Michael Jackson’s personal artist shared pop king’s vision
By Edna Gundersen, USA TODAY
SANTA FE — Artist David Nordahl was at home painting in February 1988 when the phone rang at midnight. A voice said, "This is Michael Jackson."
Yeah, riiiight, he thought. But he quickly realized the call was no prank.While visiting Steven Spielberg‘s
office, Jackson had admired one of Nordahl’s paintings of Army troops
invading an Apache camp as a young corporal shielded two Indian
children. Now the singer was reaching out to the painter. For art
lessons. "He asked if I taught drawing and painting," says Nordahl, whose realist oils of 19th-century Apaches are highly prized. "I told him I didn’t, but that I’d think about it. I was really busy." Their hour-long conversation sparked a close
friendship and working partnership that led Nordahl to abandon renown
in the art world for a cloistered vocation as Jackson’s portraitist.
From 1988 to 2005, Nordahl completed thousands of drawings and roughly
a dozen epic commissions, seven of which were among 2,000 Jackson items
in Julien’s authorized auction, which the singer sued to stop last
spring. Many canvases encapsulate Jackson’s grandiose
fantasies and fairy-tale worldview. In a massive triptych, he is
crowned and knighted in royal robes. Along the sunlit path in Field of Dreams, he leads children of all nationalities (plus sister Janet, AIDS activist Ryan White and actor Macaulay Culkin). His firstborn son snoozes on an oversized golden throne in Prince, The Boy King.
Nordahl, 68, became not only Jackson’s favorite living artist (Michelangelo led the historic ranking) but a trusted adviser and confidant who designed Neverland carnival rides and joined family outings.
He ducked the media for years, "because they
wanted to talk about negative stuff, and I don’t know anything bad
about Michael," the soft-spoken Nordahl says, sitting with artist/wife
Lori Peterson and frisky cat Scooter in a living room crowded with
paintings by the couple. He’s speaking now in hopes of brightening a
picture darkened since Jackson’s death June 25.
"I always thought of him as normal," he says.
"He’s the most thoughtful, respectful person I’ve ever met. In 20
years, I never heard him raise his voice."
Early days: Brainstorming
Nordahl’s Jackson period began after the singer invited him to the Denver stop of the Bad tour in March 1988.
"I didn’t know what to expect," Nordahl says.
"He was sweet. We went to galleries, bookstores and a private showing
of the King Tut exhibit. We sat around and laughed and talked and drew."
Jackson demonstrated talent but was stretched
too thin to pursue visual arts. Instead, the two began hatching ideas
for Nordahl to paint. The artist conceived the inaugural work, Playmates for a Lonely Child, a 41-inch-square oil of Jackson in a sylvan storybook scene. Next Nordahl embarked on a far bolder statement, Field of Dreams, a 36-by-104-inch oil study for an unfinished work that would have measured 12 by 38 feet.
He labored non-stop: large portraits, mythical
tableaux, 10-foot charcoal drawings, a plaque on the Neverland gate.
Nordahl billed Jackson in line with his earlier gallery rates, up to
$150,000 for large pieces, and says he was always paid.
His duties expanded to amusement park design
after Jackson began developing the ranch north of Santa Barbara,
Calif., and Nordahl juggled several projects while adapting to
Jackson’s enchanted lifestyle. At Neverland, the two tested rides and
tended the exotic menagerie.
They took trips to Disneyland and spent time at
billionaire Ron Burkle’s La Jolla, Calif., estate, where Jackson’s
insomnia often meant Nordahl was enlisted for wee-hour practical jokes
and beachside chats. (He also was a victim of Jackson’s notorious
tricks, once finding his briefcase stuffed with bubblegum.)
He discovered the unglamorous Jackson, who in
the late ’80s often drove by himself in a Chevy Blazer (and relieved
himself in a bucket because he couldn’t risk being mobbed at gas
stations) and lived in a two-bedroom Los Angeles condo.
"I expected a penthouse with maids," Nordahl
says. "There was a grand piano pushed into the kitchen, a popcorn
machine and a good sound system. The other furniture, you couldn’t have
gotten 50 bucks for it at a garage sale. Before the kids, Michael lived
What fueled this bromance?
"I grew up in a difficult home, and he did too," says Nordahl, whom Jackson thanks in liner notes for 1991’s Dangerous and 1995’s HIStory. "We had no playtime growing up. We’re both fanatical about work.
"There was a bond."
Nordahl’s youth troubled, too
Born in Albert Lea, Minn., Nordahl left home at
12 and supported himself through high school by working on farms,
pinstriping cars and selling his art.
"I can’t remember not drawing," he says. "I had
an abusive, alcoholic father, and drawing is something that takes you
out of the real world. I was always interested in cowboys and Indians.
I sold drawings of the Lone Ranger to my classmates."
He began specializing in Apaches after moving to
Steamboat Springs, Colo., in 1977, and his detailed, meticulously
researched depictions soon lured collectors.
"His work had a lot of integrity, and he was one
of those rare artists who was humble but extremely talented," says
prominent Santa Fe art dealer Ray Dewey, who held lotteries to
determine buyers of Nordahl’s work because of high demand.
"His technique took a long time, so he was not
prolific. When he talked to me about leaving to paint for Michael
Jackson, I had over 200 people on a waiting list for his work. It was
an interesting decision on his part.
