Creative Pagosa: Donna Nelson

The Pagosa Arts & Culture Project is building a web-based directory of all the creative people and businesses in the community. By creating this website, it will make these MAKERS easier to find in online search engines and help share the wealth of innovative and talented individuals that call our small town home.

This sort of database is called “cultural mapping” and is being done by communities around the country in order to realize and recognize the value of their creative assets.

The Pagosa Arts & Culture Project is establishing the groundwork for continued collaboration and cooperation and promotional efforts of the combined community. The goal of the project is to establish a solid foundation of cultural and creative individuals and businesses, to create a viable plan for promoting these assets and to promote the Pagosa area as a worthy place of residence for creative people, a productive place for creative business ventures and a desirable destination for arts tourism.

At present, the PACP is also planning an event for fall 2013. The event, the MAKERS Expo and Tour, is set for Oct. 12-13.

To register and be listed in the database, go to

In order to highlight the MAKERS in Pagosa, the PACP will profile its members, giving readers of The PREVIEW a sense of the depth and breadth of the creative community.

Photo courtesy Donna Nelson Donna Nelson is seen here in her studio, working on one of the mandala designs that, over the years, have become more intricate and complex, and incorporate symbols of the universe. They are done in watercolor and India ink and Nelson chooses a certain motif or theme for each different design.

Photo courtesy Donna Nelson
Donna Nelson is seen here in her studio, working on one of the mandala designs that, over the years, have become more intricate and complex, and incorporate symbols of the universe. They are done in watercolor and India ink and Nelson chooses a certain motif or theme for each different design.

This week’s MAKER is Donna Nelson.

Q: Tell us a little about who you are, where you were born, educated, your family, growing up and how you came to be doing your creative work?

A:  I was born in Chicago and raised in a suburb of Milwaukee called Wauwatosa.  Our family of five seemed creatively inclined.  My mom played the organ at church, both my folks played piano, and my two older brothers are musicians and played in bands.

Throughout the years, I created greeting cards with whimsical designs and gave them as gifts to my friends and family.  I attended college, then saw my friends getting married and starting families of their own, but decided I needed to hit the road and travel the U.S. to see what I could see.  I worked and played in Aspen, San Francisco, and Denver and was gone about five years.

I decided to move back to Wisconsin and then met (actually re-met) the guy who would become my husband.  At that time, he was immediately transferred to Lake St. Louis, Mo., to manage fire protection design for a GM building being built.

Because the town was so small, there wasn’t much in the way of jobs for me and since we had a drawing board in our little apartment I figured I’d sit down and see how I could evolve my greeting cards into something more elaborate.

There was a big art fair calling for artists, so I brought in my work and was juried into my first show in 1980, which took place in St. Charles, Mo., a cool little river town.  The fair attracted throngs of people and throughout the day I had two separate comments saying my work looked like mandalas.  I had no idea what they were talking about so ran to the tiny library in Wentzville the following week and found only one reference to mandala (rhymes with gondola) in a dictionary and it said it was a Sanskrit word meaning circle, broadly defined as a geometric concentric configuration comprised of symbols or characteristics as representation of the cosmos.

Okay, well, that’s pretty interesting, I thought.

Q: Describe the objects you make or the creative work you do.

A:  So, over the years my mandala designs have become more intricate and complex and they do definitely incorporate symbols of the universe.  They are done in watercolor and India ink and I choose a certain motif or theme for each different design.  The last two works I’ve completed include Philosopher’s Stone symbols, using circle within square within triangle, representing material and spiritual worlds, and also another called “Ojo de Dios,” aka Eye of God, using the image of yarn woven around two sticks, an ancient contemplative and spiritual practice for many indigenous people.  Some believe they were originally part of the sophisticated religion of the Ancient Pueblo people.  On other recent designs I have used Egyptian, African and Native American symbols.

Q: What is your favorite tool or material used in making your work?  Why?

A:  My favorite tools are my Kolinsky round sable watercolor brushes.  They hold a lot of paint for easy application without refill and they retain their tips with simple washing and shaking the brush back into shape.

Q: Do you have a regular routine or schedule?

A:  I get going around 11 a.m. and quit about 4:30 p.m.  Sometimes, if I have puddles on my palette and a lot of wet paint, I’ll continue painting until 7 or 8 p.m.

Q: What is the best advice anyone has ever given you?

A:  I’ve shown my work in galleries, art centers, churches, and with other groups and organizations who provide space for artists.  After one presentation, a man approached me and told me that he admired my work and I should never try to describe it or explain what or why I paint the patterns, and that I should just let the work speak for itself.  I like that, because everyone pulls something different from what they see or admire for different reasons and sometimes it can be an emotional response that can’t be defined.  So, I let the work speak for itself now. If you simply see interesting, colorful, patterns … great.  If you use it as a meditation tool, that’s fine, too. If you buy it to match your couch, well, so be it.  He was an insightful man.

Q: When you’re not making art, what is your favorite thing to do in Pagosa Country?

A:  I love being outside, hiking, walking my dog, reading, playing piano, cooking, currently building my family tree and meeting new people and relatives through that and just enjoying our version of paradise.  There’s a lot of talent in this little town and it’s fun to get out to hear live musicians, especially the San Juan Mountain Boys.

Q: What are your goals for the coming year?

A:  I’d like to expand my horizons and show my work locally and regionally.

Q: What is your dream project?

A:  I’m still working on that one.  Maybe doing some kind of show in conjunction with art therapy, music therapy, the healing arts, using all the senses to bring about thoughtful meditative or spiritual experiences.

This story was posted on October 3, 2013.