Remembering Al Nelson

I was honored to deliver this eulogy in remembrance of incredible artist and even more incredible person, Al Nelson, who I’ve been blessed to know most of my life.

Many people who meet me now are surprised to learn that I was raised in this church. I noticed surprised looks as if they’re thinking, ‘hmm. I guess it didn’t stick.’ But in fact there were countless lessons that did stick, that I’m immensely grateful for. I’m reminded of experiences we shared and life lessons I took away from them constantly. Frankly these lessons didn’t come from the pulpit, they came from Al and Penny Nelson.

I had the enormous privilege of knowing the Nelsons for as long as I can remember. I drew pictures of the youth choir Al led as if it was an album cover—The Sunday Children. He played guitar, sang songs he personally wrote, and we all sang along.

Yours truly hamming it up front left, Al looking on in the back.

I really resonate with the adage you may not remember what a person says, but you’ll remember how they made you feel and there was something very special about the way Al Nelson connected to children that I only now fully appreciate as an adult and a parent of two small children.

Usually, children are treated as small people lacking the experiences and emotion maturity of adults. So adults don’t always fully recognize and appreciate a child’s thoughts or feelings. To the child, their feelings are extremely real. Although children don’t have the stresses of monitoring their blood pressure and mortgage rates, they often face real trauma, loss, and heartbreak.

Al and Penny always met children exactly where they were. They never approached from a position of authority or superiority. They would always sincerely listen, even if this meant paying attention to a long story that went absolutely nowhere. This gigantic man would literally and figuratively get on your level and look you in the eye when you were speaking, showing you that what you were saying matters. What you’re saying, what you’re feeling, was important. In fact, nothing matters more in this moment that what you’re saying and he’s all ears.

Young me and Al

Getting this type of validation and respect as a child was invaluable. Everyone wants to feel heard and seen for who they truly are and what they truly feel and with Al and Penny was always a safe place to do that. They never dismissed anyone’s feelings, never lectured, never judged, never sugarcoated. They told you exactly what you needed to hear and met you with love and compassion.

They had a special gift for seeking out the children who were hurting, and in need of a little extra love and they quietly gave them the attention and room to heal and grow. I vividly remember them consoling kids dealing with their parents’ divorce and Al even took on the especially terrifying task of teaching some kids how to drive. I remember Penny saying that if they learned driving their big van, they should be able to drive anything.

Through their words and most importantly their actions, I learned how to stand up for what is right even if there are consequences, even if it’s unpopular. I also learned how rewarding it can be to give back. One summer Penny and Al picked me up at least one day a week of every summer to volunteer at the local nursing home and when I think about summers of my childhood, the one spent giving manicures to old ladies and driving wheelchairs down the halls is the most memorable.

I will forever remember Al wearing a button up shirt or vest covered in rock dust quietly witling away or softly strumming a guitar, his hands always busy. I loved hearing about how he discovered the art he’s most known for when he began carving wood after his time in the navy when he was just looking for a hobby to busy his hands. At an art show, someone gave him a chunk of limestone and said if he likes carving wood, he’d love this. And he never went back to carving wood again.

He went on to create some of the most breathtaking sculptures that live on throughout this community. Although his work was so beautiful, it was no more delicate than Al himself. The smooth surfaces begged to be touched. When I told Al and Penny I was going to be a mother, Al promptly gifted me a gorgeous sculpture featuring a mother and child. He showed me how it’s meant to spin, showing a different perspective. It’s sat in my bedroom for nearly a decade and unlike other artwork that may remain behind glass or hung high on a wall, I find myself constantly running my fingers down the smooth sides thinking about the immense talent it takes to take a hunk of rock and make it something so beautiful and treasured.

Al and Penny must have understood that their approach to art was a revelation for children. As a child, walking through a museum or an art fair is sometimes like walking on egg shells. Don’t touch. Don’t touch. All the while a child is looking eye-level at these things just begging to be touched.

And then there was Al, dusty and smiling, whose work was there to touch, to explore, and even to chisel a hunk of so Penny could wrap a string around it and you could wear as a necklace. I recently visited his works around the area and it was difficult to take a photo of the 17-ton baseball glove at the Louisville Slugger museum because kids were constantly climbing on it—just as he intended.

Al’s unique expression of empathy and ability to see others exactly how they want to be seen granted so much comfort to so many. For years, through Nelstone, Al and Penny focused their work educating others about the art of stone carving. They worked closely with children and adults in organizations such as Downs Syndrome of Louisville and Camp Quality of Kentucky, benefitting children with cancer. Their reach was so vast, I find myself stumbling across his sculptures all the time.

Penny, myself, and Al at Camp Quality in 2006

In a full circle moment, I was providing books focused on the Black experience throughout West Louisville and while filling up a little free library, I saw a sculpture of Al’s right beside it at the Shawnee Boys and Girls Club. There were little pieces chiseled from the sides, each piece representing a child who was blessed by Al’s warm presence and I have no doubt whose life was enriched by the experience.

His style celebrated women and especially mothers, with so many of the sculptures displayed at Art in Speed Park destined for personal collections featuring women with soft features and long, wavy hair looking beautiful but also strong and powerful.

It’s so clear that Penny, his partner and love of his life was his muse. He clearly loved his art and his talent and gifts were undeniable. But he was incredibly humble and never spent so many hours giving back to the community for the accolades. In fact, the only way you’d know about so many of his charitable endeavors are if you stumbled across one as I did.

But when he spoke about his family, that’s when he allowed his pride to come out. He always gushed over Penny and how she brought his vision to the lives of so many children, who gained a new appreciation of art and confidence in themselves as creators. He was always quick to share what was happening in the lives of his sons, Pete and Luke, and no matter what it was, he would smile his biggest smile, let out his hardy laugh, and say, “isn’t that so cool?!”

He seemed completely amazed with how blessed he was with his sons, even though they were so clearly a reflection of himself. He extended that same love and pride to his daughters in law. And he was the quickest to pull out his phone and show the latest pictures of his grandchildren—Mabel and Alby. Sure, everything his sons did was cool. But everything Mabel and Alby did was the coolest.

Over the past couple of years and especially the past month, I’ve found so much solace in knowing he was exactly where he needed to be surrounded by his family who he loved more than anything and inspired everything he did.

If you look closely at limestone, as Al would show, you can sometimes see small fossils and evidence of life. Al breathed life into his work that will long outlive him. Think about all the people walking into the downtown Louisville YMCA who admire “Hearts in Harmony” every morning or how many discover the Dragonboat at the fountain in Cherokee park or how many pass the “Enduring Light of Freedom” honoring veterans and healthcare providers at the VA Hospital, where Al served so many years and retired.

And as impressive as this legacy is, it’s even more impressive to consider how many were directly impacted with the installation of these sculptures. So many people like me who strive to give back, stand up, and do the right thing and trace back this drive straight to lessons from Al and Penny Nelson.

Like all of you, I will so deeply miss Al. But I’m grateful for the legacy he left all around us.

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