Having a conversation with Illinois artist Marc Nelson is like diving into the middle of an energy field. Even as he sits and speaks, he is constantly moving. And the same passion that inspires him as an artist and teacher also carries into his activism for Syria.
Recently SYRIAWISE had the opportunity to speak with Nelson about the hundreds of drawings he created for Syria and how he came to be involved in the Syrian people’s revolution for freedom and dignity.
“In 2013, I was in Turkey with my wife in a place called Assos, on the coast of Turkey and from there you can see the Greek Island of Lesbos.”
Nelson recalled seeing on the news when they got back to the US that Syrian refugees were risking their lives in open rubber boats to reach that very island, and that many of them, especially children, were losing their lives in an attempt to find a better life in Europe.
He remembers thinking “People were drowning in the same spot where we were taking a vacation!” simply because they wanted to give their kids a better life. “And even then, I could not wrap my head around it.”
Nelson says he became obsessed with the news coverage of the refugee crisis and true to his calling as an artist, began processing the information in the only way he knew how: through his art.
He recalls that his first Syria-related drawing was an image he had seen on TV of a father grabbing hold of his little girl that he couldn’t get out of his head. He waves his arms around as he describes how her blanket was flying in the air and how he quickly captured the image on paper.
But the Syrian crisis was not Nelson’s first obsession with the devastating effects of war on innocent people. He told SYRIAWISE that his first drawings as a child were of wounded soldiers from World War I.
“A lot of my British family members died in that war,” he said. “I grew up with this idea that there are a lot of devastating things that can happen to loving people with families that can really tear them apart.”
“I wanted to be a history professor before being an artist,” Nelson told SYRIAWISE. But sometime during his second year of university studies, he realized that he was spending most of his time sketching the things he was learning and switched his major to Art.
“I realized that as an artist I could address all these different subjects that I was interested in,” Nelson said as he waved his hands around.
“I used to always look for stories in history. My artwork is more about people’s responses to war. The human response to what things like war does to society.”
But what bothers Nelson the most about what has been happening to Syrians for more than ten years is the fact that the brutality of the Assad regime has been flagrantly conducted in plain sight of the entire world, and no one has ever held them accountable for the devastation they have caused.
“Look at that little girl who died and the heart on the front of her shirt. Somebody loved her enough to buy her that shirt and now she is gone.”Marc Nelson
“As an American, I understand that people in Syria want basic human rights, freedom of expression, civil liberties, democracy, and to put an end to the torture system that’s been around since Assad, the father. But peaceful protests in Syria were met with weapons. I saw this modern-day civilized, cultured, artistic, beautiful society trying to stand up for what they believed in, being murdered. Something like a bad dystopian novel. I think that’s why my heart was drawn.”
Nelson wishes for people in the West to realize that “Syrians are very close to who we are. It’s a highly developed society, a country rich in history and art. They want to live!”
Nelson has created a multitude of artwork for Syria since 2013 and refuses to profit from any of them. All the proceeds from sales of his work go to organizations like the Karam Foundation, SAMS, and Global Med that have been doing humanitarian work in Syria.
Nelson also gets requests from activists to make sketches of photos of atrocities considered to be too graphic to post on social media. He shakes his head at the fact that a sketch is more socially acceptable than an actual photo and says he is using his art as a tool to get people to look at images that they might otherwise look away from.
When asked what message he wished to convey to the world through his art, Nelson said, “My message is pretty direct: I am saying do not look away. Do not turn your head. Do not turn your eyes away from what is happening. Take time and look. Look at what’s happening. Look at that little girl who died and the heart on the front of her shirt. Somebody loved her enough to buy her that shirt and now she is gone.”