Swan Vision presents
The Reverie of Celeste Nelms
May 5 thru June 9, 2018
In the world of Celeste Nelms, Rapunzel comes and goes freely from a castle that she first imagined and then built with her own hands. She scales down her lofty tower to search the world for lost or forgotten things. Retrieving them thusly back to her castle top, she turns them into props for magical scenes of her posing. And then—with everything remembered, reconnected and recorded—Rapunzel scatters it all back to the world. She knows that everything is mostly make believe, nothing is truly owned and that what matters most happens in the space between things. [If Celeste were Rapunzel according to Cynde Randall]
In the upside-down-land of America’s newish millennium many stories of separation have split the human “tribes” and widened the gap between humans and the Earth. If this time and place were a fairytale it might be called The Kingdom of Unfortunate Chasms. Luckily for us, artist Celeste Nelms is immune to the Kingdom’s spell—choosing, instead, to create a beautiful life in a completely different dimension of heart, space, light and time. This is to say that Nelms lives in the present moment. Without a cell phone. In a village of 119 people. On the shores of Lake Pepin. That she is ever mindful to show kindness to others. I mean that Celeste Nelms engages a kind of reverie in the-space-between-things. Her work has everything to do with reconciliation in the sense of crafting a practice where making art and living life is one and the same.
From the very beginning Celeste Nelms was blessed with a huge imagination and a natural propensity for making and arranging objects. She began making self-portraits in art school, when the model she had booked didn’t show up for her photo shoot. This may seem incidental but, in truth, it set the trajectory for her life as an artist, signaling early on that she could find the artistic connections in whatever lay before her.
Over the past two decades Nelms has created countless sepia-toned “self-portraits”—yielding what the artist refers to as a single body of work that she will continue for the rest of her life. These signature theatrical tableaus locate her in ambiguous natural spaces, engaging with found objects once cherished but discarded by someone else. For Nelms the found (or borrowed or gifted) object is a primary vehicle for exploring the world. It serves as the spark for her conceptual narrative and the prop for the staging and mediation of each scene. It is also the key to our discernment of her imagery.
On location Nelms connects the bigness and ubiquity of nature with the poignant smallness of her gestures—suggesting or sparkling up weighty subjects such as attachment, mortality, freedom or the fleeting nature of the human condition. Her images can feel simultaneously hilarious, sad and gently tragic. She never totally gives it up but to be sure Nelms is playing with the world.
The overall mystery of Nelms work is enhanced by her monochromatic presentation and, of course, the endless shape-shifting of her photographed identity. In her new and recent photographs, she appears as child, girl, young woman, old woman, pirate, jaguar, nut cracker—all surrogates holding space for us to enter her compositions.
Among her extensive cast of players, one appears repeatedly. She wears a cowboy hat and floral coat and carries a vintage suitcase. Perhaps she is Celeste or Celeste’s artist persona. We can only be sure that she is the frequent witness of curious things—throughout the landscape and, in turn, throughout Nelms imagery. In “Turkeys” this floral coated girl/woman has already left a mysterious scene. As she walks a distant path into the wide blue yonder, a pair of turkey decoys wistfully consider the spread feathers of wild turkey tails floating, as if by magic, in mid-air.
Nelms foregoes the unadulterated object in a 2018 photograph called “Swans”. Here the artist chooses a crystalline stage of snow, surrounded by the melting ice of the flood plain forest, to lie in prostrate consultation with a flock of aluminum foil swans. The content of their exchange remains between them and we are left with our own wonder.
In several new works, Nelms completely collapses the boundaries between image and object by printing, not on photo paper, but on blankets. This fuzzy format proves especially mind-bending when the composition (printed on the blanket) includes images hung on a clothesline or when Nelms holds up the blanket image (depicting a landscape) in front of the actual landscape. Here, if we start feeling uneasy about whether “reality” is an illusion we can wrap the work around our shoulders knowing full well that the image is also, in fact, a comforter.
While Nelms’ photographs clearly illuminate an artistic vision and devotion to a singular craft, their playful spirit can belie the complexity and rigor of their creation. The conceptual elements of her theatrical tableaus can exist for months or even years in her mind and working journals before they are staged and shot. On location she may be required to wait for hours or days for the weather and the light to be just right and, when it is, she may shoot the scene 50 times before she settles on the keeper.
To “see” Celeste Nelms is rather like looking through a kaleidoscope. Yes, she is a photographer, but she is every bit an installation and performance artist, sculptor and theatrical producer; staffing every position of a veritable production company. She is the primary concept creative, location scout, lead actress, silent screen script writer and fills every position in set design, wardrobe and R&D. And no matter what else she might be doing she is always scoping out the world for the next shoot.
The arc of Nelms’ signature work has held steady and true even through profound changes for the artist, including her 2007 move to Maiden Rock and the digital revolution of photography. That her work did not falter through these huge changes may be attributed to her abiding artistic vision and that the new locale and technology both consolidated and expanded her practice. No more car rides to a rented darkroom. No more long trips to find the wild spaces. Now she is simply in it. She literally steps out of her home/studio into an awe-inspiring landscape. Everyday. This living, watching, listening and expansive studio is a happily-ever-after kind of vortex—fully supporting and enriching the treasure that is Celeste Nelms. Her art never completely unveils the mystery accept, perhaps, to affirm that the world is truly a mirror of consciousness.
In the-space between-things all manner of mystery, joy and reconciliation can rise out of what is combined. How it all turns out is entirely a matter of intention and practice. These words can manifest sparkly gems if they are remembered and properly cherished. Take them. They are completely free. [If Cynde were Celeste]
—Cynde Randall, March 2018, Maiden Rock, Wisconsin
About the artist
Celeste Nelms studied photography at various educational institutions including the Kansas City Art Institute and the Japan College of Design in Sendai, Japan where she also studied Ikebana and Kimono design. The excellence of her work has been acknowledged through grants and fellowships from the McKnight Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Jerome Foundation and the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Photography; as well as mentorships and residencies throughout the country. Nelms has exhibited widely both regionally and nationally and is represented in numerous collections; including those held by the Minnesota Historical Society and the University of Minnesota.
This essay accompanies Swan Vision Gallery’s first exhibition of contemporary art: The Reverie of Celeste Nelms, on view Friday through Sunday, noon-5:00 from May 5-June 9, 2018. Swan Vision presents focused exhibitions of contemporary art curated by Cynde Randall to reveal the living artists’ take on transformative practice, interbeing and alignment with the planet Earth. The gallery is made possible by a collaboration with Santosha Center in Maiden Rock, Wisconsin. For more information contact Cynde Randall at email@example.com or 612-2509222).
Special thanks to Kristina and Ric Ahern.