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 coarse-bristled paintbrush on the graying plank beside him.
"This is where I tweet," says Nelson, 29.
When he tweets from the Twitter handle @mentnelson (13,700 followers and counting), his favorite topics are the history and culture of the South Carolina Lowcountry where he was born and raised.
When he makes art, he turns his eye to the community around him in rural Hampton County: his grandparents, his neighbors and the Gullah-Geechee traditions that he only came to appreciate after dropping out of college and moving back in with his family.
As an emerging artist who has gone from bagging groceries to collaborating on a New York gallery show in the span of two years, Nelson doesn't draw a line between his portraits, his hip-hop songwriting, his computerized artwork and his ebullient social-media presence.
He'll use any format that gets the job done, up to and including posing for a selfie with a roost full of chickens.
The closest thing you'll find to an artist statement is Nelson's brief biography on Twitter: "I make it cool to be from South Carolina."
I'm a creator from the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Over 40% of African Americans can trace their roots to this area of the US. I use my platform to shine light on my state and culture. My store is https://t.co/SKHpj5nhYA. 1 RT could introduce me to my next customer. Please help pic.twitter.com/rFGuxbx4g6— ment nelson (@mentnelson) March 12, 2018
On his website, Nelson sells prints of pastoral Lowcountry scenes, like locals fishing in a creek or a pastor riding his favorite horse in front of a country chapel.
His technique blends the old and new: Hand-drawn lines on paper, digitized and colorized with a vector coloring tool in Photoshop. He has also sold more traditional works in graphite and watercolor, among other media.
One of his best-known pieces is an image of his maternal grandmother, Lillie Behlin, dropping a crab net from a dock. She taught him to bait crabs with chicken necks as a child, and he wanted to immortalize those moments and honor a woman he has always looked up to.
Born in Beaufort and raised in Varnville, a town of about 2,000 people an hour-and-a-half west of Charleston, Nelson says he made the most of his surroundings.
When he and his friends made sand castles on a dirt road, it felt like a trip to the beach. When they built forts and cleared bike paths in the woods, they were like kings surveying their domain.
Still, he knew the public image of the place he called home: poor, isolated, rural — not to mention boring. Even the skating rink where he used to hang out has vanished.
"Popular consensus is it's wack here," Nelson said.
Nelson's mother, Carolyn Nelson, was the first to see his talent. She said the schools in Hampton County encouraged him to enter regional art competitions from a young age. She still keeps his earliest work on display in the house, including a photorealistic portrait of the legendary Lowcountry educator Septima Clark by the mantle and an anti-littering cartoon ad in the hallway that appeared in the Hampton County Guardian.
A first-generation college student, Ment enrolled at Francis Marion University in 2007, planning to study graphic design. He said he enjoyed the freedom but he didn't see value in his classes. He dropped out two years later while on academic probation.
His mother said she was heartbroken when he dropped out.
"I just wanted him to go somewhere else, just go — there ain't nothing here," she said.
College wasn't all in vain. He learned a few techniques, including some Photoshop skills that he still applies to his work. He also made some close friends, Pedro English and Tony London, with whom he formed the hip-hop group OXYxMORON.
They gained some notoriety and an approving nod from Spin magazine in 2012 after releasing a sprawling 21-track mixtape, The Woods, that they recorded while holed up in a house in Prosperity (town motto: "Equal to the Name").
"Y'all say we from the sticks, we say we from the woods," went the refrain on the title track, a defiant rural anthem reclaiming a derogatory term.
Their 2015 album Souf Cak (a slang term for South Carolina) espoused a similar pride of place and included a braggadocious claim to future fame on the track "Sleepin'": "One of these days, they're gonna wake up and stop sleepin' on me."
Gradually, through his art, Nelson was coming to terms with his home.
"I always wanted to move to a bigger city, a major city outside of South Carolina, but that never worked out for me," Nelson said. "So I was like, 'OK, instead of trying to change my situation, how can I embrace my situation and see it in a different light?'"
A love of place
Nelson's mother marveled at the art her son created after coming home.
Between working jobs at the dollar store, home improvement stores and the nearby IGA grocery, he turned his eye to familiar sights and rendered them in surprising ways.
"He's seen something here that I wasn't seeing," she said. "You know, he can go to the cow pasture and sit there and draw on his shoes. ... He goes into the chicken coop, and he can draw things in there. He sees things that we don't see."
For one of Nelson's latest projects, he collaborated with the Brazilian fashion photographer June Canedo, who grew up in Myrtle Beach and produced a photo essay for Vogue last year on the beloved Myrtle Waves water park of her youth.
As part of an ongoing project dubbed Topophilia (literally, "love of place"), Nelson, Canedo, Justin French and Tess Herbert collaborated on a series of portraits of South Carolinians in clothes meant to reflect the colors and shapes of the state's coast. The models include Natalie Daise, co-star of the seminal 1990s children's show Gullah Gullah Island; Charleston-based musician Khari Lucas; and — of course — Nelson's grandmother, resplendent in white.
The pieces went on display last weekend at Artbook, the bookstore for the Museum of Modern Art PS1 art gallery in New York. The show also featured some abstract acrylic paintings by Nelson.
At home, Nelson sports a camouflage bucket hat, Carhartt T-shirt and jeans with the cuffs rolled up. He spouts off bragging points and factoids about his state with ease ("North, South Carolina — that's where Eartha Kitt was born"), but he's also well aware of its shortcomings.
"I'm tired of living in poverty, being surrounded by crime and death," he tweeted on April 8, shortly after a triple homicide took place less than a mile from his house. "I will continue to use my gifts to create opportunities for myself and family and create a new path for future generations."
Nelson graduated from a high school named after Wade Hampton, a slaveholder and Confederate military officer who arose to the governor's office after Reconstruction on a wave of white paramilitary terrorism. Nelson's legal first name, Clementia, was an ode to family friend, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who died in the June 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church.
"I’m named after someone who was assassinated by a white supremacist," he said. "I try not to give that energy."
Instead, he expends his energy praising the goodness he sees. From civil rights icons to the fast-thinking Bluffton Bojangles employees who saved a baby's life in their restaurant last month, he gives shout-outs to heroes of the state's past and present, prominent and obscure.
Nelson recently caught the attention of the S.C. Arts Commission, a state agency. Susan DuPlessis, director of community arts development, said when she heard about Ment on Facebook, he was just the sort of person she was looking for.
Now he's working on a contract with the Arts Commission for a rural outreach project called CREATE: Rural SC, helping to identify and connect creative and artistic workers across six rural counties. It's a natural fit, and it's opening him up to new opportunities for collaboration.
"Ment is kind of the personification of place and creativity, and he’s also a young person who’s still in the general vicinity of where he grew up," DuPlessis said.
Even when he travels out of state, Nelson seeks out South Carolina connections. Before he flew home from the gallery show in New York, he stopped in to visit Charlamagne tha God, a nationally syndicated radio host and author who grew up in Moncks Corner.
Posing with Charlamagne at the Power 105.1 studio, Nelson wore a hot-pink hoodie with two words emblazoned in a bold blackletter font: