Uncovering the Fascinating Story of Jack Nelson’s Sculpture Clock

Nicollet Mall with Sculpture Clock 1970s

Nicollet Mall in the 1970s with Sculpture Clock in front of the Young-Quinlan Building; the kinetic perpetual motion sculpture in its base by Jack Nelson operated 24 hours a day from 1968 to 2002, entertaining passersby

The sculptural apparatus that is part of the clock that was on the southeast corner of Eleventh Street near Peavey Plaza in front of Orchestra Hall has been frozen-in-time since 2002. The clock’s base holds a kinetic sculpture meant to activate on-the-hour with rotating, spinning and wiggling motions. When the clock returns, repaired and restored, to the corner in 2017, you are in for a delightful surprise.

Jack Nelson’s Sculpture Clock, dedicated on October 7, 1968, was prescient in many ways – a rare example of integrated public art before Minneapolis and many other cities were even aware of the potential of contemporary public art, or had established public art programs. Nelson, an eclectic early multi-media pioneer, found an advocate in landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, and was commissioned to create the clock as part of the Mall’s original design. First installed in front of the Young-Quinlan Building at Ninth Street and Nicollet Avenue, it was most recently at the southeast corner of Tenth Street.

Re-creating the story of the Sculpture Clock – from photographs, films, construction drawings, records and correspondence scattered across the country in public and private archives and nearly forgotten boxes of documents stored in a garage – reveals how the collaboration between Halprin and Nelson brought us this early work of public art.

Fine art conservator Kristin Cheronis who is restoring the Sculpture Clock says that, “From the start, this timepiece and artwork was unique and distinctive. It quickly became a well-known and beloved landmark. It was a place to meet up with friends; it was used as a backdrop for WCCO TV weather reports; it was a way to set your watch and stay on time; and it was a fascinating kinetic sculpture. Not surprisingly, the very visible and iconic Sculpture Clock was remembered fondly by visitors of Nicollet Mall and Minneapolis through the years. During the three days we worked (to remove) the Sculpture Clock (from) the Mall, dozens of people told us their memories.”

Nicollet Mall Sculpture Clock in color 1973

Nicollet Mall Sculpture Clock in 1973

Over a series of installments, I will recount the fascinating history of Nelson’s Sculpture Clock and its much-anticipated rebirth. In 2014, I researched it while producing an archive for the Minneapolis Public Art program documenting all of the artwork installed through the 1990s scheduled to be removed during the Mall’s current re-design. I referenced files held by the Minneapolis Downtown Council; Mayor Donald Fraser’s correspondence at the Minnesota Historical Society; and online art bibliographies and bound art journals at the University of Minnesota Libraries. I found little insight into Nelson’s creation of the Sculpture Clock in local records, and the art journals of the time did not cover public art.

During the next phase of research, City Public Art Administrator Mary Altman visited the Lawrence Halprin Collection in the Architecture Archives at the University of Pennsylvania to review the firm’s documents about the Nicollet Mall project.

Cheronis, charged with producing a condition analysis of the work, and her two conservation interns Daniel Kaping and Nicole Flam continued to hunt for information. They needed details about how the work was constructed and the movement of its parts. They found the original contracts and supply lists, and a few excellent, detailed, early photos in the Downtown Improvement District’s artwork files. They also discovered some good photographs in the Gale Virtual Reference Library.

Amazingly, they located Nelson’s surviving widow in Syracuse, New York and Kaping traveled there to pore through boxes of documents belonging to the artist. Cheronis says they found a veritable goldmine of historic material including the original blueprints for the clock case; two contact sheets of photos of the artist fabricating the kinetic sculpture in his shop; many large photos taken at the time of fabrication; and a set of color slides, including some that show it illuminated at night. Through sheer tenacity, one of her interns also unearthed four sections of original KSTP film footage in the Minnesota Historical Society archives which shows the actual movement of the kinetic elements from four different angles.

Others passionate about the Sculpture Clock also assisted with research. Tips came in from City staff, from interested pedestrians, from Nicollet Mall historians. Mary Altman posted a query looking for live footage of the Sculpture Clock on a Historic Minneapolis site on Facebook, and received a wonderful longer film from the early 1970s showing the entire sculpture.

Follow this link to read about The Story of the Sculpture Clock.