Ethereal plains

Elissa Nesheim’s landscapes are out of this world—almost

WATERCOLOR WONDER The Gilroy Center for the Arts is hosting an artist-in-residence with Elissa Nesheim through Sept. 30. Photo: Laura Johnston
After leaving her home in the Midwest six years ago, Elissa Nesheim was homesick. She’d grown fond of the countryside of South Dakota where she called home for more than three decades.
“It was hard for me to let go of my connection to South Dakota because I grew up there for 32 years,” she says. Nesheim, 38, says she struggled to let go of that feeling that it was the only place she was ever going to call home.
And, well, it’s not surprising—the varied landscape of South Dakota has captivated native inhabitants and settlers alike from the creation narratives of the Sioux rising out of the great plains like the dense Ponderosa Pines of the Black Hills to the frontier stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s accounts of vast grasslands—where the golden earth meets the edge of the blue sky.
But they were being uprooted—destined to find a new place to call home. Nesheim and her family nearly settled in Virginia, when her husband, Bob, a software engineer, ended up getting a job out in California. They packed up their daughter and son, Aily and Toby, now 18 and 11, and settled in Gilroy.
“Well I connected right away to the landscape,” says Nesheim. “I love those hills. The Gavilan hills they’re so pretty and I love Gilroy. I think that we chose the perfect place. The landscape surrounding us is so varied even here and it’s really fun to see all the clouds move in all the time. I think it was just the idea maybe of letting go.”
So when Nesheim, a watercolor landscape artist, approached Gilroy Arts Alliance executive director Kevin Heath with her idea to have an artist-in-residence at the Gilroy Center for the Arts, he said Nesheim, who also happens to be president of the Gilroy Arts Alliance board, was the perfect artist to launch the project.
The Center’s gallery has been transformed into a working studio, where Nesheim is developing a series of landscapes beginning with the earliest memories of her childhood in South Dakota.
“From left to right it goes around the room from my earliest memory to the present day and then it goes from the morning until night,” says Nesheim.
“I feel like that’s something that just looking at the landscape in so many different places has really taught me too,” she says. “It’s that you can connect with any landscape even though for a really long time it was hard for me to let go of my connection to South Dakota.”
Nesheim’s installation is very intuitive, she uses no props or photographs to trigger memories for her watercolor paintings.
“I am just kind of going as I go, I don’t plan anything,” says Nesheim. “I know I want to end up in Gilroy.”
An arts graduate from Black Hills State University, Nesheim reveals she didn’t really get into watercolor until attending the liberal arts college.
“I fell in love with the medium and just kept painting with it and took as many classes as I could,” she says.
Nesheim’s works in the exhibit, all landscape-inspired, are collages of earth and sky.
Nesheim uses few tools— simple watercolor paints, a range of brushes and, interestingly, X-Acto knives. She prepares each sheet by stretching wet paper to ready it for paint.
“I usually paint the sky separate and then a whole separate sheet for the landscape and then after it’s completely dry I tear it and rip it apart using the panels as kind of a measuring stick—almost to make sure I have the right length and I kind of put together—now that I am further in I kind of put together smaller ones,” says Nesheim. “I’ll have smaller pieces for people to purchase. I am going to use the paper that I painted on for the little ones.”
Heath says Nesheim’s art is visually stimulating and personal.
“The concept of creating a piece, then tearing it up,” he says. “The pieces are then coordinated with pieces torn from another painting and reconstructed into a new landscape painting. That, alone, is unique. Elissa has taken it step further. She continues this process and the end result will be her memories, from child to adult. I’ve never seen anything of this magnitude at the Center before.”
Nesheim’s artwork captivates—with her interpretations of windy, flat, prairies, where the horizon meets the sky at the edge of the earth, contrasting frozen winters with hot summers, fertile soil and lush grasses against sedimentary rock of the eroding badlands, her landscape scenes are stunning and entirely absent of human elements.
“My highest goal is definitely to connect people to the undiscovered landscape, in it’s purest form without human influences,” she says. “I like to imagine how the landscape might have looked before we were here.”
An environmentalist in her own right, Nesheim says that by connecting people to the landscape “in any way possible will ensure that the natural world endures.”
For Nesheim, her depictions of landscape are more like memories. Attributing her long road trips through the countryside—her only vantage being a framed window of her personal memory bank—to the mental pictures she says she’s collected over time.
“I just saved up all of these images and I was always in awe of the great big clouds in South Dakota,” she says. “As you grow up and let go of the attachment of your home—a place that you grew up in—you realize that every place has these things, these great vistas, these giant clouds—so it’s been just kind of lifelong admiration of the landscape.”
While she pushes use of color in innovative ways, she steers clear of photographic painting and realism, asking: “Do the hills really look like that? Do prairies really make those lines? Do buttes have the purple in them?”
“I think helped me appreciate other landscape even more than I already did and just making things even less specific helps people to connect—like a sort of dreamy abstract place almost,” says Nesheim.
She hopes that in making the work nonspecific people will develop a deeper appreciation for their own landscape.
“I like it when people can kind of bend it a little bit and say ‘Oh maybe that reminds me of my grandma’s house when I was growing up. That looks like the field right outside her back door.’”
Nesheim says she paints out of necessity.
“I paint because I have to, I have a need inside me to paint what I see in my deepest soul and share it with others hoping it will also trigger the same emotions in them.”
She’s inspired by our interconnectedness and cites 15th century poet and Indian mystic Kabir’s quote as the embodiment of that notion: “The river that flows in you also flows in me.” Adding, “Art is about connection, connecting people through their unique perspectives on the world, each other and our many differences.”
Nesheim’s project, once complete, will consist of 10 watercolor collages each depicting a different memory from her life translated into in 30 feet of ethereal watercolor wisdom.
Each of the 10 paintings are created on 36 inch wide by 48 inch tall wooden panels, the first of which is her earliest memory of landscape.
“That’s my grandparents ranch,” says Nesheim. “That’s the view of the butte from my grandparents ranch at the side of Edgemont, South Dakota.” Then, in succession, her memories of the prairie outside of Rapid City, then Black Hills in the distance in the third one—she added that as the memory came to life—almost as an afterthought.
The panels Nesheim is using add an interesting organic component to the compositions of her paintings—where they sometimes peek through.

