WITH BILL NELSON, ARTIST
By Matt Kimbro – Ventriloquist Central #1 Ace
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.”
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!
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?
Matt: At what point did you complete your first professional
Bill: IT WAS RIGHT AFTER THEY INVENTED THE LIGHT
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
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
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
Bill: YES, I AM STILL CREATING ONE-OF-A-KIND
FIGURES AND HAVE GRADUATED TO AUTOMATONS AND ONE-OF-A- KIND
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
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
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
Matt: How long did you and Chuck make figures together?
Bill: I THINK WE WORKED TOGETHER FOR ABOUT THREE
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
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
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
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
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
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!