Artist Profile: Nello Williams

Hallmark Artist

Started at Hallmark:

July 31, 1995

Started at Keepsakes:
July 31, 1995

Safford, Arizona

Nello Williams grew up drawing anytime, anyplace, even in school—and not just in art class. His class notes ended up looking more like artwork than a study sheet.

The young artist started out sculpting the ships and robots from the television program Lost in Space. Once, he saw a scary dungeon set advertised in a comic book, but like most kids, couldn’t afford to buy it. So Nello recreated the toy instead.

Popular culture kept on inspiring Nello’s art. In high school, he and a friend made masks of characters from Planet of the Apes—a big movie of the day. Now he keeps up on the latest trends for his creations in Keepsake Ornaments.

Nello spends much of his outside time nurturing one of his other big interests—music. He designed the album covers (wishful thinking) and T-shirts for his high school garage band. He even designed a guitar for himself, and twenty years later, he actually built it! Nello sees guitar design as a place where his two great loves, sculpture and music, meet.

Nello’s Ornament Gallery
Nello’s Ornament List


Is This Your Sowbank?

Is This Your Sowbank? (2016)
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer®

Growing up in the Arizona desert near the Mexican border, Keepsake Artist Nello Williams didn’t get to jump into a lot of snowbanks. Every so often, if they wanted to throw a snowball or two, they’d make the trip up to Mount Graham in the Pinaleño Range. But snow wasn’t typically part of his daily winter life in the Southwest. “The whole winter wonderland thing wasn’t a big part of my reality,” Nello says.

So what was his biggest hint that Christmas was almost here? The animated holiday specials! Especially the classic claymation TV movie Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer®, which debuted in 1964 when Nello was about 3 years old.

“That was always one of the signs,” Nello says. “That’s what really made it the season.”

This ornament pays homage to the moment Rudolph and Hermey the Elf® meet, right before they sing “We’re a Couple of Misfits.” Rudolph’s nose lights up, of course!

As Nello created the digital models for the scene, he had to make sure that the proportion of each character’s limbs made logical sense relative to how far into the snowbank they’re sitting.

“They’re [digital models] basically like a model for animation that I can pose and re-pose until I have it just right,” Nello says. “I had to make sure they would pop out in the right spot and that I didn’t just smash everything into the snowbank just to make it easier to mold. That wouldn’t be nearly as interesting!”

Winter Warlock (2016)
Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town

Whenever Nello recreates an iconic character like Winter Warlock, he just has to “put one foot in front of the other” as suggested by the classic song from Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.

Winter Warlock

In other words, Nello went back to clips of the original animated special many times to be sure he got the angles and movements right. Capturing that movement is a skill he’s been working on since the 1970s.

As a teenager, Nello loved to make 8mm movies. “I did it for the fun of it,” Nello says. “Although at one point I did want to be a Disney animator.” He idolized Ray Harryhausen, the visual-effects legend who created the form of stop-motion animation called Dynamation. Harryhausen’s work spanned several decades, from Mighty Joe Young (1949) to Clash of the Titans (1981).

“I was into stop-motion quite a bit,” Nello says. “Most of my figures were clay dinosaurs, although I did create a more sophisticated ball-and-socket armature of a creature, an alien, with steel and ball bearings. I got through the sculpting stage but I never ended up being able to cast it in foam rubber. I wonder if I still have that somewhere.”

He’s always been interested in sculpture and found many kindred spirits in the Keepsake Studio. After sculpting Keepsake Ornaments in wax for several years, Nello gradually began to sculpt on the computer using digital tools. And when he works on a character like Winter Warlock, he’s using the same tools Hollywood uses to capture movement on anything from ogres to dinosaurs. “I’ve done my own parallel development with this type of filmmaking,” Nello says. “The last hurdle for us was to do digital glitter, and now that’s possible, too.”

A Merry Pair (2016)
Chip and Dale

A Merry Pair

A less prevalent but still memorable holiday classic, “Pluto’s Christmas Tree,” featured the antics of Disney’s Chip and Dale. In this 1952 animated short, the duo stows away in an evergreen tree that Mickey Mouse brings into his house from the snowy fields outside. They spend a few minutes driving Pluto bonkers with their usual brand of mischief until Mickey steps in and makes peace. They hear Donald Duck, Minnie Mouse and Goofy caroling out in the snow, and the new friends unite to sing a bit of “Deck the Halls” at the end.

