Ryan Nelson is, for all purposes, a walking Wikipedia entry on D.C. bands, labels, and venues. But now, the District-born-and-bred scene vet is simply walking.
“I say yes to everything,” says Nelson, who’s played in such bands as the Most Secret Method, Beauty Pill, and his latest musical collaboration, Soccer Team, among others. “I’m constantly doing projects, but I want to go to school. If I stay here and try to go to school, I’ll do everything I do now—and I’ll probably have a heart attack.”
As a result, Nelson, 32, has all but closed out his D.C. accounts. In early November, he gave his notice at Dischord Records, where he had worked filling out mail orders shortly after leaving his parents’ Suitland home at age 18. Late last month, Soccer Team played its last show at the Black Cat. And as a final farewell—for now, at least—Nelson is currently showing his work in a two-artist exhibition, “Drawn to It,” which opened Dec. 16 at Transformer Gallery. The show is a rare gallery appearance for Nelson, whose work was last seen in the professional fine-arts circuit as part of the Washington Project for the Arts\Corcoran’s curated “Options” exhibition in 2002, to which he contributed a series of large paintings.
Though Nelson began his artistic career as a student at the Corcoran College of Art + Design, it wasn’t long before he took the DIY route. “I thought the Corcoran was the pits,” he says, recalling his brief stint there. Instead, he looked to a more familiar text for inspiration. “Fucked Up and Photocopied—that’s a book that artists have to have,” he says, referring to the definitive monograph on punk-rock scene art from the late ’70s through the early ’80s. Nelson’s ink-and-brush works draw from cartoon and satire, but he developed his skills as an ad man of sorts—boosting bands on show fliers, silk-screened posters, and album covers, as well as creating the designs for the Fort Reno concert series T-shirts.
Nelson describes the show as a “hodge podge”—production drawings, for the most part, in ink from designs that made their way either to the printer or the chopping block. Many of the drawings were made within the last two years; the remaining pieces form a kind of greatest-hits gallery. “There was an image of two people kissing I did for a Most Secret Method show with Q and Not U, Rainer Maria, and Juno, and Juno liked it so much they used the flier for a T-shirt,” Nelson says. “Juno’s long since broken up; no one’s trying to hang that shit on their wall—so I just cut it up.”
“Ryan’s unique in what he’s doing,” says Victoria Reis, director of Transformer. “But not because he also plays music. In D.C., so many artists do hybrid projects, painting while they’re running a record label or playing in a band and doing an indie press.” The visual arts world, she says, has become more welcoming to artists working with a street or punk aesthetic.
According to Reis, that warm welcome also extends overseas. “I got e-mails from a gallery in Antwerp. If Ryan gets on the phone, boom, next thing he knows he’s going to be showing in Antwerp,” she says. For now, however, the place Nelson has started to call home might as well be that far from the scene in which he grew up. Following the exhibition’s opening, the D.C. native moved to Kalamazoo, Mich., where he’s slated to take classes at Kalamazoo Valley Community College before moving on to an area university to pursue a degree in English. It’s not exactly a nationally recognized hot spot of musical activity, but the choice of town was an easy one.
“I’ve done 15 tours,” Nelson says. “Kalamazoo was always a stop. It was always a killer stop.”
“Drawn to It” is on view from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and by appointment to Saturday, Jan. 20, at Transformer Gallery, 1404 P St. NW. Free. (202) 483-1102.