INTERVIEW WITH BILL NELSON, ARTIST
By Matt Kimbro – Ventriloquist Central #1 Ace Reporter



Greetings to all in “Vent-Land”.   I was fortunate to have a sit-down (ok, I emailed him questions and he replied) with well known artist Bill Nelson. Bill is famed for his wonderfully original and beautiful ventriloquist figures, art-dolls, and of course illustrations. I feel very fortunate to be a student of Bills (I’m a “very” amateur artist and an “immature” adult). His work is my number one inspiration (that means I copy his style and try to make mine look like his). I own several of his original illustrations and I’m quite proud to call Bill a friend.

I put on my ACE REPORTER hat and inquired with Bill about doing an interview for Ventriloquist Central thinking that he would respond with a big fat NO, because Bill is quite humble and not a bragger – but thankfully he said, “Yes.”

Before proceeding to the interview please take note that you can visit Bill’s website at: www.billnelsonstudios.com  and see tons of his gorgeous work first hand!

Enjoy!
 


Matt: Where are you from?

Bill: I WAS BORN AND RAISED IN RICHMOND, VIRGINIA AND NOW LIVE ON ROANOKE ISLAND IN NORTH CAROLINA.


Matt: Were you born with a talent for art, or was it something that took years of practice and development?

Bill: I`VE ALWAYS WANTED TO DRAW, TO CREATE SOMETHING OR TO JUST MAKE A MESS THAT PEOPLE WILL NOTICE!


Matt: How old were you when you knew you became interested in art or had a knack for it?

Bill: THREE.


Matt: At what point did you complete your first professional work?

Bill: IT WAS RIGHT AFTER THEY INVENTED THE LIGHT BULB!


Matt: Where did you study?

Bill: I STUDIED AT AN ART SCHOOL IN RICHMOND. IT WAS CALLED RICHMOND PROFESSIONAL INSTITUTE, WHICH BECAME VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH UNIVERSITY AND I ENDED UP TEACHING THIRD YEAR ILLUSTRATION THERE FOR THREE YEARS.


Matt: You’ve worked privately for years. Have you ever worked for a company?

Bill: I BEGAN MY CAREER WORKING AS A COMMERCIAL ARTIST AT RICHMOND NEWSPAPERS FOR A FEW YEARS THEN WORKED AS AN ILLUSTRATOR AT A SMALL WEEKLY PAPER FOR ONE YEAR AND IN 1970 I WENT INTO BUSINESS FOR MYSELF.


Matt: Which character is your favorite ventriloquist figure of all time?

Bill: MORTIMER SNERD. WHO ELSE?!


Matt: Who is your favorite ventriloquist?

Bill: THERE ARE TOO MANY AND I DON'T KNOW ALL OF THEIR NAMES, BUT THE ONE THAT BLOWS ME AWAY RIGHT NOW IS TERRY FATOR...IF HE'D ONLY STOP USING THOSE SOFT PUPPETS !


Matt: Artistically, what is your first love?

Bill: I MY FIRST LOVE WILL ALWAYS BE ILLUSTRATION BUT THE THREE-DIMENSIONAL WORLD IS GETTING CLOSER EVERYDAY.


Matt: When did you start sculpting in comparison to when you started drawing?

Bill: I STARTED DRAWING PROFESSIONALLY AT AGE 20 IN 1966 AND DIDN`T BEGIN SCULPTING UNTIL 1985.


Matt: You are a world-famous illustrator but you also started sculpting. Did you take to sculpture very easily?

Bill: AT FIRST IT WAS VERY DIFFICULT BECAUSE I HAD BEEN FAKING THE THIRD DIMENSION FOR SO LONG AS AN ILLUSTRATOR. MY FIRST SCULPTURES WEREN'T VERY DIMENSIONAL. NOTHING STUCK OUT VERY FAR, LIKE NOSES, ETC.

