Joe Heaps Nelson
1968 - 2018
Joe Heaps Nelson

Des Moines - Joe Heaps Nelson died in Des Moines on April 16, 2018, of brain cancer. He was 49. Joe was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on September 16, 1968, and lived in Humboldt, Iowa, until the family moved to Des Moines in 1973. He graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School in 1986 and earned a B.A. in art history from the University of Pennsylvania in 1990.

Joe first gained notoriety as a teen for his hand-drawn fanzine, Buffalo, which was read across the country. For most of the last three decades, he lived in New York City and worked as an artist and art handler. His paintings and drawings celebrate America, depicting cheerleaders, state birds, boxing, wooly mammoths, and truck stops along with bulldogs, a subject of interest since childhood. His work has appeared in dozens of gallery shows in New York and across the U.S.

Joe served as a good example. He was a free spirit: brave, kind, hard-working, and hopeful. His intellectual life was rich and varied, and he discussed sports statistics as easily as history, literature, politics, and painting. Joe was a loving son, brother, nephew, and uncle, and a world-class friend. He is survived by his parents, David J. and Jean Nelson of Des Moines, his siblings Anne, Bill, and Mary Nelson, his brother in-law, Jason Pontin, and nephew and niece Alonzo and Ada, along with many beloved aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.

A memorial service will be held Monday, May 7, 11 am, at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ. In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts may be sent to the Des Moines Art Center for its Art Access outreach programs or the Friends of the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, a restored prairie and buffalo habitat. You may wish to plant a tree in your community to remember Joe and to encourage wildlife.

Published by the Des Moines Register on Apr. 22, 2018.
To plant trees in memory, please visit the Sympathy Store.
Memorial service
Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ.
Sponsored by the Des Moines Register.
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24 Entries
I am so sorry to learn today of Joe's death. We were classmates in English at Penn and I always felt he had something important to say- we reconnected years later while I was living in Philadelphia and I admired the way he lived his life as an artist very much. I am so sorry and send his family my condolences.-
Judith Silverman Hodara ( Philadelphia)
November 2, 2018
I was on a newspaper archive site and looked up one of my favorite bands and found a Register article from 1985 about his zine. I wanted to know what he was up to now and was saddened to learn he had passed four months ago.
Adam Vanderpluym
August 1, 2018
Just now learning this very sad news, and finding it surreal having just spoken with Joe less than 2 months ago. Deepest sympathies to Joe's loving family, whom I know he so admired and adored. He will be sorely missed and frequently remembered for his brilliance, passion, humor and wonderful curiosity about the world and everyone in it. I loved him so!
We first met and briefly dated in 1996. Our friendship lasted 22 years more- quite an accomplishment in NYC. I will always cherish my Cheerleader Painting given to me for my birthday, which now hangs in my hallway.
Joe Heaps Nelson was a true Original- wishing him infinite peace & happiness beyond this world.
Kimberly Sexton
June 10, 2018
Kimberly Sexton
June 10, 2018
Kimberly Sexton
June 10, 2018
a loved one
May 20, 2018
Joe was my first room mate in Brooklyn. Our first meeting we sat in the apartment kitchen table a and talked for hours. He let me know is family line went back to Lewis and I told him mine went back to Clark. How strange it was that their descendants found themselves in Brooklyn kitchen. He moved in via subway- carrying his mattress and a few items on the F Train. I too was making a remark about Joe last week to some coworkers. How he followed his dream and passion to create art and became successful. He would always express how much he loved his family. May you all find the strength, courage and wisdom you need to help you thru your grieving. I send you all positive vibes and will remember Joe fondly.
Dwight Loew
May 20, 2018
Joe Heaps was irreverent, funny, talented and overwhelmingly KIND. He was so generous with his spirit, curious about the world and always up for adventures. I miss him. He loved America in all of its eccentric glory and his paintings are an indelible testament to this. I met him in 1997 shortly after I first moved to NYC and from then on he was an honorary member of the Romeo tribe. Eric, Bea and I have all been commemorating your life and we deeply feel your loss. Thoughts of you and all the people you connected me to like Antony, Taylor and Lorenza have been surfacing in my memories since your passing. The countless late nights and holiday celebrations sharedthe art openings and rambling walks through the streets of Manhattan.all the chaotic and boundless energy you possessedeach moment is preserved in my heart. I am sending so much love out to everyone whose life you touched, especially your family members to whom I send my deepest condolences. You were a universe Joe. We are all lucky to have been a part of its constellations.
Francesca Romeo
May 3, 2018
I'm so happy I was able to cross paths with Heaps in this big world. He was so insightful and funny, an Americana Hero. I'm sorry he's gone and that he and his family suffered through his sickness. He was a bright shining light of awesome.
Orion Ludlow
May 1, 2018
Joe has left us with an incredible body of work and has made an indelible impression in the minds and hearts of so many, in his most beloved locales, both midwest and east coast and within increasing circles of light and good humor. His unique genius, kindness and openness will surely be missed. May this son, brother, friend and artist long shine on!~ Rest in Power, Heaps!!
Cynthia De Moss
April 28, 2018
It was an honor to care for Joe . I told Joe that he was an amazing man whos gifts touch every heart he came upon, I know he touched mine. His legacy will carry on for years to come. All of you are in my heart and prayers. Soar high!
RJ. Wood. (Farm Girl Tough)
April 28, 2018
Joe Heaps was a wonderful, multi-dementional eternal kid. He is missed greatly by all of his NYC pals...
Julius Klein
April 27, 2018
Bill, may you and your family find peace in the memories you've shared with your loved one.

