Envisioning Pullman National Monument from an Artist’s Perspective

Q&A with Joe Nelson
Joe Nelson & Renée Hurley & Rebecca WatsonNPF Blog
Artist Joe Nelson walks by a painted mural depicting the story of Pullman National Monument
Joe Nelson - NPF Photo

Pullman National Monument was the first National Park Service unit to be designated within Chicago, preserving the historic buildings located in what is now the Pullman neighborhood of the city and the stories they contain, including a landmark strike and boycott in 1894, and the 1925 founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African American labor union. A park with such rich historical significance, Pullman National Monument invites the local community to learn about their city’s past and the neighborhood’s place within the larger labor and civil rights movements.

Vintage style travel poster advertising Pullman National Monument

Joe Nelson's Pullman National Monument travel poster

The National Park Foundation has supported the park since its 2015 designation, providing a total of $10 million, with a lead gift from the Pritzker Traubert Foundation and including a $1 million grant from the Union Pacific Community Ties Giving Program, to support the construction of its visitor center and revitalization of the site and improvements to the 12-acre grounds and historic buildings, as part of our work preserving history and culture within our parks. Additionally, NPF has worked alongside the Historic Pullman Foundation as it builds its organizational capacity, supporting its journey to becoming the park’s official nonprofit partner.

To celebrate the grand opening of Pullman National Monument's new visitor center in 2021, NPF collabored with our partner Union Pacific Railroad to commission a vintage-style poster for Pullman National Monument in the same vein as the iconic Union Pacific national park travel posters. Railroads have historically played a role in helping to support, raise awareness about, and connect people to national parks. In fact, railroad photography departments documented the stunning twists and turns of park trails through imagery that helped ticket agents sell fully planned door-to-door escorted excursions. Artists in the railroads' advertising departments created paintings and drawings that captured the beauty of America's parks and became the basis of nationwide campaigns.

We recently sat down with Joe Nelson, the artist behind this Pullman National Monument poster, to learn more about his approach to reimagining a classic travel poster for the park, what inspired his design, and his personal ties to the Pullman story.

How did you first hear about the history of Pullman? 

Growing up on the south side [of Chicago], I attended A. Phillip Randolph Elementary School, and that was the first time I heard of the Pullman porters. When I used to enter the school, there was a huge mural that was right at the entryway of the school. It depicted A. Phillip Randolph and the Pullman porters and civil rights activists all in this one little piece. It was able to tell a whole story that I didn't have the brain power, at that age, to actually compute everything that was going on.

What about the Pullman story resonates with you?

historic black and white photo of a Pullman Porter

Historic photo of a Pullman Porter

NPS Photo

I love trains. In high school, I used to take the train from the south side to the north side [of Chicago], and it was easily an hour and a half to two hours each way. Being on a train, especially in Chicago, you travel and you're able to see different people. And everyone has a story. I think of looking back at the stories that everyone tells, and everyone has, and it makes me think about the Pullman porters and how they were attached to everyone that got on that sleeping car. They were there to take care of those people and take care of their personal possessions. You think about everything that you carry with you – that's your life. Those are your personal belongings. That's part of you, an extension of you. And I think those guys were tasked with a huge responsibility to take care of their passengers. 

I feel it's important to depict the Pullman porters as the powerful, resilient individuals that they were. They were so instrumental in creating a black middle-class. They were also instrumental in kicking off the civil rights movement. These are like huge things that, not only for them, but for everybody, matter. So those types of things alone were enough to push them into another realm that should be celebrated. I just want to do them the service of showing that appreciation and giving them the credit that they deserve.

What was exciting about this project?

I was interested in this project because I have a long history with transit and it kind of reached out and spoke to me because I'm a fan of the Pullman porters. And in addition to that, I really enjoy vintage posters and old media – a huge, real fan. So when I heard about it, I was definitely excited and happy to throw my hat in the ring to be a part of this project.

Red brick building with a tall clocktower

Clocktower building at Pullman National Monument

NPS Photo / K George

This particular project is great for me because I get a chance to tell a great story about the Pullman porters through my own artistic lens. I have the opportunity to create something that's already there, but to put my own unique spin on it. I'm excited about that opportunity. In addition to that, there's a lot of history that goes into this thing as well. There are a lot of layers that I'm attaching. And a lot of pieces that are intricately embedded into this piece. On one level, I started out with a lot of sketches and ideas that I would come back to. I was compiling and putting together, and then it's all rendered digitally too. I'm bouncing back from different [digital artistic] programs to try to show the layers of complexity, not just of the artwork, but also of these people. There’s a whole story of the Pullman porters that resonates within this piece. And I don't want to just tell the story of them as workers and employees of Pullman, but also as individuals and people. 

It's kind of funny – I look at the Union Pacific posters and the national monument posters and all of these things, and I’m like “let me do that again.” I'm a big fan of the Union Pacific posters – I've used them as references in the past. To create this is very exciting and it's an honor and a privilege to be able to be a part of this legacy. What's fun is that I actually have a chance to do a modern version of it and add my own twist to it.

Can you speak to your artistic style and approach?

I like to use my art as a tool to give back and tell stories. A lot of my work has an Afrocentric theme to it, but it's not limited to just that. And it's not designed to be in a box – I try to create things for everyone.

Over the shoulder, artist Joe Nelson colors on a digital tablet

Artist Joe Nelson at work

NPF Photo

My style is a little all over the place. I pull from a lot of things. I like the diversity of art and not being locked into one zone or having a niche style or some go-to methods. I'll pull some things in just for familiarity. But like I always attempt to break the mold. Sometimes I like to just do something different or to think off the wall and just to be on my toes when I'm creating.

With this piece, there are a lot of layers to it and that's what I'm trying to build up – so there’s more to look at when you dig inside of this piece and look at it. On the surface, you have this great story, but behind that, there's a lot of texture and a lot of history. I want to bring some of those elements in there through colors and tones and textures.

What do you want this piece to communicate?

I definitely want to tell the story of these historic men that set a precedence, to be admired by everyone through hard work and dedication. Their resilience and strength help set the tone for where we are today in a lot of ways. And that I appreciate. I want to give honor and respect to that. And that's why I'm putting in this hard work: to show that I appreciate what they did back then, because it's helped everyone until this point. 

Thanks to our partners at Union Pacific, park lovers of all ages are invited to enjoy the coloring pages inspired by Joe's Pullman National Monument poster and Union Pacific's national park travel posters and celebrate our shared commitment to national parks.

While park enthusiasts no longer ride Union Pacific trains as part of their park adventures, this poster celebrates Union Pacific's long-standing legacy of connecting people to America's treasured places while elevating stories of America's diversity and the fight for equality. Today, Union Pacific remains committed to sharing the wonders of our nation with the next generation of park-goers by supporting NPF programs that connect kids to national parks and protect sites and stories that shape our past, present, and future.

Joe Nelson is a Chicago-based artist whose work spans everything from large outdoor murals to small figurines, often featuring elements of city life. To learn more about Joe's work, visit JoeNelsonArt.com.


What an incredible talent and gift Joe Nelson is doing in honor of the Pullman Gentlemen. Traveling by rail back in the day must of been a wonderful experience. This way of travel was always depicted as romantic, adventurous and exciting in cinema. I imagine the Pullman Porters worked very hard to earn their living. I admire these men for their hard work, resilience and humility taking care of others during their travels. It looks like Joe will bring a vibrant display of color to these men. Thank you for sharing this story! I look forward to visiting this museum and his work. History is so important today. Joe Nelson is a part of that for these men.

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