Jan Nelson is among an intriguing generation of contemporary artists who have come to creative fruition comparatively late in life. Artspace magazine recently scrutinized this emerging group likening them to a fine wine ready to be decanted. In the following interview, the artist introduces himself and answers detailed questions on a range of topics.
Art Copy: Welcome to artcopyblog.com Jan. Would you like to introduce yourself? Who are you and what do you do?
Jan Nelson: My parents were both musicians and active in the theatre, which put me on the stage at an early age, however, my Mother made sure that I always had art supplies at home, nurturing my interest in making pictures from the ‘beginning’. Given the arts life I experienced, it was really no surprise to find myself in college getting a double major in theatre and art, and a minor in music (Dad was the choir director and also staged several musicals that I performed in, singing and dancing my way through school before turning to stagecraft, set design being the area where I received a TA position in the theatre department before settling into the art studio toward the end of my undergrad years.
That exploration led me to the U of Wisconsin, Madison Art Department where I earned a Master of Arts, primarily drawing, but not before heading off to New York City after establishing residency to spend some time with my friend and mentor, Don Eddy while taking some graduate study at New York University. All that culminated in a move to Puget Sound in 1977 following my completion of the M.A. and starting out as adjunct art instructor at a couple of community colleges teaching drawing, painting, art appreciation and history classes.
My budding art career was derailed early on by the birth of our first child who was born with significant developmental disabilities. That required a shift in priorities to provide the kind of support that having a developmentally disabled child requires. Over the years that commitment to parenting created a shift farther away from time in the studio and required me to seek employment in other areas.
My creative abilities enabled me to move into the emerging personal computing industry in the late 70s as an entrepreneur and co-founding a small tech business focused on disk drives that I ran for 13 years. On a symbolic level, I encountered another seismic shift when climbing Mount Rainier and gaining the perspective that comes from simplifying my existence focusing solely on my rope team’s collective safety.
Through that experience came a revelation that I needed to take my current skill set in high-tech manufacturing and see if I could work with kids to help them enter the workforce. I created some curriculum ideas and shopped the concepts to local school districts, getting hired in my home district in Gig Harbor.
I spent six years as an alternative high school teacher delivering a manufacturing technology curriculum that provided a real-world perspective for my students, many of whom are now thriving in this vibrant industry. During these years, I was contacted a few times by companies asking if I was interested in coming to work for them. In 1998 I accepted a job in program management at Microsoft where I continue to work today.
Along that path, I co-authored 14 patents, 10 of which have been granted so far and delivered features that are in use by over a billion people, built tools for developers to assist them in creating multilingual apps, and served as the Microsoft Internationalization expert representative to the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C).
Around 2011, I reconnected with artist Don Eddy on Facebook after decades of sporadic contact by letter and phone. That connection reignited the artist in me who had been pushed aside so long ago, sparking a new series of conversations between us and a renewed passion to make art.
AC: Late last year Artspace magazine examined an emerging category of artists who they described as; often over 60, .. has worked outside of mainstream recognition for decades, honing a distinctive style that has been allowed to age and ripen out of the light of the art market. The article likens artists the creativity of artists like yourself and your good friend Allan Gorman to a superbly aged wine. I’m not sure how you feel about the analogy.
JN: I’ll take it, consider me to be a peppery pinot noir then.
Nevertheless, life seems to have had other plans for you when you were a young adult that led you to your own distinctive style over time. A child with an unusual set of needs presents a real challenge for a family, especially a child often navigating inconceivable scenarios in the world around them. It could lead one to be very introspective, I think, in ways that are both welcome and unwelcome. It also seems that the well-laid plans of your younger years were clarified as time went on through encounters with nature, reunions with old friends and so on.
JN: And then another major disruption happened in July of that year when I tangled with a John Deere track loader on the side of an Olympic mountain and experienced a near-fatal crush injury to my right foot. Following a self-extraction and ultimate rescue chopper flight to Harborview Medical Center and seven surgeries to rebuild the mess into what was hoped to be a durable appendage, I started on the long path to recovery. This effort and the time invested in it gifted me with a chance to reflect on my priorities, resulting in a purer, more fundamental understanding that I needed to make art. Period.
