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.