Bob Nilson has always been drawing. The 83-year-old Portsmouth artist says the joke in his family was that he was “born with an in-grown pencil.” But he didn’t always draw musicians — the subject that has become his calling card.
That didn’t happen until the 1980s. Nilson remembers walking down State Street past the Rosa Restaurant. The windows were open and the sounds of the Memorial Bridge All-Star Dixieland Band tumbled out onto the sidewalk. Nilson couldn’t resist the music’s call.
“It just grabbed you by the ears and pulled you in,” he says. “I was in there, listening to the music, doodling and drawing the band. And the band said, ‘Can we use this drawing?’”
The Memorial Bridge All-Stars featured a rotating cast of musicians, and when new players sat in with the band, they’d ask Nilson to draw them, too. Nilson was already drawing a weekly “Seacoast Sketchbook” column in the Portsmouth Herald, and it wasn’t long before his editor came up with a proposition.
“The paper came along and said, ‘Do you want to draw bands and get paid for it?’” Nilson says.
He said yes, and for more than three decades, Nilson has been a staple at music venues around the Seacoast, attentively watching the musicians on stage and capturing them on paper. “Hands Together,” a new exhibit of Nilson’s art, is on display through April 1 at the Portsmouth Music and Arts Center (PMAC), and Nilson will be on hand for a reception on Thursday, March 3.
Nilson has been many things — a cartoonist, a teacher, an advertising man — but it’s not surprising that his calling card turned out to be sketching musicians. He grew up on a 68-foot Chinese junk boat docked in New York, and his family was steeped in music. His maternal grandparents were both opera singers. His father was “one of the first radio engineers in the business,” Nilson says, and specialized in remote recordings of live bands.
“He went to hotels and places where they had bands and he’d (record) the bands,” Nilson says. “He used to take me around with him when I was a little kid. I’d have to coil up the wires to the mic — there’s nothing dustier than a mic wire. He liked to work nights, and I like to work nights.”
Growing up, Nilson and his two brothers all took music lessons. His younger brother ended up starting his own dance band in high school; his older brother eventually became a music teacher. Nilson wasn’t as musical as his siblings, though.
“I just had no talent for it. I didn’t have a sense of rhythm, I couldn’t read sheet music, I couldn’t carry a tune,” he says. “But I love music.”
What Nilson did have an aptitude for was drawing, and one of his first jobs was drawing advertisements for the Wool Bureau in New York City. After moving to New Hampshire, he drew editorial cartoons for the Canaan Reporter and the Laconia Daily Sun, and eventually began teaching at Oyster River High School in Durham. He was a “utility man,” teaching math, journalism, psychology, sociology, English, and everything else. A co-worker once called Nilson a “renaissance man.”
“I said, ‘Today’s definition for that is attention deficit disorder,’” Nilson jokes.
Nilson’s drawings of musicians have been appearing in his column, “Guess Who,” in the Portsmouth Herald every week since the 1980s. He retired from teaching in 1993, and the column has become something of a second career for him.
“He’s not interested in the big artists who are coming to town. He’s interested in the local musicians who are playing at smaller local venues.”
— PMAC executive director Russ Grazier
“I’m compensating for not being a musician,” he jokes. “And the musicians like it, so it comes out pretty good. And it gives me access to music.”
In that time, Nilson has watched the Seacoast’s music scene change. Older players die or move away and younger musicians move in and take their place. Venues open and close. Nilson’s drawings, which he creates at shows while the musicians are on stage, have become an ongoing chronicle of the local scene.
“I see my work as being part of the web of the Seacoast musical community,” he says.
Russ Grazier, PMAC’s executive director, says the new exhibit reflects that ever-evolving community.
“What’s interesting is that there are a lot of people represented in the show who are no longer with us,” he says “It’s fascinating to see how they all fit into the scene … and you can see how eclectic our scene is.”
Grazier helped put the exhibit together with curators Chris Hislop and J.L. Stevens, who got to know Nilson and his work while working at Spotlight magazine (now known as Edge). Because Nilson gives his drawings to his subjects, the three had to ask the community to lend their Nilson drawings for the exhibit. After combing through hundreds of drawings, Grazier says, 83 were selected for the show. Some 400 musicians are represented in the exhibit.
“He’s not interested in the big artists who are coming to town. He’s interested in the local musicians who are playing at smaller local venues,” Grazier says.
It helps that Nilson works fast. Maybe you’ve seen him at The Press Room or other local venues, a sketchbook on his lap and a pencil in each hand. He’s ambidextrous, a trait he developed to help him do sketches at fairs.
“I can draw 100 people in a day, but after about the third day, I don’t want to draw anymore, so I said to myself that I have to teach my left hand how to draw … so I can rest my right hand,” he says.
It took three years to get his left hand up to speed, he says. Now, he can make multiple drawings of a band in a single set — so long as he doesn’t think about it.
“If I think about my right hand, my left hand stops. So I just do it,” he says. “If it’s got a beat or a rhythm to it … I can draw fast if the music is fast.”
Where the music is
Nilson lives in Portsmouth’s Atlantic Heights neighborhood. Along with his weekly column, he’s also a regular volunteer at Boston Children’s Hospital. One day a week, he arrives at 7 a.m. and starts drawing caricatures for the kids who are set to go in for operations that day.
“I’m fulfilling my mother’s prediction. She always said, ‘You boys will drive me to distraction!’ Now, I am a distraction. The drawing takes the kids’ mind off the procedure. They have to choose what they want to be in the picture (I’m drawing), a princess or a mermaid or a cowboy,” he says.