AC: That sounds unthinkably painful, and possibly depressing. Again, you found a silver lining that led you back to your creative process.
JN: In March of 2014 my wife, Connie, and I traveled to New York City where we met with Don Eddy and his wife and artist, Leigh Behnke, our first physical meeting since saying goodbye in 1977. A lot of time has passed since those sessions at N.Y.U. and in Don’s studio, yet in many ways, we felt like we were picking up right where we left off so long ago. Time in their loft, a dinner, and then attending the opening of his exhibit ‘Two Realms’ at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in Chelsea cemented a need or compulsion to make art as part of the daily fabric of my being. This has driven me to a deep introspection on what my work is about and where I want to take it, reconnecting with my early art and photography and my creative aspirations.
Today I am completing a wonderful studio space on our property in Gig Harbor, Washington where I will be able to spend my time reunited with camera, canvas and paint, a prospect that makes me very excited! I use my cameras and photography skills to capture the world and also paint and do drawings in graphite and colored pencil. I have returned to exhibiting my work and have seen it accepted into a number of national shows. My mission is to create art, to simplify the number of activities in life in order to spend more time in the studio, and create the portfolio that is pent up inside me, eager to come out, and ready to share with others.
I am no longer ‘artist interrupted.’
AC: Thank you for a very poignant introduction, Jan. You’ve been remarkably productive in a range of professions. Additionally, your facile creativity speaks not only to your skill, but also an impressive sense of innovation throughout. I was wondering if you would tell our readers a little bit about your process today?
JN: The camera is core. My work comes from records of, slices of time as I move forward in life rather than setting out to find subject matter. The imagery is really a part of telling my story. The photographs become reference material back in my studio where I work in graphite, color pencil, ink, oil, pastel… whatever the medium needs to be as I set about to create something. Starting drawing from life, I move to creating grids, then opaque projectors and finally into slide projectors, drawing the layout on paper or canvas in pencil, then working in many layers to achieve the desired contrast and detail. This can take weeks or months to do.
AC: Have you always wanted to be an artist?
JN: No, I wanted to be an astronaut, a scientist. I dreamt of travels through space as an explorer, fueled by a very rich group of science fiction writers in the 60s providing pulp for a young boy to consume. But I always was making art all along the path.
AC: I see, possibly you were one of those kids caught up in stars, rocket ships and the depths of outer space. Do you feel that your art reflects your personality?
JN: I am a pretty deep introvert, the work also tends to be ‘quiet’ I think, telling stories of man, man made things, dreams and the effects of time rather than confrontational, ‘extroverted’ works that are experienced as ‘louder’. Early on, I spent time worrying about originality, e.g. John Salt painted a wrecked car, so he now ‘owns’ all wrecked cars, I need to do something else… over time, I have been largely able to separate myself from being concerned about what others do and stay focused on my own journey and explorations and what imagery works for me along that path.
I was concerned about the technical skills I had, spending a lot of energy and time to hone material use. Today, I just use materials and process as it best represents what I am working to resolve in my work, with confidence in my ability. Like others, I was concerned about recognition in the form of sales. Today I am grateful when a piece is purchased or a swap made… it feels good for my work to be something that someone else enjoys that much.
AC: What do you feel are some of the most inspiring things happening at present?
JN: I am fascinated by the role of social media in the presentation, sales and curating of artworks as a sea change in how the world has moved and the art world are responding. I am pleased to see art fairs (apparently) flourishing, bringing a vast treasure chest of works to many more people than ever before and in community projects like Art Prize where an entire city like Grand Rapids can fill so many spaces that the community is truly immersed in the arts for awhile, along with how they are evolving events that extend the connections to art beyond the actual shows.
