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

Six Degrees

We all have heard of the phrase “Six Degrees of Separation” that came from the title of the John Guare play and subsequent movie by that name.  This post is about an evening spent at the epicenter of the phenomenon.


This work is a lesson in finishing what you start. The actual photo was taken by Hugo Munday, November, 1990 at the opening night cast party of the Broadway play, Six Degrees of Separation.

The camera was one of those throw away cardboard box units with a plastic lens and a flash of sorts. The photo taken has a washed out look to it from that flash, an effect that I worked to stay faithful to.

I started this drawing in 1991, laying it out. Then it was put into a portfolio where it lived for the intervening decades until last February 14th when Connie, my Valentine, gave me a drawing table for my office. I was digging through the portfolio looking for a clean sheet of paper and pulled this out… and determined that in spite of the changes time and multiple moves had inflicted on the paper it needed to be completed.

I worked on this over several months after work, or a little during lunch breaks, finishing, framing and hanging this past year. It is gratifying to see this little drawing completed and hanging in our dining room, thinking about the evening we had at the now defunct Tavern on the Green in the Crystal Room, meeting John Guare and Jerry Zaks backstage after the play and seeing my little sister on that stage.

And now I am moving on to other work and am so very excited that my studio under construction will be completed soon!  Meanwhile I have another unfinished colored pencil drawing to get after and continue to focus on my photography skills.

Jan Anders Nelson

Gig Harbor, Washington


This is a short note about the role my parents played in my development as an artist.  Growing up with musicians meant that music was going to surround me.  No doubt, I have listened to a vast library of music from across the ages during my lifetime, starting with my earliest memories, but there were other influences as well.

One early memory I have is staying home from school as an child, probably about five or six years old, with some bug, maybe a cold or fever.  Mom would bring out a large roll of white paper and roll it out onto the floor, along with  colors, water color and chalk for me to use to pass the time.  She was a strong believer in supporting my creative energy from the beginning.


Another memory is of their good friends, Morris and Floy Dalton.  We would get together for dinner parties, where Floy, a gifted painter, would have easels set up for her children Sand and Lark and myself so that we could paint as our entertainment.  There was the exhibition of our works following dinner with great pomp and circumstance, all in joy and fun.

And then later of a time, around the age of 8, when Mom took me to a community art event in Lakewood, Washington at a shopping mall where some sort of competition was underway, artists signing up to stand at easels with watercolor and paper provided and a set time limit to make something.  She signed me up, I was placed in front of that single piece of paper, was told to begin and so picked up a brush and covered the white with blue.  Mom tells the story that when I did that her heart sunk, because where could I go from there?

I continued to work on the piece, layering color, including lighter layers with greater opacity on top of that blue background.  When the time expired, I had a small country home by a farm pond, a tree, some rolling hills and a small sailboat on the water.  We turned the painting in and went on our way.  I later learned that this little work garnered first place, which has been a topic of pride for Mom across all these decades.

At some level, I believe that there is a strong genetic thing in my need to make stuff, but then there are all those years of nurture that serve to focus and amplify tendencies…  thanks Mom!

Jan Anders Nelson

Gig Harbor, Washington



A Talk with Leo Castelli…

 Making Art in the Provinces

This one is a little different, more about a story I have shared with some of you, but maybe worth telling more broadly along with a new image collaboration with my FB friend, Emmanuel Derren, who like me, lives far from New York City. The year was 1976, I was a grad student at the U of Wisconsin, UW-Madison Art Department and working on a seminar project with my cohort and major professor Hal Lotterman to create an “artist’s survival manual”. I took on creating a chapter about gallery representation, writing letters and making calls to several New York City gallery owners to learn of their perspective and advice to young artists emerging from schools. Three owners were willing or able to take the time to talk with me, Ivan Karp, Louis Meisel and Leo Castelli. Mssrs. Karp and Meisel were very approachable and shared a common view that the most important thing for an artist seeking representation is to work hard, produce a solid body of work and to be willing to work with the gallery who is interested. My perception of their comments was and remains that the partnership requires flexibility and patience and persistence.

Castelli was also willing to take the call, and answered the set of questions I had prepared, though he was less approachable and gave me the sense that he had better things to do, which may well have been the case given the role his gallery and stable of artists held at that time. In fact, I was in awe that all three of these major influencers on the art scene would take the time to talk with an unknown. There was something that Castelli said when I asked about what he thought it meant to make “Great Art”, and whether it was possible to work outside New York City and be successful that stood out. His reply, and I quote:

“No, it is not possible to create Great Art in the provinces!”

I had a feeling that the bias toward having his artists live and work in The City was present from early on in the conversation, but this comment later in our discussion was still a shocking reality to me, and one that I carried with me for all these years as a significant statement. Clearly, Castelli was correct that for commercial success, at least in his stable, living in New York City was crucial at the time. The art energy in New York City is such a huge, palpable force that I think there are still strong implications for artists. However, we are in a new world where many of my Facebook artist connections are not only working in the provinces, but are global. I wonder what the historians will write 40 years from now about the “great artists” of this decade.

After all these intervening years, I wanted to have some fun with Castelli’s comments to me and found a designer online (Emmanuel) via Facebook and a FB ad.  Emmanuel has worked with me to create the work here, in a role that is similar to that of other studios where the artist has a support team (think Warhol’s Factory, or Chihuly’s glass studio). Emmanuel lives in Greece at the moment, we are clearly representations of a new potential in global creative conversations and collaboration. I am not suggesting that this work is great, but I hope it is a fun parody and evocative as a question about whether one needs to live in New York City to advance a career. I have enjoyed the interaction at a distance with Emmanuel and think that the advent of social networking brings us to an interesting point in the history of art, the availability of anyone to connect with art in a rich set of ways and a globally accessible marketplace.
Choosing Lichtenstein for this derivative lies in his spending most of his time in Ohio until his first show at Castelli’s gallery, which sold out in advance of the opening. Shortly after that show, Lichtenstein moved to New York City and cemented his place in art history. Later in life, he split his time, working there and at a place in Southampton.

I created a painting at a scale of about 52 3/4″ H X 67 3/4 ” W, derived from a photo of my wife, Connie and myself, as the first thing off my easel in my new studio out here in the Washington State Province.

Pop Art Photo

Jan Anders Nelson

Gig Harbor, Washington

November 19th, 2015