In Clementa “Ment” Nelson’s illustrations, the rural Lowcountry and the people who make their lives there are depicted with an unusual degree of warmth and familiarity. Somehow, this artist and musician — he’s also in the hip-hop group OXYxMORON — can take simple pen-and-ink line drawings, which he then digitizes and colors, and imbues them with vibrant life.
In the multi-panel “Rev,” a man rides a tractor in the top panel and a horse in the bottom; in “We Got Eight,” a woman standing marsh-side bends over to peer into a crab bucket. Although these characters, and every character in Nelson’s small, six-print debut series are anonymous — they have no faces or other specific identifying features — one gets the feeling that he knows them intimately, and that, by extension, we do too.
That feeling turns out to be correct. Nelson does know these people; in fact, the older woman who shows up in a few images fishing and crabbing is his grandmother. And while Nelson has been drawing and making art for fun since he was a kid, it was actually a recent fishing trip with her that inspired him to get serious about it.
“We used to go fishing and crabbing together a lot when I was younger, but as you get older, we hadn’t done it in a while,” Nelson says. “We just recently started going back out again, and while I was out there, I would take pictures.”
He used some of those pictures as models for his illustrations, he says, “and as a result, that ended up being my first collection.”
Nelson was born and raised in South Carolina. His mother’s family came from a tiny town called Brunson, outside Walterboro, while his father’s family hailed from the Beaufort area. Nelson himself lives in Varnville, about an hour and a half outside Charleston. He’s almost completely self-taught. His formal training is in graphic design, which he studied for two years at Francis Marion College. His style, he thinks, came from seeing his mom doodle when he was a boy.
“She used to draw stick figures on anything — random papers, phone books, anything, when I was little. That’s where I picked it up.”
The rural content of his work, too, comes from things he saw every day as a child. “These are things I grew up doing, and now I’m learning the history behind it,” he says. “I wanted to show the traditions of the Lowcountry, but in a new way.”
Art was the first thing he ever realized he had a gift for, he says, and he’s at a point where he wants to really pursue it. Part of that has to do with his name: Clementa. Nelson’s mother named him after the late pastor and state senator Clementa Pinckney, who was one of the Emanuel Nine; she and Pinckney’s mother were friends. Nelson had just finished his collection when the June 17 massacre occurred, and it prompted a lot of soul searching.
“I feel that it puts me in a position where I can make a decision as to how to carry on his name, in a sense, through my art,” Nelson says.
Currently, that’s what he’s focused on. He’ll be the featured artist at the Colleton Farmers Market in Walterboro this November, and he’s also selling his art online. “I just know that I’m good at it,” he says. “I know it’s a gift. Maybe I’d like to do a few shows or something like that.”