IT TOOK A WHILE BEFORE I UNDERSTOOD THE CONCEPT OF DEPTH, BUT EVEN IN THOSE EARLY PIECES I KNEW I WAS ON TO SOMETHING EXCITING AND WANTED TO LEARN ALL I COULD. I WAS SOAKING INFORMATION UP LIKE A DRY SPONGE!


Matt: What were your early sculptural influences?

Bill: THERE WAS ONLY ONE, ROBERT KEENE MCKINLEY, THE BEST TEACHER OF THEM ALL. HE EMBODIED THE PHRASE, "A TEACHER IS LIKE A CANDLE. IT CONSUMES ITSELF TO LIGHT THE WAY FOR OTHERS." HE WAS THE INSPIRATION AND BECAME MY DEAREST FRIEND.

Matt: You are renowned for your "art-dolls", are you still creating these?

Bill: YES, I AM STILL CREATING ONE-OF-A-KIND FIGURES AND HAVE GRADUATED TO AUTOMATONS AND ONE-OF-A- KIND VENTRILOQUIST FIGURES.


Matt: Who are some of your notable clients?

Bill: I HAVE SOLD MY STATIC FIGURES TO DEMI MOORE (WHO NOW OWNS 55), DAVID COPPERFIELD, WHOOPIE GOLDBERG, HARRY ANDERSON AND RICHARD SIMMONS. I never keep any sort of records of who buys what, sorry. All I do know for sure is TERRY FATOR owns my ELVIS PRESLEY figure and HARRY ANDERSON, my JOSEPH MERRICK, better known as THE ELEPHANT MAN.


Matt: How did you become interested in ventriloquism and ventriloquist figures?

Bill: I HAVE BEEN INTERESTED IN VENTRILOQUISM EVER SINCE I FOUND OUT THAT CHARLIE MCCARTHY WASN`T A REAL LITTLE BOY. THIS WAS BACK IN THE FORTIES BEFORE TELEVISION AND I LISTENED TO CHARLIE AND MORTIMER ON THE RADIO AND THOUGHT THEY WERE REAL! I`D NEVER HEARD OF VENTRILOQUIST FIGURES AND THOUGHT I HAD IT ALL FIGURED OUT UNTIL I SAW AN ARTICLE ON EDGAR BERGEN IN A MAGAZINE. THAT ONE ARTICLE WITH ITS MANY PICTURES OF CHARLIE AND MORTIMER CHANGED MY WORLD FOREVER.
 

Matt: How did you meet Chuck Jackson?

Bill: I HAD SEEN CHUCK`S WORK AND THOUGHT HE COULD USE SOME HELP DESIGNING INTERESTING FACES TO GO WITH HIS EXCELLENT MECHANICS, SO I WROTE HIM AND SENT HIM PICTURES OF MY WORK AND ALMOST OVERNIGHT THE TEAM OF NELSON/JACKSON WAS BORN. WE HAD A MUTUAL ADMIRATION FROM THE START.
I COULD DO WHAT HE COULDN`T AND HE COULD DO WHAT I COULDN`T.CHUCK AND I HAD BEEN CREATING OUR LINE OF FIGURES FOR OVER A YEAR BEFORE WE FINALLY MET AT THE VENTRILOQUIST CONVENTION IN FT. MITCHELL, KY.


Matt: The amateur artists among us would like to know a few details on your collaboration with Mr. Jackson. Anything you care to share?

Bill: I WOULD SEND CHUCK CASTINGS OF MY CLAY SCULPTURES AND HE WOULD LOCK THEM IN HIS DUPLICARVER AND REPRODUCE THEM IN BASSWOOD. EVEN WITH THAT PROCESS THERE WAS STILL SO MUCH HAND CARVING INVOLVED THAT NO TWO WERE EXACTLY ALIKE.


Matt: How many different characters did you create?