AC: You make some very important points. Social media is revolutionizing not only the way that the art world operates, but also the way that we view art, I think. There is breathtaking potential. Gilda Oliver, another artist who I’ve had the privilege of researching, applied herself to her digital art during a long recovery following emergency surgery and a poisonous spider bite. Social media provided her with an avenue for sharing affirmational messages in her beautiful signature style at a moment when she was very vulnerable.
At the same time, social media has a downside. While it reconnects old friends, it also connects friends of friends, thereby forming uncertain relationships. Additionally, it changes our experience of art. In 2013, ARTnews examined this idea in an article entitled Cut-and –Paste Culture pointing out that our experience online presents us with more information than we can digest. As a result, social media consumers scan for information rather than carefully reading art and articles. While there is great potential, there is also the possibility of distancing ourselves from reality.
JN: For me, I see my community as existing in the social networks I participate in, circles of other artists all working, sharing and providing ideas and feedback together. Through this virtual community, I am connecting with so many stellar artists who are clearly recognized as modern masters, emerging artists and the amazing energy of young folks who are still very early in their creating. My communities, therefore, have no geopolitical borders to them.
AC: What do you think that future generations will recall about the art world today?
JN: I think there is a pretty large shift in the art world with the rapid rise of globalization, of thousands of artists entering the social consciousness, of distributed art exhibiting with the rise of regional fairs and of new collectors who are not connected to the Euro-American traditions and history. All of this will inform those generations, I have no idea what they will think, but would hope that there is a result of more art in the world than there is today.
AC: Do you identify with a particular school?
JN: Brenda, this is a great question, I do not ascribe to any particular school or label, though my use of photographs as the core of my material, the relationship my work has with those photographs tends to raise the term photo realism or similar. There is certainly a connection to some of the artists that Louis Meisel defined as the original ‘photorealists.’
They were a few years ‘ahead’ of me in their careers, emerging as they did in the late 60s and early 70s when I was still in art school. When I first saw the works of Ralph Goings, John Salt, Don Eddy, Richard Estes, etc… it was kind of a spiritual connection that others had some affinities to what I cared about, though I did not know why or how close any alignment might be beyond tightly rendered imagery that related to photographs. So I guess the closest definition does land near that of photorealist, though not as a “first generation” artist. I think the term is a bit overused today and would prefer to consider my work as having aspects of Abstraction, Expressionism, and Precisionism as well as the tight ties to Photorealism and Pop.
AC: What’s the last art object that you purchased?
JN: Randall Rosenthal carves these fabulous sculptures, I have one of them that he did as part of an ongoing dialog we had that started when I was scanning old slides and tossing them into a box. I looked into that box and saw what looked to me like a Rosenthal work, photographed it and posted my activity on FB where Randall and I exist in that virtual community I talked about.
Randall immediately jumped on the imagery and we started talking about his carving a ‘box of slides’ since he also has a massive set of old stuff like many of us do, and off he went creating a cool prototype, leading to a real stunner. This is a photo of the first time I physically met Randall (at the Bernarducci Meisel Gallery in NYC) where he brought the ‘box of slides’ sculpture that he created based on our dialog on FB:
As we continued to talk, I mentioned that I was deep in introspection (Artist Interrupted) from looking into the past at the young artist self from so many decades ago, at the grime, grit and scratches that seemed to have accumulated on the slides which felt like a metaphor for the fact that I am also a bit scratched up after so many years. I was working on a prototype myself of those slides for an exhibition idea I had that I call my ‘Dirty Picture Show.’
Randall responded to that prototype and we collaborated on the idea that evolved into a wonderful sculpture of a legal pad with one of my slides that I’ve used in the past on a work ‘Jorge and the U-Haul Trailer,’ and was the subject of the ‘Dirty Picture Show’ prototype, along with my project notes and a Prismacolor pencil denoting my use of that brand in my drawings. The image below is of that sculpture:
Here is an image I sent of a mockup I made that Randall worked from:
And my prototype work with Randall’s sculpture living together as a set in my home:
AC: What work do you most enjoy?
