Born in Wisconsin, Nelson began studying art as a child, and pursued this interest in college. In 1980, he came to Alaska for a summer fishing job and stayed. Nelson's experiences in coastal Alaska exposed him to landscapes, wildlife, and Native cultures, the inspirations for his paintings and scientific illustrations.
A nineteenth century fishhook in the Alutiiq Museum's collection inspired Alaska Native Tribute, Bruce's painting of a halibut approaching a hook. Nelson studied the hook and its use, and then painted the object in action. Baited with a piece of octopus, the hook rests on the ocean floor where it is tempting a halibut.
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