Bill: I DON`T KNOW HOW MANY FIGURES WE CREATED. I`D LIKE TO SAY WE FOLLOWED IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE MCELROY BROTHERS AND WERE LOUSY RECORD-KEEPERS, BUT I DON`T DARE TO CLAIM THAT DISTINCTION.


Matt: How long did you and Chuck make figures together?

Bill: I THINK WE WORKED TOGETHER FOR ABOUT THREE YEARS.


Matt: Who did the final hand carving once the heads were dupli-carved?

Bill: CHUCK DID ALL OF THE CARVING AND MECHANICS. I DID ALL OF THE PAINTING, WIGGING, DRESSING AND SHIPPING.


Matt: Which NELSON/JACKSON figure is your favorite?

Bill: MY FAVORITE IS MR. HOROWITZ.
 

Matt: Which NELSON/JACKSON figure is your least favorite?

Bill: THERE WAS A BLACK FIGURE AND I FELT IT WAS TOO MUCH OF AN EXAGGERATION OF CERTAIN PARTS THAT ARE CONSIDERED TO BE STEREOTYPES. I`M SORRY I FELL PREY TO THAT.


Matt: Recently a post was made on WORLDVENTS per Jeff Dunham’s request. The content addressed several subject but also included Jeff’s memory of seeing Mr. Horowitz for the first time, demonstrating him, and later his creation of Walter. I would like to know your opinion of what some would deem a truly historic event ventriloquially speaking. Do you care to comment?

Bill: THERE IS QUITE A DIFFERENCE IN OUR TWO REMEMBRANCES OF THAT EVENT. DUNHAM NEVER PICKED UP MR. HOROWITZ, AND NEVER PERFORMED WITH IT IN FRONT OF AN AUDIENCE. HE CAME UP TO US IN THE DEALER ROOM AND SIMPLY ASKED WHAT IT WOULD COST TO PURCHASE THE COPYRIGHT ON MR. HOROWITZ SO WE WOULDN`T PRODUCE ANYMORE.
WE TALKED IT OVER THAT NIGHT AND THE NEXT DAY HE RETURNED TO THE DEALERS` ROOM FOR OUR ANSWER. THE PRICE WAS MODEST BUT WASN`T WHAT HE EXPECTED AND HE TURNED AROUND AND LEFT, END OF STORY. A YEAR LATER WALTER WAS FIRST UNVEILED AT THE SAME CONVENTION.


Matt: How did you enjoy working with Chuck Jackson?

Bill: WORKING WITH CHUCK WAS BITTERSWEET. AS TIME WENT ON AND ORDERS CAME IN, THERE WASN`T AS MUCH DETAIL IN THE CARVING AND THE FIGURES BEGAN TO LOOK LESS AND LESS LIKE MY ORIGINAL CREATIONS. WE FINALLY PARTED COMPANY BUT NOT ON UNFRIENDLY TERMS.


Matt: Have you ever carved a figure?

Bill: I AM NOT A WOODCARVER.
 

Matt: Have you ever done mechanics?

Bill: YES, BUT THEY WEREN`T VERY GOOD. I`M AN ARTIST, NOT AN ENGINEER.


Matt: Which figure makers inspired you?

Bill: GEORGE AND GLENN MCELROY, HANDS DOWN. WHAT WONDERFUL AND UNIQUE CHARACTERS THAT NO ONE HAS EVEN COME CLOSE TO.


Matt: Do you have a Web site where we can view your work?

Bill: YES, MY WEB SITE IS BILLNELSONSTUDIOS.COM
 

Matt: Have you ever taken custom orders for professional ventriloquists or collectors who want a “one-of-one” Bill Nelson figure?

Bill: YES, MANY TIMES.


Matt: Do you still accept private commissions for illustrative work?

Bill: YES.


Matt: You are considered by many to be the top painter of ventriloquial characters. What inspired you to develop your technique and style for figure painting?

