Last year when Levi Nelson learned he had been shortlisted for the 2017 IDEA Award, it strengthened his resolve to take top spot in 2018.
“I was really bummed out,” says Nelson, a Lil’wat Nation artist and student at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. “I was like, ‘My piece couldn’t have been stronger.’ It was a painting I had already done; I didn’t paint it specifically for the contest like I did this year.”
The award, founded in 2009, is open to current Emily Carr students and alumni who have graduated in the last three years. The winner receives a $5,000 cash prize and has their winning piece displayed as part of the permanent collection at Vancouver General Hospital or UBC Hospital. (It might sound surprising, but that collection includes the likes of Jack Shadbolt and Andy Warhol, to name just a few artists.)
In an effort to reach his goal, Nelson took a different approach to his submission this year. In 2017, he submitted an older piece of work called Anthropology, a 36-by-48 inch oil painting of three Haida Gwaii totem poles that stand at the entrance to UBC’s Museum of Anthropology.
“I waited all year for them to announce the contest opening again,” Nelson says. “(When they announced it) they said (the winning painting would be displayed) at the Koerner Pavilion at UBC, so I drove up and checked out the space. It’s a little waiting room and I sat there for about 20 minutes. I looked at this bleak wall, which had a pump with hand sanitizer in it and a plastic thing holding brochures and this sad, faded print of daisies in a field.”
That short visit made all the difference, he says. His winning four-panel painting “grew out of the idea of wanting to create a painting for people to lose themselves in while they’re waiting for a doctor or surgery or good news or bad news.”
And Biology was born.
The abstract painting marks a departure for Nelson. Where he’s traditionally explored figurative painting, more recently he’s focused on “approaching First Nations art from a Western perspective,” he says.
Biology, for example, might be abstract, but it explores that style through the lens of shapes traditional to the northwest coast. “I wanted to deconstruct and see how each shape functioned on its own,” he says.
With one year left in his degree, Nelson has been using art school as a way to experiment with different styles. “Last year it was Anthropology, this year it’s Biology,” he adds. “It’s an exploration of where I see myself existing in today’s culture as a First Nations person. I’m starting to understand it a bit more.”
While the award served as reassurance that he’s on the right path, Nelson says he also experienced a post-win low. The prize marked a culmination of all he’s worked towards over the last three years and achieving recognition for that was overwhelming.
“I really enjoyed it, but I crashed after,” he says. “I got home, walked through the door. I was home alone and I felt sad and had this wicked anxiety attack. Just to have all this recognition—and to acknowledge where I’ve come from since 2015; that year I was in a really dark place.”
The year before he applied for art school, “I was drinking heavily and doing a lot of substances,” he says.
But he managed to pick himself up, pursue his passion and get accepted into art school. “(The award) is a huge validation,” he says. “I feel so privileged to be part of this.”
As a bonus, the prize money will help him re-invest in his art. “I bought a new nail gun and mitre saw to make canvases,” he says. “I think the smart thing to do is reinvest in my practice.”
To that end, Nelson plans to return to Mount Currie for summer break where he’ll spend the season painting in a trailer on his mom’s property. “It has no running water or electricity, but it’s a nice space and has nice lighting,” he says. “There’s a constant urge and need to create wherever I am, but I’m more relaxed in Mount Currie.”