—that explore interconnected realms of black life. (CCS is also where Nelson works. She’s recruited for CCS for nearly 25 years.)

It’s easy to imagine the author and the artist sitting and swapping laughs, but Baldwin became a muse only by accident. Nelson happened to be  accompanying friends to the James Baldwin Conference in Paris, when suddenly she was asked to submit sketches. Nelson quickly “baptized” herself in his image and his words.

“Anybody can draw James Baldwin and people have,’’ she says. “This was about finding James Baldwin in me. I could hear him, his sassiness, his love of life and of a good laugh and his blackness; the essence of who he was and how he lived, that’s what I wanted the work to show.’’

Nelson’s reverence for Baldwin is second only to that of Frida Kahlo. The Mexican painter is the subject of one of her signature works, Me & Frida, Whole Heart/Her Hurt (2015), an acrylic on board that juxtaposes vibrant colors with a subtle and bloody commentary on Kahlo’s infamous heartbreak. The piece is a testament to one of Nelson’s secret wishes. “I like to think that I am the spirit of her child that she left behind,’’ she says, referring to a miscarriage Kahlo suffered in 1932 at Henry Ford Hospital. “I was born at Henry Ford.’’

What Nelson sees in Kahlo—an unyielding spirit of freedom and fiery femininity—partly explains why she has mostly trained her pen, pencils and paint brushes on women. “For so long, I hadn’t done drawings of men because I thought so many others had given them life. I am always drawn more to the underdog. For me, usually that’s women.’’ With Charity Hicks Water Warrior, #wagelove (2016), Nelson felt compelled to celebrate the life of Charity Hicks, the woman whose protest against water-shut offs in Detroit drew the attention of the United Nation and earned her the moniker “The People’s Warrior.’’ A mixed-media piece entitled Lawdy Lil Mama (also 2016) pays simultaneous tribute to the strength of black women, in general, and to the late postmodern painter Barkley L. Hendricks, in particular.

A woman is also at the heart of Nelson next big project, illustrating poet Jessica Care Moore’s new book-length tribute to Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman who was found hanged in a Texas jail. “Women can’t ever see ourselves enough. Especially now.”  

As passionate as Nelson is about the social relevance of the subjects she takes on, there is another hidden, more personal element embedded in every creation. Some call it drive. She calls it her Detroitness.  “This is who I am. This is my line. I’m always making.’’

I never stop.’’

Nichole M. Christian, December 2017

Copyright Essay’d 2017