Artist Clementia Nelson, 31, is a child of the internet. "Ment," as he's known, was identified as gifted in third grade. One of the perks he remembers is having early access to the world wide web. "This was when the internet was first coming out, so it wasn't something we were learning in our regular classes. But in our gifted and talented classes, once a week, we would learn how to build websites and how to navigate and search the internet."
Those skills have served him well. Currently, he has over 16,000 followers on Instagram and over 19,000 on Twitter, allowing him to promote the sale of his work to an ever-growing audience. Nelson is perhaps best known for his viral watercolor of Donald Trump and Kanye West, in which Trump bears lipstick marks and Kanye wears a scarlet grin. You may also know him as the artist who priced that watercolor at $1 million. Regardless of how you know him, in a sea of aspiring young artists, more and more people know of Ment Nelson.
Christened Clementia after Clementa C. Pinckney, the South Carolina state senator and senior pastor of Mother Emanuel AME Church, one of the nine gunned down by Dylann Roof in 2015, Nelson says he has always felt there was a purpose to his life.
"I feel a certain responsibility and an opportunity to live up to his legacy," he says. "Not directly; we aren't the same person, but I just feel like there's a calling over my life."
Raised in rural Varnville, S.C., where he moved with his mother, father, and his younger brother from Ridgeland at 4 years old, his talents were recognized and supported early. Now, he says, he understands that being labeled gifted is no different than being identified as having any other special need: "Some people's minds are just created different."
One of his first tastes of artistic achievement came in the fourth grade. Regularly entering art competitions at the behest of his mother and his teachers, Nelson won a contest for his illustration of a local hospital. One of the elements that caught the eye of the judges, and set him above the competition, was his rendering of the grass: "I learned from a painting tutorial on television how to paint grass and that you don't just paint it green, but you mix green and yellow." Despite being lauded by teachers and classmates for his artistic creativity, Nelson did not think of art as a viable career path until, struggling with his grades as a first-generation college student at Francis Marion University, he made the decision to leave school.
"I ended up leaving because I was on academic probation. It wasn't working out, so I just started selling my work online probably back in 2015," he says. "That was when I first started seeing if I could make a reality out of this."
Then it was just simple ink drawings, but with his knowledge of the internet and comfort with social media, his following steadily grew. Leveraging connections made online with other creatives, one of his first shows was in 2018 at the Museum of Modern Art PS1's Artbook shop in New York. In collaboration with June Canedo, Justin French, and Tess Herbert, he showed a series of portraits of South Carolinians. That same year his ink-to-digital work "Old Sheldon" began traveling with the Smithsonian exhibition, Crossroads: Change in Rural America.
Nelson acknowledges that his path has been somewhat unorthodox. Most young artists, of course, do not have their first show in New York City, much less at MoMA PS1. "The whole gallery route is, ironically, the route I'm least familiar with. Like, having art shows and things like that, it's kind of new to me. I'm finding out my talent precedes me because I have been creating all this stuff and I got all of this notoriety [online] while I was just living with my parents in a double-wide trailer."
And it is easy to understand why that might be disorienting. With an art show, the work goes up, and the work comes down. On the internet content is created, repurposed, and lives forever, copied, pasted, liked, and meme-ified for all eternity. "I always tell people: You can't compare anything happening now to anything before the internet and social media."
He points, for example, to another viral moment in his rise to visibility that occurred in 2019. Nelson says he'd bought a fresh pair of white lace-up Vans. "When I got them, I said, 'They are just too clean for me. Too new and too white.' " Using a cow in a neighboring pasture as his study, the artist took a sharpie and patterned the white Vans with big black, dairy cow spots. About a year later he entered the design into the Vans' Custom Culture competition, which was in its inaugural year. The competition included submissions of over 100,000 artists and creators from around the globe.
"If you entered you could win a $25,000 prize and your design could become a shoe. So, I entered and the very first day I was in the top three highest voted designs." From there, he started getting support on Twitter from the likes of CNN pundit and former S.C. Rep. Bakari Sellers, as well as Charleston's own Coburg Cow. "Yeah, they have a Twitter account for some reason, and they were tweeting about it and made some cow pun," says Nelson, deadpan.
Despite the overwhelming support, Nelson did not win the competition. Instead, in another twist, he found himself embroiled in a controversy over the integrity of Vans' Dalmatian shoe design, which online supporters were alleging the shoe company had stolen from Nelson. It is indeed a bizarre saga, complete with corporate intrigue and tweeting cows, that could only unfold on the internet.
Nelson brushes off the incident with characteristic humor. "We didn't end up winning, but that showed me how much support I had … and that all of this is just uncharted territory; the fact that there's even a competition like that! It's just fun times, to me. I don't know if everybody else sees it that way." But while he is able to wield the internet with a light hand — "I don't let the positive comments build me up and I don't let the negative ones break me down" — he has also used it to start some very timely and serious conversations about how we value art and artists.
When Nelson priced "Kissing Up," his ode to Trump and Kanye, it wasn't simply a publicity stunt, although it did indeed stir up a lot of buzz. He was interrogating an art market where a contemporary artist like Robert Rauschenberg, for example, could sell a painting for $900 and the proprietor could then sell the same piece at auction for $85,000 with no additional compensation for the artist or the artist's estate.
"Knowing so many artists whose work is selling for millions but they aren't getting that money, and having the ability with all of this new technology … why wouldn't I price it that way? Why can't I go ahead and price it that amount instead of waiting for an auction to do it? Why can't I see my work as being worth that much? Is it because I live in a double-wide trailer on a dirt road in a town with 1,200 people? I just wanted to challenge people to see the significance of this era of time, but also to inspire other people who came from where I am from to see themselves different. I'm in the same neighborhood and from the same town."
In addition to reflecting back the tenor of current political affairs, and the absurdity of internet culture, another ever-present theme in his work is a love of home, and specifically Lowcountry culture.
"I think about 100 years from now … for example, the Gullah Geechee culture, and crabbing, and respecting your elders. All that could easily die out right now," Nelson says. "I feel like with my influence, I can make a conscious effort, even though I am a young guy, to preserve those things in my artwork, things fundamental to creating my character."
You can see this reverence in paintings like "Backwoods Baptism." Rendered in watercolor, it depicts murky figures dressed in soft pastels, standing at a riverbank. Their silhouettes are timeless so that the scene feels like it could be from 100 years ago, when in fact it's from Nelson's childhood.
"My little brother got baptized … We didn't have a church pool, so we used to go down to the woods to the creek bed." This piece and a handful of other works, a mixture of watercolor and ink, will be on view as a part of a small show opening this Friday at Meyer Vogl Gallery.
Recently relocated to his own place in Traveler's Rest, Nelson is excited to see what he is capable of with more space and without the distractions of his parents. "While my art is good, it still is not to its highest potential yet. I haven't had the opportunity to create to my highest potential. Like I said, I was living with my parents and you can imagine how that affects your ability to focus," he laughs. "Now that I'm out on my own, I'm locked in."
Ment Nelson: New Works opens on Fri. Feb. 7, 5-8 p.m. at Meyer Vogel Gallery at 122 Meeting St. Learn more at meyervogl.com.