This ornament pays tribute to a moment on the fireplace mantel when Dale disguises himself as a candle and Mickey lights the wick on his hat. His good friend, Chip, dampens the flame just in time! Nello gave the duo slightly different outfits for these ornaments but the candle damper is the same as seen in the short. It’s rendered in gold wire.

“This was a pose that I figured out, it wasn’t necessarily in any of the style guides,” Nello said. “I just wanted to capture the personality and emotion of the characters, that mischievous quality, with a slightly different twist.”

Poppy Holidays! (2014)

“This is an idea that had been around for a while. The technology was developed for a previous ornament that was a Star Trek™ ornament, The Trouble with Tribbles. Captain Kirk opens an overhead bin and a bunch of Tribbles fall out. We thought we could do the same thing with a popcorn machine. This is the second time it was on my schedule to do, and so we finally did it.”

“It’s a vintage theater popcorn machine so you have the kettle that’s turned up like it’s dumping out the popcorn, and you have popcorn dumping out. But we also have a little snowman made out of popcorn balls to add some character.”

Poppy Holidays!

“This is another in the Nellco unofficial series—a variety of things branded as Nellco. Most of what I’ve done in Nellco have been these vintage-looking appliances. I’ve done radios and refrigerators and washing machines. They’re always done with a hint of Christmas meets vintage.”

Santa’s Merry Phonograph (2014)

Santa’s Merry Phonograph

“This is also a Nellco item. The idea behind this was that this is Santa’s personal phonograph, and since he’s a tinkerer, over the years he’s added to it. So it has sort of a Steampunk feel to it. The other Nellcos that I’ve done have sort of a ‘50s diner feel, whereas this one is a little earlier feel with the piping and other touches added on.”

Window Wonderland (2014)

“This is set to Silver Bells, which talks about Christmas in the city, so this is like the storefront that kids would be looking at as they’re shopping in the city. Again, this is in that vintage, almost diner style like most of the other Nellco stuff. I’ve always liked that golden age of robots and science-fiction look. It was a futuristic look for the time, and as we look back on it, it has that dichotomy of being both vintage and futuristic.”

Window Wonderland

“There’s artwork in the back of this one created by one of our card artists. There’s also a train and a robot in it that I did for another piece. It’s just fun to give a playful nod to work we’ve done before.”

Santa’s Hotline (2013)
Countdown Phone

Santa’s Hotline

“This phone is a follow-up ornament to last year’s countdown radio, the second retro concept I’ve done for Countdown to Christmas. It’s in a style that we call the Nelco line. Each one has a little logo and everything! The Nelco line started out with an oven that we wanted to give a brand, so we came up with Nelco and it really gained a lot of followers. This phone has got the countdown feature—concealed as a rotary dial! Plus, the little sound clips that our editors and writers came up with are a lot of fun.”

North Pole Countdown (2013)
Countdown Tabletop Radio/MP3 Player

North Pole Countdown

The North Pole Countdown Radio Ornament was so popular last year—we couldn’t help but reinvent it as a table-top version. Kids can turn the dial to hear updates from the North Pole every day leading up to Christmas. And now, you can even plug in your phone or MP3 player to hear music thanks to the new auxiliary input cord, volume controls, and an on/off switch!

“We started with the original radio ornament, but we changed some of the proportions. The dial on the little radio ornament had to be bigger than what I would have designed for an actual radio so that all the electronic parts could fit inside. When we scaled it up this year, I was able to correct that proportion on the big one. The dial was back to the size that I thought looked right for a real radio. We played around with the speakers and added lights that we didn’t have on the smaller version, too.”

Jolly Jukebox (2013)
Magic Cord

Jolly Jukebox

“This is another Nelco! It’s the second Nelco jukebox that I’ve done. The first one was more in the Art Deco style, but this one is a little more modern. It’s still a little retro, maybe the ’70s, as opposed to what you’d see in the ’40s and ’50s. It’s got a magic cord component, so the lights can be on all the time. There are four songs in different styles that match the design. Don Palmiter gave me a book for designing the previous Jukebox, but I had to find more modern designs online for this one.”

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