Bill: I BECAME INTERESTED IN PAINTING IN A THEATRICAL MANNER BECAUSE OF MY LOVE OF BROADWAY AND THE OVERPAINTING EACH ACTOR MUST DO ON THEIR FACES SO AS NOT TO APPEAR AS A WHITE SPOT UNDER THE STRONG STAGE LIGHTS. I DECIDED THAT VENTRILOQUIST FIGURES SHOULD BE PAINTED THE SAME WAY.


Matt: Many of us are amateur artists and would love to learn more about your techniques. Have you ever produced a pamphlet or teaching reference for sculpting or painting? Is there a Web site that we could go to for this?

Bill: I HAVE NEVER PRODUCED ANY SORT OF PAMPHLET, HOWEVER I DO TEACH A NUMBER OF ONLINE COURSES THAT CAN BE FOUND AT WWW.THATCREATIVEPLACE.COM .


Matt: What inspired you to teach others?

Bill: THE SAME TEACHER WHO TAUGHT ME INSPIRED ME TO TEACH OTHERS AND TO GIVE BACK WHAT I`VE BEEN GIVEN.


Matt: Do you worry about giving away trade secrets in your teaching courses?

Bill: I NEVER WORRY ABOUT TEACHING ANYONE ANYTHING BECAUSE EVERYONE FINDS THEIR OWN WAY. SURE, AT FIRST THEY MIGHT POSSIBLY EMULATE THEIR TEACHER, BUT THAT ALWAYS CHANGES WITH TIME AND EVERYONE ENDS UP CREATING SOMETHING ENTIRELY THEIR OWN. SO, I HAVE NO SECRETS AND HOLD NOTHING BACK WHEN I TEACH.


Matt: What is your favorite sculpting medium and why?

Bill: IT ALL DEPENDS ON WHAT I`M SCULPTING. IF IT`S AN ART FIGURE/DOLL, I ALWAYS USE SUPER SCULPEY. IF IT IS A VENTRILOQUIST FIGURE I USE THE NEW PAPIER MACHE` MEDIUM CALLED PAPERCLAY. PAPERCLAY IS VERY LIGHTWEIGHT AND MORE DURABLE THAN LEN INSULL`S FIGURES.


Matt: You are also a collector of ventriloquist figures. Have any notable figures graced the halls of your studio?

Bill: I HAVE A VERY MODEST COLLECTION NOW CONSISTING OF AN INCREDIBLE RAY GUYLL MCELROY REPRODUCTION OF CECIL WIGGLENOSE, FULLY LOADED WITH EVERY BELL AND WHISTLE THAT GLENN COULD PACK INTO A HEAD. A MORTIMER SNERD THAT I FINISHED, PAINTED, WIGGED, AND CLOTHED, AN UNUSUAL AND UNIQUE FIGURE BY LEN INSULL THAT I REPAIRED, REPAINTED, WIGGED AND COSTUMED AND A SMALL INSULL POCKET FIGURE. HOWEVER, I USED TO OWN AN ORIGINAL MORTIMER SNERD THAT WAS REJECTED BY THE SMITHSONIAN, THE ONE AND ONLY FROWNING CHARLIE (LATER SOLD TO DAVID COPPERFIELD) AND A MINT JOHNNY BY THE MCELROYS.


Matt: You are a very humble and soft-spoken artisan who has been contributing your genius in a variety of mediums to the ventriloquial community for years. If you could share anything about yourself with us, what would that be?

Bill: IF I COULD SHARE ANYTHING OF ANY VALUE TO BUDDING FIGUREMAKERS IT WOULD BE TO GIVE US SOMETHING DIFFERENT, SOMETHING WE`VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE, SOMETHING THAT WILL KNOCK OUR SOCKS OF. DON'T IMITATE AND COPY THE WORK OF YOUR PREDECESSORS, MAKE IT NEW, AND EXCITING, MAKE IT UNIQUE IN THE MARKETPLACE AND, ABOVE ALL, MAKE IT YOUR OWN!