Portland-based artist and author Anders Nilsen is that rare talent who is as deft with basic line forms as with imaginative tableaus of plants and animals that suggest vast other worlds.
Nilsen grew to prominence in digital comics circles while living in Chicago, with titles like the Ignatz Award-winner, "Big Questions," a quiet story with deceptively simple artwork that unfolded over 10 years. Its cast of bird characters discuss mortality, ponder the mysteries posed by a fallen aircraft and serve as Nilsen's surrogates in a freewheeling dialogue about life and meaning. In early stages, the art style of "Big Questions" was relatively simple. But as his skill with pointillism and complex organic forms grew, the imaginative power of his world came into focus.
“Different kinds of drawing have different effects on the viewer,” he said. “I try to keep that in mind. Simplicity also often has a corollary of being direct and iconic. Once you’re taking pains to draw backgrounds and carefully-textured grass, that’s a slightly different feeling than confronting the reader with an intense, complicated emotion.”
Nilsen's also made black-and-white illustrations for the pages of the New York Times and other publications, drawing influence from woodblock prints or classic graphic design.
Oddly enough, Nilsen said, "a lot of ideas that have been super-productive for me have been born out of certain economy, or — you might say — laziness. The weird solution you come up with has some interesting, evocative effect of its own."
Never a fan of the more repetitive aspects of comics production, he let go of panel borders early in his career, making way for a spaciousness and freedom that’s helped define his style.
Nilsen’s mastered several kinds of narrative, as well. His first published book, “Dogs and Water,” was a parable of life’s journeys with a surrealistic twinge and drew a great deal of positive attention. But two books about the death of his long-time partner, Cheryl Weaver, “The End” and “Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow,” marked an emotional watershed in his work. Through a series of drawings — some abstract, others chronicling specific experiences like chemotherapy — Nilsen worked through aspects of loss and renewal, with an unsparing poignancy.
These days, Nilsen holds little back. His most recent series,
(Volume 2 published in October), and other recent publications feature big panels, gorgeously detailed, drawing on organic forms from the animal and plant worlds to re-imagine the story of Prometheus. One reviewer nailed it in calling his style an “unnatural naturalism.” But amid the flowering of his visual world, Nilsen’s maintained the ability to conjure contemplative stillness.
The Promethean myth, reset for “Tongues” in Central Asia, offered Nilsen a chance to play around with ideas about consequences and obligation.
“He’s understood as the creator of humans. He’s sitting there watching the world change and develop," Nilsen said. "What have we done with his creation? How have we behaved, and how does he think about that?”
Nilsen keeps up a busy schedule, traveling to indie comics events around the U.S. and Europe. He'll spend part of this year working within a mentorship and grant program in Berlin, run by the creative collective Forecast. He follows his ideas to forms outside the traditional publication catalog, like a new accordion book bearing a sort of prequel narrative to "Tongues."
As visually rich as Nilsen's practice has become, he said he most values work that suggests wider stories and truths.
"I really love storytelling that doesn't lay it all out for you. I want people to have a little patience, reveling in the mysteriousness of not knowing exactly what's going to happen," he said. "But I want it to be done in a way that it feels like I'm discovering it. I don't want it to be handed to me."