Ment Nelson watched the scene unfold in a YouTube clip on his phone — a rapper professing his love for the president in the Oval Office — and wanted to document the moment from the October meeting forever.
In his bedroom, Nelson began to draw and then paint and soon the Beaufort native and artist had produced a watercolor showing a grinning Kanye West with a red cap bearing the “Make America Great Again” slogan of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Opposite West, lipstick is seen on the cheek of a frowning Trump.
Nelson initially priced the original work at $5,000. After researching price tags commanded by other artists, noting how West’s support of Trump has remained in the news and with a renewed confidence in the worth of his work, Nelson recently raised the price tag for the work he named “Kissin’ Up:” $1 million.
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“I went into 2019 and I made a commitment to really believe in who I think I am,” said Nelson, who turned 30 in November. “That’s really the level I think on. Why not price it this high? Why undervalue my stuff?
And even if it doesn’t sell, it’s just something liberating about putting that particular price on there.”
Prints of the Trump piece haven’t been his hottest seller — that would be the work he titled “Old Sheldon,” which depicts his grandmother dropping a crab net into a Lowcountry creek. The piece is part of a Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibit on display at Newberry Opera House until Feb. 3 before moving to Hopkins.
He helped make his grandmother an internet sensation using his Twitter count and the experience offered him a taste of what could be.
Social media is how Nelson connects his art to the world, how he learned he didn’t need to move to a big city to create. After two years at Francis Marion University, he had returned home.
From the bedroom of the mobile home he shares with his parents in Varnville, Nelson’s tweets about his Gullah Geechee-inspired art and facts about black culture in South Carolina have reached hundreds of thousands.
It’s helped him sell the work he creates on a table-top easel propped on his bed.
He’s painted portraits of artist Jasper Johns, who grew up in nearby Allendale, and of “Gullah Gullah Island” star Ron Daise. Some pieces appear abstract, others pastoral.
He posts regular calls on his Twitter account for people to buy art and replies to famous figures to gain an audience from their massive followings.
“I painted you,” he said in multiple tweets to West accompanying photos of the Trump piece.
When people reply asking if the prints are for sale, he directs them to his website where they can be bought for $40.
Painting has been Nelson’s living since he quit his last job two years ago. He hopes his work will eventually lift him into his own home with space for a studio.
Selling a painting for seven figures would provide that, along with a chance to support his family.
Nelson said he formed the image for the painting after watching West tell Trump he loved him multiple times and standing to embrace the president near the end of their 20-minute meeting. He laughed at Trump’s reaction to the rapper’s zeal.
Response to the painting has been mixed and split down party and racial lines, Nelson said. He said he knew the painting would be controversial, but that it wasn’t the point.
“To be honest with you, it’s just a funny painting,” Nelson said. “It wasn’t meant to be taken super-serious.”