~ Tyger Conner
April 26, 2018
I am very sorry to hear of your loss. I will keep you and your family in my thoughts and prayers.
Donna Langbein
April 26, 2018
My sincere condolences to family and friends of Heaps.I just spoke to John Zoller, a great artist as well,when I learned of Joe's passing. I spent hours on the phone with Joe at different times, and kept in touch through social media with Heaps. I was only speaking of him only yesterday and did not know he passed. I love Joe and his work, he made everyone feel like they were an old friend. He was so talented, extremely funny and adorable. My dad died of brain cancer in 2000 and I never stop thinking of him, he was a cool dude, just like Heaps. I'm sure he and Joe will meet up. Blessings to Heaps, he is an original, and I will miss him. he had reached out to me not too long ago. Peace and love to Joe, what a stellar human being. Melissa Burke, Boulder, Colorado.
Melissa Burke
April 25, 2018
Joe was a unique, unforgettable personality which is impressive in a city like NYC that's teeming with interesting people. I will always value the years i knew him.
April 24, 2018
joe, a most kind human being; he Loved the buffaLo & his sister anne. much Love, b e n
April 24, 2018
Dear Nelson Family,

I know Joe put up a hell of a fight, but I am sure his long goodbye doesn't make his loss any easier. Sending love and light to all of you, and remembering Joe's laughter and genius!

Susanna Brennan
April 22, 2018
I am so sorry to learn of Joe's passing and wish to express my sympathy to your fine family.Best wishes. David Blair
David Blair
April 22, 2018
I'm sorry to say that I will be out of town for the Memorial service. I am deeply sorry for your loss of your son, and brother.
Allan Demorest
April 22, 2018
Divine Progress Joe.
April 22, 2018
As I take a moment to feel the loss of you, I want to remember your smile. Your laugh. Even the last time I saw you. When I asked if you knew us. I was so worried you were so ill. But your inner strength kept you. You remembered my twin and I and let me hold your hand. Rest easy my friend and I hope to see you again someday
Susan Guerrero
April 22, 2018
Thanks for this great bunch of words. Heaps was indeed a "world-class friend" to soooo many people. I feel lucky as I could be to be counted among them. Joe was a hilarious, sarcastic super-hero who tackled life like a line-backer. I feel he will always be by my side, talkin trash and chatting up the ladies in my life. I will remember him fondly and vividly and always. - Zito
Antony Zito
April 21, 2018
I am so sorry for your loss of Joe. May God 'comfort your hearts and make you firm' during this deeply sad and terribly difficult time. - 2 Thessalonians 2:16,17
April 21, 2018
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