The story of the "Duluth Alphabet" by Artist Sam Nielsen
Last Chance to Buy - Before Image is Retired Forever
From “Canal Park” and “hungry seagulls” to “Va Bene” and “Zenith Bookstore,” there are a handful of words and phrases that simply encapsulate the essence of Duluth.
Local artist Sam Nielsen has captured this sentiment beautifully with her iconic Duluth Alphabet – an eye-catching print based on a watercolor painting she created in 2019. In it, she has selected and illustrated a Duluth-centric word or phrase to correspond to all 26 letters of the alphabet.
The print has become an epic success. Since its creation in 2019, the image has sold over 2,800 copies.
After three years of plentiful demand, however, Nielsen has decided it’s time to retire the print. She’s offering one final opportunity to buy the Duluth Alphabet: from December 1st – 6th, 2022.
You might be wondering why she would retire such a prolific piece. In her words:
“It was a pretty special experience that something so personal and sentimental to me was embraced by the entire community. The Duluth Alphabet was born from my wanting to live here and the fact that I have found so much peace here. And, it’s been my best-selling item. But I feel like it makes it more special to only have it around for a while.”
Love Affair with Duluth
Nielsen is originally from Redwood Falls, Minnesota. But her family visited Duluth often, and it was always her dream to live here someday.
“I grew up coming up to Duluth frequently to visit my aunt and uncle, Brenda and Daniel,” she explained. “I’ve wanted to live in Duluth since 1st grade. I told my mom that I was going to live in Duluth, in a yellow house. I’ve always felt at home here in every single way.”
Nielsen accomplished this goal about six and a half years ago. After graduating from Minnesota State University – Moorhead (MSUM), she landed a part-time job as an art teacher at Cloquet Area Alternative Education Program. She and her husband, Andreas – who is originally from Denmark – now live in the Denfeld neighborhood. Andreas works as a software tester.
In addition to being a full-time artist, Nielsen stays at home with the couple’s two children, Soren (2), and Maja (6 months). The Nielsen family is rounded out with their Boston Terrier, Rudy.
Living here has been the realization of a lifelong dream for Nielsen. “I never thought of moving to Duluth as a possibility,” she said. “But I really feel like we are supposed to be here.”
Nielsen initially thought she would pursue music as a career. As an accomplished saxophonist and piano player, she thought she’d be a music teacher. But she also spent her childhood immersed in art. Her father was an art teacher, and he encouraged her pursuits in that direction.
She decided to pursue art education as her college major. “I wanted to be an art teacher, but I had no artistic skill whatsoever,” she said with a laugh.
During one of her first college-level art classes, though, one of her assignments was to fill an entire sketch book with drawings. “I stumbled on the art of urban sketching, and that was really a stepping stone for me,” she said. Her passion for art truly took off from there.
Today, Nielsen is a watercolor painter and urban sketcher. She creates and sells watercolor paintings, prints, stickers, bookmarks, enamel pins, coloring sheets, and has even created a Duluth Alphabet puzzle, making her iconic print into an activity everyone can enjoy. Her watercolor images are charming representations of things that inspire her; many are images of trees and other natural scenes.
In addition to her own website, artbysjnielsen.com, Nielsen’s products are sold in a few local establishments, including Hucklebeary, Duluth Pack, and North And Shore. Nielsen is also still a teacher. While she has left the traditional classroom setting behind, she teaches art courses on Skillshare, which she jokingly calls “the Netflix of creative learning,” and is a published author. Her book, “5 Minute Watercolor,” is available for purchase on Amazon.
Reason for the Alphabet
Prior to creating the Duluth Alphabet, Nielsen was working on some vinyl stickers based on her original paintings. “I don’t really remember there being an ‘a-ha moment’ with the Alphabet,” she said. “I had been creating a lot of vinyl stickers and used some of those images in the Alphabet.
“At that time, we were also trying to get pregnant,” she added. “And I thought a Duluth Alphabet would make a great decoration for a kid’s room. Really, I wanted to capture the area in a fun and whimsical way that would appeal to tourists and locals alike.”
After launching her art business in 2016, Nielsen released the Duluth Alphabet in 2019. She did no build-up and no promotion. But once people saw it – and Destination Duluth began sharing it – it became an overnight success.
For Nielsen, the connection with Destination Duluth became a huge blessing in her life. “I had known of Destination Duluth, and I very much admired them,” she noted. “When they shared the Duluth Alphabet and provided a link to my website, that had a massive impact on sales. I really felt like I had a ‘fangirl moment,’ because I admired them so much.
“I had never experienced sales like that before,” she said. “It really helped me realize that I can do big things.”
Not a Tourist Anymore
Now that Nielsen is living in her beloved adopted hometown, she feels like things have really come together in her life. She has a career she loves. She and Andreas love bringing the kids to Canal Park, Park Point, and many other well-loved locations. Together, the couple loves board games and soccer. And, Nielsen can also often be found at local cafes and restaurants, casually making sketches.
Her love for Duluth has even been a little contagious; Nielsen’s parents, Wade and Mary Margaret Mathers, moved to Duluth last summer.
She described the feeling of finally being a true Duluthian. “I know Canal Park is mostly a place for tourists, but it has a sentimental feeling for me since we always went there when I was a kid,” she said.
“And still, when we go to Canal Park in late fall, I say to my husband, ‘Isn’t it fun that this is the time most people leave, and we get to stay? We aren’t tourists anymore. It’s a very surreal thing.’”
Where to Purchase
The Duluth Alphabet will be available to purchase - for the very last time – from December 1st – 6th, 2022. Three print sizes are available: 8x10, 11x14, and 16x20.
Orders can be placed on Nielsen’s website, artbysjnielsen.com, and they will be shipped. Free shipping is available, using the code DULUTHABC. Nielsen will also be selling the prints at the Duluth Winter Village, held December 3rd – 4th.
“I feel like it’s time to close this chapter,” Nielsen said of the Alphabet’s final farewell. “I’m ready to close this door and see what’s next.”