JN: I have a range of emotions that surface when I am working, enjoyment being the dominant emotion on the work I am doing in the moment. There are those times though when frustration, determination and sometimes a kind of flow state come out to play. I also love the moments when I first encounter another artist’s work for the first time that resonates. That first blush of experience is wonderful and is also core to what I tend to collect.
AC: Do you have any creative habits or rituals?
JN: I tend to see patterns in things, which I promote by being very liberal in the amount of photos I take as I move through life. One habit that has emerged from that and is fueling my current introspection is doing a review scan of my photo archive and looking for patterns that address whatever frame I am working within in that moment. The image might become source material for a new drawing or painting, may stand alone as photographs or suggest a renewed focus in future photography sessions.
An example of this is my focus on work that I am doing for a show coming up at the Nichole Longnecker Gallery in Houston that we’ve labeled ‘Industrialism in the 21st Century.’ Allan Gorman is a co-conspirator in doing the curatorial work with me to define the set of artists and works that are included in that effort, but along the process of creation of the show, I re-engaged with photographs from a trip I had taken into British Columbia with my wife, Connie and a series I have been working on I think of as ‘Pressure.’ I am creating a painting and a photographic triptych for that show. Here is a photo that I am working from for a painting called ‘Pressure #1’.
AC: What do you wish to communicate in your art?
JN: I do not set about to deliver a message as such, but would love to know that some who experience my works walk away with a sense of place, time and the forces of nature, are amused with my use of materials and appreciate the effort I have made along the path.
AC: Those are fine aspirations, and I imagine that are some who do attribute those forces to your work. How do you view creativity? What does “being creative” mean to you?
JN: There is this notion in complexity studies of that space between Order and Chaos where the most interesting things occur. Order is inherently not creative, it is static, unchanging, predictable. Chaos is also not creative, for Chaos is completely unordered and so nothing can be created there. To me creative happens when a system, any system, moves from an ordered state to a chaotic state, breaking down existing patterns and allowing new ones to be formed when returning to a new, ordered state.
I think of it as a sort of frequency, like drawing a bow across the string of a violin, the resulting vibrations are the path the string’s length takes between two states. We all spend time as a collection of biological systems moving between these two states. We must, for staying stuck in Order is death creatively. Likewise, to stay in Chaos is also creative death as I mentioned since there is no pattern creation, nothing can be created in Chaos.
M. Mitchel Waldrop wrote a book, ‘Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos‘ that provides a great layman’s view of the research done by great scientists and systems thinkers that tend to align with my views, though I would not profess to be expert in this work.
AC: Your definition is fairly precise, I think. Would you please talk a little bit about where you find ideas for your art?
JN: I generally do not explore for ideas, though I am going to a maritime site to look at some things that interest me. The objects of my photography usually present themselves in the course of my life.
AC: Is there anything that you dislike about your work?
JN: Nothing. While there are works that are higher or lower on a scale of accomplishing what I intended, they are all a part of me, and I generally like myself. 😉
AC: Do you collect anything?
JN: Yes. Eclectically. We have art dating from 1638, to current in print, sculpture, painted, drawn and furniture, musical instruments, cars., all prized and things to spend time with.
AC: Do you have any grievances with the art world and how it operates?
JN: None. How the art world operates is more about the market, and that is best left to all those fabulous gallery owners who have invested their lives in defining the market which in turn tends to describe the art world as a set of artists, collectors, museums and the folks who tirelessly work to present the artworks to the world. I am glad they are there, and that I can focus on my own investigations.
AC: What is your favorite city for seeing art?
JN: New York.
AC: What artist do you think is most undervalued?
JN: I must quote the wonderful painter Allan Gorman here: ‘Me.’ To be clear, I am not motivated to be the next Koons with regard to fiscal success, my values are set on making the work I make. There are people who are professionals in the world of art and expert at determining value, collectors and museums who confirm those values by acquisitions. I happily leave all that to those expert and stay focused on making stuff.
AC: Thank you Jan for participating in my research project with responses that have considerable depth. I’ve enjoyed the conversation very much.