Many who admire the feel good warmth of her primitive style paintings see Santa Fe artist Kristin Nelson as the Grandma Moses of the 21st century, a comparison Nelson considers "high honor". Others, more familiar with Nelson's name and personal story than with her art, remember her as America's best-known daughter-in-law. At 17, she married Rick Nelson, rock star and youngest son of television's Ozzie and Harriet. Kris was immediately thrust onto a national (and television studio) stage when she joined the cast of "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet", a sitcom staple of the 60s which ran for 13 years on television after a five year warm up on radio. For the past eight years Nelson, 63, has made her home in Santa Fe, where her paintings are sold at the Coady Contemporary gallery on Canyon Road. In a recent conversation she reflected on the turbulent, often heart breaking experiences of her earlier years, including Rick's death in a 1985 charter plane crash and a subsequent custody battle with her brother, actor Mark Harmon, over control of her youngest child, Sam Nelson. In Santa Fe, Nelson says she has found the self assurance to come to terms with her life and to finally define herself as the one thing she always wanted most to be---an artist.
SantaFe.com: Your life story is a whole book, rather than just one website column. In fact, you did write that story as a book, with the intriguing title Out of My Mind. Why that title?
Kris Nelson: As a child my dad would kid me when I did something zany by saying, "MacGuillicuddy---that was his nickname for me---you're out of your mind. Even my senior year book had a line under my picture saying "˜Kris is out of her mind' and listing all the things I had done creatively and artistically. I think somebody saying you are out of your mind is great. I happen to really like it."
SF: Your father, Tom Harmon, was a famous Heisman Trophy winning football hero at the University of Michigan and your mother, Elyse Knox, was a fashion model and movie actress turned homemaker. You were born into a celebrity family and then married into one. Which was more difficult?
KN: In my case, being born into one. Living up to my mom's expectations was so hard. She was a schooled painter and there was always a little bit of friction and competition there. I was comfortable with dad but he was gone a lot because he did a lot of sports broadcasting after his playing days. Then when I met Ozzie and Harriet I was surprised to find people who actually looked you in the eye when you spoke to them, who listened to you and engaged you in conversation. I was not used to that at all.
SF: You were only 12 when you first met Rick Nelson at a basketball game and it was three years before he asked you out.
KN: He was scared to death of my father, which was pretty funny. My father was this big jock and Rick had fears of bringing me home and finding my dad standing there with clubs in his hands or something. But my parents never worried about me with Rick. They loved him. He was always a gentleman.
SF: And did Ozzie and Harriet embrace you?
KN: Completely. When we told them about our engagement, Ozzie's first comment was, "Great, great. Can you act?" I said I didn't know but it really didn't matter because anybody who was on the show sounded like Ozzie. He wrote, directed and controlled everything about it. He listened to the show with a radio ear, which meant he turned his back on the actors when they spoke so he could hear what he wanted to hear. He wouldn't even look at the action.
SF: You were introduced to America as Rick Nelson's young bride. What did you make of Ozzie's later opinion that Rick didn't need to be seen with a wife when he was out promoting his music career?
KN: That came later. At first, he really pushed us to get married but later realized it would probably put a cramp in the fan base for Rick to be seen with a wife. Harriet also gave me some very important advice right after we married: "Never ever visit him on the road unannounced".
SF: It was only months after your 1963 marriage that President Kennedy was assassinated. In your own grief you started a painting which you wanted to give Mrs. Kennedy, but when it was finished, you were afraid to send it to her. Why?
KN: I wanted to do something to express my feelings but then I thought "˜she's got so much stuff from so many people, why would she want this?' Also, she was a pretty good primitive painter herself. A year later Rick took it to a gallery in Los Angeles, which became the impetus for my first show. Jackie Kennedy somehow saw the brochure for the show and Robert Kennedy called me saying she wanted to buy it. I told him it was always done for her and that it would be a gift. A photograph of me standing by the painting which ran in LIFE Magazine was really the boost to my career on a national level.
SF: Any idea where the painting is today?
KN: I tracked it down and now it is with Senator Ted Kennedy. It's really kind of sad because it went from Jackie and then to Robert and now to Ted.
SF: There was another presidential painting, wasn't there?
KN: Lucie Baines Johnson walked into my LA studio one day and asked me to do a painting of the LBJ ranch in Texas. The White House sent me lots and lots of photos to work from. When the painting was finished and I was ready to ship it, I got a call one day and heard this booming voice saying, "this is the president". I didn't believe it at first, but then he said, "this is Lyndon Johnson. Little lady, you are a fine painter but we have to talk about these shipping prices." There was a moment when I just looked at the phone, thinking this is the president of the United States talking to me about nothing. We were on the phone for several minutes before coming to an agreement that I would pay the thirty dollar shipping fee for getting the painting from LA to Texas.
SF: Was Rick always supportive of your efforts as an artist?
KN: Absolutely. He was my biggest fan, and for him to even speak out about my work was something because he was incredibly, painfully shy. He had a hard time keeping up a conversation with anyone, not because he wasn't smart, but because he had always been so sheltered. From the time he was eight, he was schooled on the studio set, which translates into getting hardly any schooling. When he got older he was very conscious of it. I felt bad that he didn't get the benefit of a college education.
SF: You and Rick had four children by the time of your divorce in 1981. You write in the book that "Rick has become a person I don't know anymore". What happened?
