On a palm-lined street in a pastoral Tempe neighborhood sits an attractive, split-level home. At first glance, it bears a resemblance to the house inhabited by one of the favorite television families of the 1970s. You know, the one with the lovely lady, the fellow, and the six children?
“The architectural style of the home is California shake shingle split-level,” says artist John Randall Nelson, the home’s owner. “But it’s very much in the style of the Brady Bunch house!”
Nelson and his wife, Gail, moved into the house in 1998 with their daughters, Zoe, who's now 18, and Erin, now 26.
Located in the Date Palm Manor Historic District in Tempe, the property was once home to the Valsunda Date Gardens, a commercial date palm grove.
The area was developed and built by Agnew Construction between 1953 and 1959. Many of the date palms still stand, as the developer tried to preserve as many trees as he could. The Nelsons say the neighborhood loses one or two every monsoon season, though.
The house boasts almost 3,000 square feet, with three bedrooms and three bathrooms. Since purchasing the home almost 20 years ago, the Nelsons have closed in the original garage and created a mother-in-law unit, built out the basement, and added a studio for John. They also remodeled and opened up the kitchen to create flow into the living room.
The master suite is the next project, as it’s not fully operable, according to the couple.
“It's not a total mess,” Nelson says, “there are just funny little things like doors that don’t open all the way because they run into the wall.”
The Nelsons agree the house is very functional and comfortable, master bedroom aside.
“It’s fun when you entertain and there are a lot of people here, because you can see people from different angles, up there and down there,” Nelson says.
He goes on to say one of the things he has always loved about the house is that everyone can easily get away from each other.
“We would drift off into different corners,” Nelson says.
“This space,” he says, referring to the open kitchen and living area, “has always been wonderful, though, because then we all kind of come together.”
“Well, it’s the kitchen,” Gail adds, “the kitchen is often the center of the house.”
The couple met in high school in Illinois, and continued to date after John went away to college. Tired of driving every weekend, they decided to go to school together in Iowa.
“It was ridiculously cold the day we visited the campus,” Nelson says, “and we just decided, ‘Let’s go somewhere warm! Let’s just go, man!’”
They applied and got accepted to both UCLA and ASU, and ultimately decided to come to the desert. Tempe was still a small town in the early '70s, and the couple says it reminded them of college towns in the Midwest.
The Nelsons attended Arizona State University and got married in 1977. John started his career in advertising and graphic design and eventually found his way to illustration.
The couple spent a year in New York City, Brooklyn specifically, before settling in Arizona for good. Nelson says he would submit illustrations via FedEx from Brooklyn to Manhattan.
“I soon realized I could just as easily do that from Arizona,” he says. He notes that year was great for building contacts and relationships with galleries, though.
After returning to ASU for his Master of Fine Arts, Nelson settled into a career in fine art. He reflects on the transition from illustration to painting and sculpture and says it was relatively seamless, as it was the early 2000s and people had money to spend on original art.
“We’ve never really had a ‘real’ job,” Nelson says. “Not since we were in our 20s.” Gail adds that it’s been great.
Her role in the couple’s work is largely managing the business side of the art, although she can be very hands-on when needed.
“I’m pretty good with a saw,” she says smiling.
At this point in his career, Nelson is represented in galleries around the West, including California and New Mexico. He has public art installations around the Valley, and will soon be featured along the Scottsdale Waterfront. The couple often travels to different cities to attend openings and build relationships with art dealers and gallery owners.
When asked how they've stayed true to their creative path, despite the ebb and flow of success, Nelson says he feels an artist must be almost obsessed with the medium and probably not that good at doing anything else.
“Like, this is either going to work or I’m going to end up out on the streets somewhere," he says.
“We’re used to the anxiety,” he says, “but you never really get used to it.”
Having started his career in advertising and illustration, Nelson’s fine art often features layers of typography and imagery that tell a story. He attributes his fascination with symbolism to growing up in the Catholic Church.
“The imagery and iconography of the church, this whole visual experience,” he says, “is really a lot like performance art. I think that some of our earliest experiences almost have to resonate pretty deeply."
In recognition of turning 60 this year, Nelson created "60, 30, 15 Melange," which was featured at both Gebert Contemporary Gallery in Scottsdale and Eye Lounge in Phoenix in January of this year.
"Sixty years and 30 art works exhibited between the two spaces," Nelson explains. "15 also represents the length of time I've been represented by Gebert Contemporary in California, Arizona, and New Mexico."
When asked the secret to the couple’s ability to manage a work/life balance, Nelson responds with a smile, "We have a great relationship, we’re just suited for each other."
“We're both monkeys and this is the Year of the Monkey,” Gail adds, referring to the Chinese lunar calendar. “I think we’re going to have a good year.”