The artist Kenton Nelson, who’s based in California, works in a bygone mode, evoking classical American forms and artists. In the cover for the Fall Books Issue, he draws on the crisp lines and slanted light of Edward Hopper, and nods, in the name of the pictured bookstore, to an F. Scott Fitzgerald character. We recently talked to the artist about his work and reading habits.
The sign on the bookstore reads “Horace Tarbox Books”—Tarbox being the central character of Fitzgerald’s story “Head and Shoulders.” In what way was your image inspired by the story?
F. Scott Fitzgerald inspired me to start painting. I loved how he could remove me from where I was and put me in another place, so I tried to do that with my work. When I started painting after college, I was still reading his stories, and they supplied me with themes and titles, just like in this one.
In his story, Fitzgerald writes, “He had meant to write a series of books, to popularize the new realism as Schopenhauer had popularized pessimism and William James pragmatism.” Do you think of your paintings as engaged in a new realism?
In a way, yes. In all my paintings, I attempt to hold a viewer for a few minutes to give them a new perspective on something they know. But I have always called what I do “narrative idealism.”
Do you often use literature as a jumping point for your images? And, if so, which authors most often inspire you?
I am most inspired by what good authors do. John Cheever, Maeve Brennan, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, Raymond Chandler, Tom Wolfe, to name a few. Right now I am reading Richard Feynman, Nancy Mitford, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
How do you find the books you’ll read next? Do you read reviews, solicit suggestions from friends? Or do you browse old stores, go to the library, download titles on a Kindle?
All of the above. I’ll try anything. I love getting referrals from friends, and there’s no greater pleasure than browsing a used bookstore, holding an old book. Right now I’m reading books by artists and writers about the creative process, trying to understand it better. I think we’re all engaged in the same undertaking. But there will never be enough time to read the books I’d like to, so I listen to recorded books while I paint.
See below for more covers featuring bookstores: