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 real simply."
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 excruciating pain."
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 says.)
"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 music icon."
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."