"I think what Jackson saw in David was a
complete artist," Dewey says. "He was a perfectionist. He choreographed
everything. Jackson also may have seen his commitment to family. David
primarily painted the Apache people’s culture and lifeways, but he
painted a lot of children, not just warriors. And he painted animals
beautifully, especially horses."
What Nordahl saw in Jackson was a wounded and misunderstood genius who felt spiritually obligated to help children.
Though Jackson was acquitted in his 2005 child
sexual abuse trial, it "broke his spirit," Nordahl says. "Michael would
never molest a child. He always felt so bad for kids who were
mistreated or sick. He spent so much time with critically ill kids. If
a mother called about a dying child somewhere, he’d jump on a plane.
"People talked about Neverland being his private
amusement park. It was always meant for kids. The last time I was at
the ranch, they put up a big Sony JumboTron across from a condo building for sick children, so if kids woke up at night, cartoons would be on."
‘Michael was a real dad’
Nordahl was bewildered that Jackson seemed to elicit more mockery than sympathy.
"People accused him of trying to be white, which
is ridiculous," he says. "When I first met him, his vitiligo (a skin
disorder that causes pigmentation loss) had gone to the right side of
his face and down his neck. Most of his right hand was white. Stark
white patches. He used makeup because he had to. Without it, he was
speckled all over."
Nordahl never witnessed drug use by Jackson but
was keenly aware of pain problems that lingered after the star’s hair
caught fire on a Pepsi ad soundstage.
"When they were trying to repair that burned
spot, he had a balloon under his scalp that was inflated," Nordahl
says. "He let me feel it. It was a huge mound. As the skin got
stretched, they cut it out and stitched the scalp. He was in
Jackson seemed an unlikely addict, Nordahl says, noting his avoidance of cigarettes, alcohol, soft drinks and sugar.
"He was mostly a vegetarian," he says. "When he
was on tour, the cooks would make him eat fish and sometimes chicken.
He loved little chicken wings. He always drank water. I shared wine
with him only twice, once with (ex-wife) Lisa Marie (Presley) and once
at Ron Burkle’s house. Michael had one glass."
The clearest evidence of Jackson’s responsible nature emerged in his parenting of Prince, Paris and Blanket.
"Michael was a real dad, not a Hollywood dad,"
he says. "He’d get up at night to feed them bottles. He’d change them,
bathe them, everything a mother does.
All the time I spent with those kids, I never
heard them beg for anything or throw a fit. I never heard them cry.
They were so well-adjusted."
Jackson took pains not to spoil his children,
says Nordahl, recalling a modest eighth birthday party in L.A. for
Prince. (Jackson’s mother, Katherine, and sister Rebbie came over but
skipped the festivities because of their Jehovah’s Witness beliefs, he
"I was curious to see what Prince was going to
get," Nordahl says. "I figured it would be pretty extravagant, but he
didn’t get one thing that cost over $2. He got Play-Doh, little action
figures, things we’d call stocking stuffers.
"The kids were not allowed to watch TV or DVDs
or play video games" except through points earned by their schoolwork.
"Nothing was given to them. Michael said, ‘I want them to grow up as
close to normal as possible.’ Those kids were so respectful and
courteous, just sweet."
Surprise visit to Santa Fe
Nordahl grew close to all three. Typically, the
artist spent time with the Jackson brood on the West Coast. But over
Memorial Day weekend in 2004, the star and his tykes surprised Nordahl
by visiting Santa Fe via Jackson’s plush private bus (with a 60-inch
plasma TV). Jackson suggested a movie outing.
"I thought we were going to a screening room,"
Nordahl says. "His driver pulled into DeVargas Mall. He was friends
with (Roland Emmerich), the director of The Day After Tomorrow,
and it was opening weekend. The mall was jammed, and there was no place
to park. I took the kids, got the tickets and popcorn, and we went in.
Michael came in after the lights went down.
"The lights came up, and nobody noticed him. He
had on a baseball cap and these Chinese silk pajamas. The kids had no
masks on. Any of those rags would have paid $100,000 for that picture."
Paintings’ future unclear
He last saw Jackson in 2005, when the singer
moved to Bahrain and vowed never again to live on U.S. soil. Accustomed
to lulls when Jackson was overseas or overextended, Nordahl resumed
painting Apaches and presumed he’d be summoned once Jackson found a new
home and showcase for his treasures.
The fate of Nordahl’s Jackson paintings is in
limbo, though they may be part of a touring exhibition of the singer’s
memorabilia proposed by the estate administrators. "I would like to see
them in a Michael Jackson museum," Nordahl says. "That was always
Michael’s goal. He was very self-effacing, but he understood he was a
Nordahl, represented by Settlers West Galleries
in Tucson and Sherwoods Spirit of America in Santa Fe, has returned to
painting Apaches and other subjects.
Whether his extended hiatus from the public eye
damaged his authority or reputation "is difficult to gauge," Dewey
says. "I don’t know if it furthered his career. An artist who does
commissions for one patron often is just isolated unless the patron
publishes or exhibits the work. David’s always been independent, and
he’s never sought publicity."
And how many patrons are the King of Pop? "We got to be such good friends that I forgot who I was hanging out with," Nordahl says. "Then he’d break into these dance moves, quick as lightning, and it would dawn on me: He’s the best entertainer in the world."