When Kanye West paid a visit to the Oval Office in October 2018 sporting a red "Make America Great Again" hat, South Carolina artist Ment Nelson watched it live on TV. Then he picked up his watercolor set and got to work.
The final product was a painting of West alongside President Donald Trump, the latter with a rosy-red smooch mark on his cheek. Nelson titled it "Kissin Up" and placed it for sale on his personal web store — for $1 million.
"Right around that time it was a big question of self-worth: What am I worth right now? How do I look at myself in the art world? Just kind of re-evaluating myself," said Nelson, 30.
VARNVILLE — Gold light pours over the treeline as Ment Nelson perches on a picnic table in his family's backyard. A playful breeze dries a coa…
Nelson lives on a dirt road with his family in Varnville, a Lowcountry town of 2,000 people 75 miles west of Charleston. The town's last moment in the national spotlight came in the 1990s, when parts of "Forrest Gump" were filmed there, with storefronts in the downtown area serving as a stand-in for the fictional town of Greenbow, Alabama.
In Hampton County, where Varnville sits, the median per-capita income is less than $18,000 and Hillary Clinton won by a landslide in 2016.
As an artist, Nelson is best known for portraying everyday life in his community and celebrating the lesser-known triumphs of South Carolina history. His online store features a watercolor portrait of the mid-century painter Jasper Johns, who grew up in nearby Allendale before moving to New York City and selling his art for millions of dollars.
In this case, Nelson chose as his subject matter two of the most famous living Americans.
He says he didn't mean to make a political statement but was struck by the humor of the moment when, following a discursive and confusing rant by West, Trump seemed to shrug it all off.
"People say it's offensive that you would paint the president in that type of light, but you've got to remember Donald Trump was the same guy that was on a celebrity roast, so y’all are more sensitive than he is. He had Snoop Dogg roasting him," Nelson said. "I feel like I had a license to paint him in a humorous light."
He hasn't received any serious inquiries about the piece yet, but he hoped the $1 million price tag would subvert the usual system of galleries and auction houses draining profits from artists. He said he also hoped to send a message to aspiring artists in his community that their work should be taken seriously.
"Me pricing this painting this high is about way more than just me," he said. "It's everybody. It’s people in Allendale, young black kids who don’t even look at art as a (career)."
"It just seems like a very 2019 way of thinking," he added.
Nelson's art is available for sale at mentnelson.com. Most prints of his work are priced at $25 to $40.