Conversations with Don


“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 (1200x799)

“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




Perturbation”  Jan Anders Nelson 2015, entry in the Concinnitas Studio

The Concinnitas Project is a portfolio of 10 aquatints, visualizations by these remarkable individuals:  Michael Atiyah, Enrico Bombieri, Simon Donaldson, Freeman Dyson, Murray Gell-Mann, Richard Karp, Peter Lax, David Mumford, Stephen Smale, and Steven Weinberg.

The portfolio is a limited edition set that has traveled to several museums and art galleries world-wide since inception in 2012, currently on display at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York City from December 17 through January 23, 2016

The project, also featured in the December, 2015 issue of “Scientific American”, grew out of a chance meeting between Robert Feldman of Parasol Press and Daniel Rockmore, Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at Dartmouth College.  Their collaboration grew from 2014 through 2014 to connect with a series of illustrious scientists and mathematicians who were commissioned to create a drawing of a mathematical expression most meaningful to them, along with their thoughts about that work.

The word, concinnitas, was used by the Renaissances artist and architect Leon Battista Alberti to describe his ideas of how the geometry of number, line and position combined to define a work of art.  Mathematics was intertwined with the essence of his art.


“Color”  SU3 Symmetry Group Exactly Conserved,  Murray Gell-Mann

From the note accompanying Murry Gell-Mann’s drawing, “Color” he states:

“The expression presented here embodies the Lagrangian of quantum chromodynamics (“QCD”), the mathematical representation encoding the dynamics of the strong interaction, one of the fundamental physical forces along with gravitation and the weak, and electromagnetic forces. It is “beautiful” because it contains some truth.”

I love this project’s presentation of the confluence of math and art and encourage you to engage with the images and notes while on display at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery or other venues, to visit the project website and to submit your own beautiful truth into the Concinnitas Studio!


Jan Anders Nelson

Gig Harbor, Washington


Alan Shields 1944 – 2005

ShieldsAlan came to the University of Wisconsin in 1977 to chat with a few grad students.  I believe that he was there for the  opening of an exhibition at the Madison Art Center along with one of my major professors, Victor Kord.  Alan spent a couple of hours with us talking about his experiences in New York City, how his career had evolved since the late 60s and his thoughts on some of the things he felt were crucial for a young artist finding a path that would allow them to stay in the studio and make art.

I found Alan to be quite charismatic, tall and good looking with a shaved head.  When he walked into the room, the energy level went up a few gigawatts, his smile infectious.  He knew that he had an effect on people and made that a point about how he had worked hard to bring some theatre into the circles he moved in.

I never talked with Alan again after that afternoon in our studios, but remember him as a romantic, dashing actor of an artist who was working hard to define his own path, one that was not a linear progression from Abstract Expressionism, but opening up new possibilities for his creative expression.  His constructions seemed to me almost like quilt-making, using color and fabric, unstretched canvas working both sides of it, forcing the art dialog to consider that works could exist off the walls of museums and galleries.

When asked what the number one piece of advice was for us, he said that it was critically important to be a colorful persona when meeting with people at openings or parties, to make a splashy entrance, even to go as far as showing up “naked wearing a cape”.

I do not know if Alan ever actually did the cape thing, but it would not surprise me based on the short time we talked.


Jan Anders Nelson

Gig Harbor, Washington

Lucas Samaras 1936 –


The Art Department at the University of Wisconsin in Madison brought in several artist lecturers while I was doing my graduate work there, Lucas Samaras among them.  His lecture included describing how he manipulated Polaroid photographs by using a spoon or other burnishing objects to move the layers of wet dyes immediately after taking the photographs creating what he called photo-transformations.  The imagery he shared were largely self portraits that frankly were meant to startle or shock the viewer with subjects that appeared violent, mutilated or starkly sexual.

Lucas stayed on campus following his talk, visiting the graduate student studios the next day and stopping to talk with each of us about our work.  When he entered my studio, he was pretty quiet and then turned to me and asked me “If you saw a person in a window, about to jump to their death, and held up one of your works, would it stop them?”  Given the nature of his work, I was surprised by the question, thinking that the inherent violence in his self-portraits would not be the stuff to stop someone from taking that leap, that it was provocative to the point that it might actually be the thing that provided the little push they needed to go.

I understood Lucas’ point; that he wanted to make work that was in fact shocking, would stop the viewer from whatever internal conversations they were having prior to viewing his work, and reflect on his art.  It was clear to me in that moment that Samaras did not see the quiet, ordered compositions I was working on as carrying that power.  I still think about his comments to me after all these decades.


