“Silverware I” Don Eddy, 1976
When in grad school, I started to question my subject matter choices. In particular, I was overly concerned that I was seeing other artists having their work being shown that pre-dated mine and that the subject area was “already done”. John Salt and Ralph Goings were two of the Photorealist painters who had been active with the use of automobiles in their imagery, which was where I had also been focusing my time. I also saw early Don Eddy work from his California years that had covered the same spaces.
“Midwestern Motel” Jan Anders Nelson, 1974
Superficial worries of originality effectively stopped me in my tracks and so I started to just make pieces that allowed me to work on technique while getting feedback from my major professors about what they thought I should be doing.
During research for a paper I needed to write for a class; “American painters from 1950 – present” I started writing to the artists, Richard Estes and Don Eddy. They also had what appeared superficially to be similarities in their subject matter and I wanted to dig into that, in particular since I had those feelings of being a bit lost and it seemed like a way to connect my personal philosophical search for meaning as an artist with the explorations of others.
Cover page of that research paper from 1976 with Don’s studio address noted when I was planning my move to the city. Don no longer lives at that location, having moved to a larger loft space.
During my conversations with Don, even though my original intent was to learn more about his work for my research, he dug into what I was working on and uncovered this serious questioning I working through, and my feeling that I was not getting what I needed at the UW, though the professors there were well-intended.
Don suggested that I consider coming to New York and we concocted a plan that had me register at NYU for graduate independent study with Don as my instructor to allow us a framework for meeting weekly to continue the conversations, though now they were no longer about his work, but soley focused on my introspection and rediscovery of myself. I spent time in Don’s studio in the Village looking through his library of books and magazines, with very limited conversations when there since he was working at the easel all day long and I did not wish to interrupt that deep level of focus needed to work as he does. We also went out on Wednesday evenings for pizza and beer with his friends which was a highlight for me in a week spent doing my internal investigations, making some art, taking photos and also working as a travel agent to make the rent.
The weekly meetings at NYU was where Don would ask an open-ended question about some aspect of our earlier conversations, with a very strict guideline that his opinion was not important, nor was that of my professors back in Madison. He wanted me to do that deep soul searching to find my voice and be able to articulate it as I prepared for a return to the UW to hang my Master’s exhibition and complete my oral defense. Those sessions and the spaces in between were invaluable to me, the time we spent together also created a deep connection that has stayed with me throughout the decades.
As a side note, I asked Don about a set of small paintings hanging in his studio that were lovingly rendered details of a roof cornice and a few windows of a building at differing times of the day. Don told me they were the art of his girlfriend, Leigh. I never met Leigh Behnke when I was at NYU or in the pizza and beer evenings, but she and I learned when meeting for the first time last year that we were both graduate students attending NYU at the time I was there carrying on my conversations with Don.
While in NY, I started to throw out much of the baggage I was carrying, including influences from other professors who, in spite of good intent, were creating baby versions of themselves . Don once quoted Brancusi to me when we talked about my thinking of continuing after the Master’s to enroll in Yale art school when he said something to the effect of “Attending a school populated by stellar artists makes it very hard for the developing artist to find themselves, nothing grows in the shade under a large tree”, “Instead, consider moving to a community of artists where there is a lot of creative stuff going on and just make your art.”
“Conversations with Don” Jan Anders Nelson, 1976 – 2015
I left New York when time came to meet my professors back in Wisconsin, earned that degree and moved to the West Coast in 1977.
Over the years, Don and I traded a few letters, talked on the phone a little but never met again in person until last year when his latest exhibition at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery opened. Prior to that, Don and I reconnected on Facebook, which felt to me like picking up where we had left off. We also now use email frequently. At age 63, I still think of Don as my mentor and as a friend. I sent him a copy of that original research paper a couple of weeks ago for his amusement, and then asked him to consider what is different for him from the problems he was working on then compared to now, to think about folding time between the two times. I am looking forward to hearing back on that question, he asked me to let him spend some time thinking about it and doing some writing. Once he answers that, I might just connect the decades with my original conversations with Don and this new series in one of my art notes I publish on this WordPress site.
My conversations with Don are a mixture of early letters, phone calls, in-person sessions at NYU, in studio moments, social settings, Facebook, his recent art opening and back in his studio this past year and email. I look forward to our meeting again in person this coming year, we are talking about visits to New York and the West Coast.
Jan Anders Nelson
Gig Harbor, Washington