INTUITIVE DESIGN Nesheim’s installation is free-flowing—no props or photographs are used to trigger memories. Photo: Laura Johnston

“I really love these panels a lot,” says Nesheim. “I think it gives that layer of reality almost peeking in and I wanted them to stay organized in shape, as if you tore them out of the landscape and pasted them up and you only got pieces of them.”
In addition to the larger project, Nesheim will be selling smaller landscapes comprised of the remnants of the current work, as well as other smaller items on display, including her “Owls Doing Things”—a whimsical take on life with the nocturnal birds taking the place of people—doing things.
Nesheim is donating 50 percent of the proceeds to the Gilroy Arts Alliance.
She hopes they can be used to fund another art show or anything the art center may need—with prices of the works increasing at various milestones during the work.
Nesheim says it’s important to keep these types of programs going and have places where people can come and look at art. “People just can’t get up to San Jose or San Francisco and go to the museum, go to the theater. And, it’s all right here,” she says. “I think it’s really important for people to come and experience different things.”
Nesheim approached the Center with a new concept. “Elissa’s exhibit is ‘outside the box’, especially for Gilroy,” says Heath. “It raises the bar of what is possible with art and what is possible at the Center. I think local art teachers should bring their classes here—it’s something all ages can understand and appreciate. It’s a natural step in the growth of the Center, but I think Elissa bumped us up a couple of years on the timeline. At the Center you are surrounded by the beauty our world has to offer, and we offer a moment of respite from the harsh world outside.”
Witness the Gilroy Arts Alliance artist-in-residence, ‘Intuitive Watercolor Installation: Reconstructing the Landscape’ through Sept. 30 at The Gilroy Center for the Arts. A closing reception will be held on Friday, Sept. 29 at 7341 Monterey St, Gilroy. For more information, visit or

Debra Eskinazi
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Debra Eskinazi is the editor of South Valley magazine.