Jan Anders Nelson

Gig Harbor, Washington

Robert C. Therien Jr. 1944 –


“Greenhouse Interior” circa 1974 oil on canvas, Robert C. Therien

I entered college knowing that I would be in the choir, take classes in theatre and spend as much time as possible performing on stages, musicals, plays and of course… rock n’ roll.  Growing up in a household of musicians, it was never a question in my mind that I would do these things.  I did hold a fascination for hard science, but felt like I lacked the mathematics to dive into physics or chemistry which were the two areas that I felt the biggest connection.

As an actor, I had to try to please the director.  As a director, I struggled to get the actors to impart what I had to say.  As a set designer I was in charge of my own domain and that felt right to me for awhile.620_50025002537_4561_n

Midland Lutheran College Theatre, working on the set design for Enid Bagnold’s  “The Chalk Garden” .  The theatre company was a very tight group and the work we did was top notch.  And, my girlfriend and future wife, Connie, played the role of Miss Madrigal which was even better.Chalk Garden

But during a summer stock season at the Ogunquit Playhouse working as assistant to the set designer, I saw first hand how the producer and playhouse owner fired an incredibly talented young artist simply because he wanted a friend of his to take the job.  That control over the set designer’s future and work was a signal to me that there was more discovery to do.

And then I saw a painting done by a new art professor at the college, Robert Therien called “Three Bean Salad”.

Three Bean Salad

This large oil on canvas (about 60″ X 60″ if I recall correctly) served as a semaphore, signaling that a place existed that I already knew, where I could do what I needed to without others pushing and pulling to control my efforts.  That place was in the studio, making drawings and paintings and out in the world looking through a viewfinder to learn more about how my perceptions of that world were tied to the art I was making.

Robert had attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, working under Hal Lotterman and Victor Kord among others and was instrumental in guiding my exploration into graduate schools.  We talked of Yale and the impact of working as a young artist there going for an MFA with the influences of Joseph Albers and those that followed him echoing through the studios there.  I asked Robert about his experiences at Madison and came away impressed that the faculty and facilities were first rate, ultimately deciding to attend there and work on a Master of Arts in painting, printmaking and drawing.  During my time working in the studio with Robert, I continued to learn techniques that I use today, and still hear his voice when looking through that viewfinder telling me to make all the decisions before tripping the shutter of my Nikkormat FTN.

Warren Wolf 1924-2003

Warren was a gifted painter and teacher, a professor of art at the college where my father was the choral director.  Warren contacted Dad to let him know that a job was open at the college and advocated for his hire.  They had worked together in a high school and remained friends for the rest of Warren’s life.  I have a painting that Warren traded for a sweater my mother knitted for him, and others that we collected over the years.  Of all of the works, this one is the one that has the most connection for me:


“The Cellist” Oil on canvas, 38″ X 54″

This work hangs in the entry to our house as it did in the previous house and will remain a central focus for me for the rest of my life.

As a young boy, 10 years of age, I started to take lessons from Warren in his studio in their home next to ours.  He spent hours with me while he worked, talking about the medium, pigment, surface and brushes.  He also talked a lot about more conceptual topics that I had to stretch to understand, but am certain that are a core part of my foundation.

The Edge of Chaos

“The Edge of Chaos”… what a cool phrase.  I am taking it out of a larger one, a title for a book by M. Mitchell Waldrop, “COMPLEXITY: THE EMERGING SCIENCE AT THE EDGE OF ORDER AND CHAOS”  ISBN-13: 978-0671872342

I have always held a deep curiosity about the nature of things, a lifelong interest in science and the physics that make up our universe.  When I first started seeing stories about multidisciplinary groups working at the Santa Fe Institute on problems of large scale complexity I was naturally inclined to learn more.  Not having the specific mathematics skills to dive deep into their work, I found Waldrop’s book to be my primer.

At the core of what I think complexity is about is that there are two clear states, Order and Chaos.  No system, living or otherwise can exist in either state indefinitely and yet there is no other place to exist.  The implications to me are that we (everyone and thing that makes up the known universe) are in a state of constant movement between Order and Chaos to varying degrees.  Systems that get stuck in Order stagnate and die off.  Systems that get stuck in Chaos are also doomed to destruction.

Edge of Chaos

What does this have to do with Art?  To me there are implications in how to describe what being creative means.  In my Bio page on my art website I describe it this way:

“My creativity happens in the space between Order and Chaos.  The chaotic in me disrupts the equilibrium of order, opening up new potential and allowing me to move forward in describing those slices of perception in an ordered way.  The resonance of movement between these two states is like music to me, the frequency varying with my physical, mental and emotional state at the time.”

While there is really no “space” between Order and Chaos, there is a fluid reaction to being in either state that creates its own space containing both.  I am working to increase my creative functioning in this space, working to assure that I am not trapped by a life that is either too ordered or chaotic, but one that sings with both voices in balanced harmony.


Jan Anders Nelson

Gig Harbor, Washginton