KN: I think what happened is that we grew apart. In a marriage the thing you hope for is that you each grow, but grow in the same direction even while pursuing different interests. The trouble starts when one goes off in some direction and never includes the other. We reached the point where we didn't talk about anything honestly.
SF: Do you think your despair over the failed marriage and Rick's death led to your own downward spiral that ended in hospitalization for mental therapy in 1987?
KN: I'm sure his death had a lot to do with it, but probably more than anything it was the pressure of having no money and the responsibility of raising four young children alone. I had to get out and find a job.
SF: Other than Rick's death, I would guess that your darkest hour came when your brother, actor Mark Harmon, took you to court in a highly publicized custody battle fight over your youngest child, Sam, then 12. Why do you think Mark thought he had a right to do this?
KN: That's a really good question. The judge finally said to Mark, "What are you doing here? Are you the boy's father?" Mark finally dropped the case rather than prolong the agony for everyone in the family. I knew from that time on that our family would never be the same again, and it hasn't been. I have learned that if you don't have the family you wanted, you go and make your own, which I have done with really wonderful friends.
SF: Your daughter Tracy Nelson is a successful actress, the twins Matthew and Gunnar are both musicians and Sam is a record company executive. What happened to the "painter's gene" with the children?
KN: It could be the same thing that happened between me and my mom. Sam is actually very good at collages and Tracy did some wonderful paintings when she was little.
SF: Many artists express their angst or anger in their work and you could certainly be given a pass for doing some of that, given the hardships you have been through. But most of your paintings are just a big wet kiss to life. How have you managed that?
KN: I hadn't thought about it like that but my paintings are the way I want life to be. Which incidentally is the name of the one my paintings in the book. It's much harder for me to paint something that is sad. At the risk of sounding completely saccharine, I just want everything to be happy.
SF: Why does the primitive style appeal to you so much?
KN: It's the only way I know how to paint. You are either a primitive or you are not. You can't make yourself one. When I first encountered primitive paintings at Ozzie and Harriet's house, I felt it gave me permission to call my work primitive because I could only paint that way.
SF: You moved to Santa Fe in 2000, right after the divorce from your second husband, TV producer Mark Tinker. Had you been here before?
KN: I first came to New Mexico with Rick in 1970 when he had a gig in Taos. I went out walking one day and the clarity of the sky was probably the first thing I noticed. The more I looked around the more I knew that I wanted to keep coming back as much as possible. On another trip to Taos I made a point of getting down to Santa Fe, and I didn't want to go home. I thought then that whatever happens in my life, I am going to be here one day. I just knew it and I loved it. I read later that New Mexico has a very feminine energy and that women are drawn to it. Here I am.
SF: You lived in the old fire station in Galisteo for a few years, right?
KN: When I saw the Galisteo Basin for the first time, I wanted to live there. Several people were trying to buy the fire station at that time, but I managed to get it. I wanted to stay there but Mark made it very difficult because he hated New Mexico. That should have been my first clue about this marriage. But it is true about New Mexico that it is either for you or not, and if it is not, it has an amazing way of getting rid of you. I've seen that happen many times. I moved to Santa Fe on the day my divorce was final. I got in the car with all my dogs and drove straight here.
SF: About those dogs, you now have nine of them. What are you, a Doris Day wannabe?
KN: Funny you should say that because we are good friends. My mother could never turn a stray animal away and that's how I collected all of these. I didn't buy them or have them given to me. I just found them on the street or someplace needing a home. One of them had been hit by a car and was lying in the road.
SF: Your journal entries and the passages you wrote in the book are beautifully done. Other than the lines you write for the cards featuring your work, have you thought of doing more writing?
KN: When I was quite young, I wanted to be a writer but I couldn't because my mother was such a snoop. I kept a private diary in a very secret hiding place in my room and she found it. I was grounded for a month for writing the secret thoughts I had put down. So I began to paint the stories, which no one understood but me, and in that way I could remember what happened. It was like a code between me and the paintings which no one else understood.
SF: What would you want to write today?
KN: I really want to write the story of Rick's life. No one knew him as well as I did, and the idea is sort of rolling around in my head.
SF: In one of your journal entries in the book, you say, "in the half light and quiet of evening comes a praying time for me". Is there anything about Santa Fe that you feel nudges you in a spiritual direction?
KN: Absolutely. There is something magical about being here. I grew up Catholic and had a lot of stuff crammed down my throat as kid in Catholic school, but I have found God in my own way and it works perfectly for me.
SF: What turns you on most about Santa Fe?
KN: The perspective on life that is so different from Los Angeles. You don't see many nose jobs in Santa Fe. And nobody cares about having their boobs fixed. Other things are so much more important here.
SF: What turns you off about Santa Fe?
KN: It's a different pace than I have been used to. I sometimes wish people would get off their butts and move a little faster.
SF: If the gods frowned on you and said you could no longer live here, where would you go?
KN: I would like to try to east coast. I love the theater and the few times we were in New York City were always exciting.
SF: But if the gods smiled on you and said that you could have any one wish for Santa Fe, what would that be:
KN: In my travels, I always seem to want to be back here. There is a serenity about the place that smoothes life over in a really nice way. So my wish for Santa Fe is that the great quality of life here never vanishes.