In a mysterious white-brick building, nestled behind College Avenue, is an art studio full of metal and wooden sculptures. The creator of these sculptures is Rob Neilson, Frederick R. Layton professor of art and associate professor of art at Lawrence University. Neilson successfully balances being a well-known sculptor, public artist and professor — at the same time!
Born and raised in Detroit, Neilson started his art career by creating things out of old junk and steel — which he originally had no idea was even considered “art.” It wasn’t until entering art school in Detroit that Neilson realized his love of creating these things was something he could pursue. With that said, it’s no surprise Neilson’s favorite medium to work with is sculpture. “We are three-dimensional beings; we exist in a 3-D world. There’s something real and substantial about creating these objects,” he states.
Some of Neilson’s inspirations include pseudoscience, advertising, religion, toys and playing. Although Neilson has his own thoughts behind his art pieces, he hopes viewers are able to form their own separate opinions of his artwork. “I have my content that I use to make those kinds of aesthetic decisions one must make. However, I don’t want it to be so overt that I don’t give the viewer room to engage with the piece and come to their own decision about what the work may be saying.”
As Neilson continued to receive positive feedback for his public artwork and sculptures, he was led from Los Angeles to Appleton, where he resided for the past 11 years. “I moved and didn’t think I’d stay — but I like what I do here, and like the fact that the university seems to value art and the role the visual arts can play in a liberal arts education. So, here I find myself 11 years later.”
Despite being a successful artist with a competitive portfolio, Neilson still holds teaching to the same level of seriousness. He states, “Images are how we mediate in the 21st century. Visual arts help students understand the role of images, how others use images, how they are manipulated and how to use language.” In a liberal arts school, Neilson says that additionally, students need “to understand how to communicate and synthesize information in general to navigate the world. Making a beautiful painting isn’t all you need to do.”
For the immediate future, Neilson has two public art projects in the works in Washington D.C. — one in an elementary school and one in a special education facility. A great combination of his love for teaching and love of public art, these pieces are sure to be captivating. If you are ever around the Los Angeles area, be sure to look for his famous giant avocado, complete with a globe in the place of its pit. Locally, viewers can see a permanent public artwork of Neilson’s at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Appleton, titled “Monument to St. Elizabeth of Hungary.” To see more of Neilson’s work, visit his website at robneilson.com.