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Portrait of an Artist

April 24th, 2012 at 10:20 am

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:


For a while now, I had been hoping to interview Erika Nelson – because she drives a vehicle with dinosaurs tarred onto the hood, has taxidermy forms in her living room, and because she seems like one of the coolest kids in the state.

On April 13, Erika came to Emporia to give a presentation on folk art at the Friends of the Plains dinner sponsored by ESU’s Center for Great Plains Studies. I had the chance to visit with Erika that afternoon and began to learn the story of this woman with the bright energy and a sense of humor that shows up in everything she does.

Erika Nelson, 38, was born in Texas and raised in the Missouri Ozarks. After receiving an MFA in textiles from the University of Kansas, she had a contract in hand to teach. Instead, she went her own way, trading the stability of a teaching job for the life of a professional artist.

“I sold everything I owned and lived on the road in the bus for two years, traveling the country, exploring outsider art environments and little towns that had integrated art communities,” she said.

She spent some time in Lucas and eventually made it her home base. She’s been there for eight or nine years now.

“In regards to Lucas, they’ve been so accepting. If you have some crazy idea, they’re not like ‘what are you talking about?’ They’re more like, ‘well, you’ll probably need a ladder for that, and then you’re going to have to borrow the pipe bender…’”

Erika is currently working on a project for the Smoky Hill River Festival which takes place in Salina in June. She is creating nine dozen duck decoys, painted in art deco patterns to complement Salina’s downtown architecture. “They will float in the creek that surrounds the festival,” she said.

And for Art in the Woods, an upcoming event at Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City, Neb., Erika is working with taxidermy forms. For these animals (bear, coyote, fox, sandhill crane, jackrabbit, and deer), she’s creating a crushed rock and resin hide. Designs on the animals will represent origin stories from tribes native to that area.

A project Erika has worked on for years is her World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things, which, for short, she calls her Big Little Bigs.

Erika creates miniature versions of “the world’s largest” roadside attractions that she finds while touring the country. It was these Big Little Bigs that landed her an interview on the Conan O’Brien show in December, 2010.

In 2011, the Garden of Eden in Lucas underwent a complete restoration. The Kohler Foundation, which preserves folk art sites around the country, funded and managed the project. Erika was one of the locals who worked on the 6-month task. “We cleaned things, we fixed things. We rebuilt things that had disappeared,” she said. “We touched everything.”

And then Erika has her art car, Scout, which gets a lot of attention when she’s traveling.

“It’s not until I get out of my home area that I remember that it’s an oddity,” she said of her ’95 Toyota pickup with 325,000 miles on it and the words “burning dinosaur bones” written on the hood.

“It’s really an homage to the road,” she said. “When you look at the truck from the front, it resembles an asphalt road, so you have the yellow stripe down the middle and then the black tar and the dinosaurs sinking down into the tar beds and then getting pumped up into the refinery section on the roof.”

Adding to the fun of Scout are three carousel horses in the bed of the truck, and arrows which have been “shot” into the tailgate.

Erika is, of course, more than her art. She’s a dynamic part of the Lucas community and of the Garden of Eden.

And she’s an active force in the PowerUps, a group sponsored by the Kansas Sampler Foundation that helps and encourages 21 to 39 year-olds to find ways to stay, work and live happily in rural Kansas.

While talking about how towns create a community, Erika said, “You don’t just live in a place, you participate in a place.”

Erika is someone who participates. And creates. And paints. And plugs in the power tools.

Copyright 2012 ~ Cheryl Unruh


For more on Erika Nelson, check out her website.


Art, columns, Kansans, Kansas Explorers, small towns

  1. April 24th, 2012 at 12:01 | #1

    Love it!

  2. Connie Hocking
    April 24th, 2012 at 12:13 | #2

    Another reason to look forward to the River Festival!

  3. April 24th, 2012 at 12:48 | #3

    What fun! Thanks for introducing me to such a free and creative spirit!

  4. April 24th, 2012 at 12:56 | #4

    Exquisite work of art.

  5. Ralph
    April 24th, 2012 at 21:36 | #5

    Wow! I’ve gotta visit Lucas and see some of this.

  6. Kris
    April 25th, 2012 at 13:53 | #6

    Glad I didn’t miss this! What a wonderful spirit, thanks for introducing her here. 🙂