Monday, July 5, 2010

artist's interview ~ ROB NEILSON!

Self-Portrait as a 70’s Icon Having a Nice Day
Cast plastic, paint
35” x 35” x 4.5”

Four Familiar Faces
Plate steel, paint
108” x 108“ x 108”
Location: Eastway Sports Complex – Charlotte, NC
Commissioning Agency: Art & Science Council of Charlotte

Four Familiar Faces

Home is Where the Hound Is
Proposal for Permanent Public Art Project:
Pacific Ave. & 9th St. Station - K-9 Dog Park
Long Beach, CA

About Place, About Face

About Place, About Face

Self-Portrait as JFK’s Hair-Do
Cast bronze, plaster, wood
48” x 12” x 12”

Self-Portrait as JFK’s Hair-Do

Physiognomic Self-Analysis:
Marlboro Class A Cigarettes

Ductile iron
16” x 12” x 5”

Physiognomic Self-Analysis:
1932 National Duolian Resophonic Guitar

17” x 9” x 5”

Rob Neilson is anything but a formalist. Trained at the College for Creative Studies and with a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, he works with a variety of materials in composing sculpture and public art.

As a native of Detroit, where his father worked for Kasle Steel, he spent his youth climbing around scrap yards, seeking out various discarded metals that could be formed into art. Finding metal alone to be too limiting in expression, he began exploring the use of rubber, plastics, and other exotic materials.

Neilson has received public art commissions from the City of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Metro Transit Authority, and St. Elizabeth Hospital in Appleton, among others.
(credit to Lawrence University for this bio.)

rob neilson is a super-supportive professor with whom i interacted while studying in wisco. i am uber-delighted to share this interview with y'all. * xo ~ kelly shaw

1. you’re a fire*cracker, rob. lots of energy. lots of coffee. lots of cigarettes.
lots of students. lots of art. the life of a fire*cracker is like, what?

There’s nothing better. These are a few of my favorite things (cue The Sound of Music): coffee and cigarettes, teaching and making art. I get to spend my time surrounded by my favorite virtues and vices.

2. it is my opinion that you’re the sorta professor students are really drawn to. you’re accessible, vibrant, charismatic, and perhaps best of all … much like us ~ as in: you own a sense of youth, and thereby, an ability to relate ~ you allow us to be your equal … i mean, do you agree with me on any of this? talk to me about rob, the professor.

Aww… you’re sweet to say so. I take this business of being an artist (and educator) damn serious but one of the prerequisites of making smart stuff is allowing oneself the time and space to “play," to make mistakes.
Well, we are equals-- I’ve just been doing this art thing a little longer is all so maybe I’ve got some (useful?) insights about the fabrication process or the conceptual aspects or the pragmatic concerns of making art. Ultimately, when the student/teacher relationship is at its best it is symbiotic: we are learning from each other.

3. you love los angeles. you’ve lived there, go back there. what’s up with this love?

Los Angeles is paradise… with traffic. John Lennon once said that America is the Roman Empire and New York is Rome itself-- if that’s the case, then L.A. is Alexandria: It is the repository of knowledge for all of western civilization. It is the place that deciphers how we view the world and ourselves.
Los Angeles is the end of western civilization: It is the culmination of centuries of westward migration. Once one has reached L.A. one cannot go further west-- any further and you’re heading east.

i value many of your insights, sir. one of them is that living in a big city (or wherever an artist anchors for a bit) can be your very own, self-designed
grad school experience. as someone who was accepted to grad school, and for reasons both logistical and personal opted not to go, i have really reflected on this suggestion of yours. i know you yourself did go to grad school, but you were indeed rejected after your first round of sending out applications, correct? what did you learn from that rejection? what i’m additionally getting at is this: i’d like to know how you created your own grad school experience either before or after your literal grad school experience.

I believe every young person should live in a world-class city at some point in his or her life. Whether it’s L.A. or New York or London or Rome or Tokyo, this is where shit happens: Get in the middle of it, be a part of the larger dialogue. I think of living in L.A. as my Ph.D. program after finishing my MFA at UNC – Chapel Hill.
Yes, I was rejected in my initial round of grad school applications and in hindsight it was a blessing: I had no business being in an MFA program at 22 years old. I had no idea what I wanted to get out of the experience at that point. I applied only because I hadn’t a clue what the hell else to do. I ended up bumming around Europe with my guitar busking on street corners, playing in a blues band, working a series of crummy jobs and, most importantly, learning to make art outside the walls of an institution.

5. talk to me about actually going to grad school. how did you benefit as an artist from this experience? is it true that a graduate degree qualifies artists to teach? furthermore, what did you do with yourself after you’d graduated with an MFA?

Going to grad school (when one is “ready”) is an extraordinary experience. In an ideal setting, you spend all your time doing that which you love to do, surrounded by people
who want to talk with you about that one thing. It’s a time to focus, to experiment, to fail and succeed in a safe environment; it can be an opportunity to start over by reinventing your aesthetics. Most significantly, it’s a time to work incessantly and for me, work is salvation. Straight after grad school I high-tailed it west. Set up shop in L.A.; got a studio and a job and have maintained a presence there in one form or another ever since.

6. how did your gig at lawrence university come to be? secondly, in a sculpture class i had with you, i recall hearing you say something like, “i’m not so sure about institutions as the best places for creative people.” mind you, i am pulling from my foggy memory banks, so please help me to understand your current beliefs about the institution. help we readers to understand … do you feel at home teaching at a university? is this a good place for a creative being such as yourself?

I think the visual arts are a vital part of a well-rounded education. In an age dominated by screens, the ability to understand and utilize the meaning and manipulation of images is imperative. That said, no artist has any business being confined within the hallowed halls of academia before the age of 40. Get out there and make a living doing something; anything. Go swing a hammer, go climb some high-rise iron beams, go make some art! Don’t spend your time with committee assignments or worrying about the requirements for tenure. It has been my experience that most people who go straight from high school to college to grad school to some academic appointment become execrable educators, wretched artists and miserable humans.

7. so, balancing act. you’re a father. husband. sculptor. professor. musician. how do you do it all? do you have enough time and energy to actualize your sculptural visions in the midst of extending so many tentacles?

Yea, well you may be asking the wrong person-- “balance” isn’t what I do best: Excess is success as far as I’m concerned. Time is my nemesis; there’s never enough time. I try to prioritize, I try to sleep as little as possible and I ingest as many stimulants as possible. Still, I’m over-extended; always. That’s just how it is-- I used to fight against it-- now I’ve simply come to accept it as the status quo. It’s like winters in Wisconsin or traffic in L.A.-- you can bang your head against the dash or you can get Zen about it and decide it is what is.

8. now for fun, please tell me your favorite … fruit, beer, mixed drink, dessert, book, and place visited. lastly, the kiddies would like to know if you enjoy spankings.


Fruit: Ripe pears with (very) aged Gouda.

Beer: Fat Tire is my current go-to beer.

Mixed drink: Bourbon and Coke always – it’s just so damn American.

Dessert: Chocolate chip cookies. I eat two, every day before bed.

Book: I dunno, there’s too many … anything about history or religion, art or sculpture, physics and math, culture, comic strips and politics, novels that offer real redemption, you know, that sort of thing.

Spankings: What’s not to like?

9. what are your ultimate creative aspirations? i mean, are you chipping away, nearing? … we recently connected over louise bourgeois’ death. she finished new works the week before her death at age 98. you wanna go out with a torch in hand, yes? why? are you inspired by bourgeois’ energy? i sure am. what other artists influence your personal creative movement?

Yea, Louise. God, I adore her. She’s my hero and my ultimate crush. She made resonant and meaningful work for seven decades or so. She created art when people were interested and bought it and showed it; she made sculpture when the world ignored it; she made work. Because that’s what matters, the work. Like you mentioned, I want to check out with a welding torch in my hand, still working, still making art. There’s no such thing as “retirement” for artists. Like Robert Frost said: “My object in living is to unite,
 My avocation and my vocation.” It’s only “work” if there some place else you’d rather be.

10. you had a residency at kohler some years ago. tell us about that place and what you worked on while there. you were totally under the spell at that time, i’d say. what’s the spell like? does the spell take on many forms or non-forms? do you feel the spell, experience the spell in your mind?

Aaah yes, Kohler: It was the best of times it was the worst of times. It was six months of doing nothing other than making sculpture. I lived a block from the Kohler factory, had 24-hour access, a studio smack dab in the middle of the factory, I could use whatever materials or processes I choose. I made in excess of 100 iron and brass castings.
It was an experience outside of time. The city of Kohler is a company town that seems to only exist in an earlier America; it’s reminiscent of the simulacra that is Main Street USA in Disneyland. The factory runs at all hours so I would work nonstop until I couldn’t stand, then I’d sleep four hours and go back and do it all over again for 17 or 18 or 19 hours. It was a completely myopic experience; there was nothing else except sculpture and work; nothing else mattered, nothing else existed. But it came at a cost, physically and mentally. My assistant at the time had a nervous breakdown and I had to put him on a train to his folks in Chicago for a break. But man, did we make stuff! I fabricated a huge public art commission and completed an entire body of work. When my assistant and I left we had to pack and weigh all the work for shipping. We ended up literally 50 pounds shy of 4 tons of sculpture.

11. i’ve got some images above from a collection of yours i really dig ~ PHYSIOGNOMIC SELF-ANALYSIS BY WAY OF PRODUCTS I OWN. these images, in addition to your bio, provide a quaint view of your creative executions and experiences. talk to me, if you would, about more recent works. any new funding coming in for public works? what’s up in your studio? … and let us end this lovely jaunt with some concise advice you have for young artists. holla, man!

PHYSIOGNOMIC SELF-ANALYSIS BY WAY OF PRODUCTS I OWN, like most of the studio work, is me trying to figure out just who the hell I am and how I came to be-- who and/or what and/or when I am. Sometime I use science (pseudo and otherwise) and culture and history to explore and illustrate my interests and obsessions, my ideas and idiocy.
Currently, I’m working on three public art commissions; two in Southern California and one in Wisconsin. I got a couple of group shows and a forthcoming solo exhibition in Illinois in the fall. In October I’ll be in residence at a print facility at Millikin University where I’ll create an edition of prints – I haven’t done any substantial printmaking since I was an undergrad.

Concise advice for young artists: I’m not sure I have anything useful to offer. In some ways artists are simply modern day court jesters, telling the powers-that-be abstracted truths designed to enlighten and, occasionally, infuriate. Good enough for me.
If you want to be an artist then first and foremost make art, lots of art. If you don’t love this thing, then don’t bother-- trust me, there’s a great many easier ways to make a living. If you do love it, nothing I can say is going to stop you. Good. Don’t stop. Create smart, interesting, provocative and beautiful objects and environments. Make your own opportunities-- don’t sit in your studio and wait for fame and fortune to find you. Get five friends together and start your own damn art “movement." Be the art world you want to inhabit: Promote and show and buy and collect and discuss the work you like. Have fun. As a young emerging artist myself, a longhaired, hard-drinking high modernist once told me, “It’s a lousy living but it’s a great life." Good enough for me.

Thanks, * ksw * *

– best interview ever.
Holla and out, Rob

1 comment:


thank you to michael preston of grow culture media for helping me to make some PROMO & ART material on the caribbean coast of costa ric...