Artists create work in their studios and it passes through their hands and out into the world. Hopefully it is sensitively perceived, skillfully interpreted, and valued during the artist’s lifetime. But what happens after an artists dies and the direct connection between the artist and their work is severed? Time passes and who remembers the artist and cares about their work? How is it understood, especially if the artist, during their lifetime, did not achieve fame but was regionally recognized or perhaps known only among a circle of curators, gallerists or like-minded artists?
When I began researching the work of Jack Nelson, sculptor of the Sculpture Clock on Nicollet Mall, no archive about its creation existed. The slim trail of documents included original correspondence between the artist and the office of landscape architect Lawrence Halprin who designed the Mall from Halprin’s Archives at the University of Pennsylvania, and financial arrangements for the work in the files of the Minneapolis Downtown Council. In musty back-issues of Art News at the University of Minnesota’s Wilson Library, I read reviews of Nelson’s nearly annual exhibitions at a New York City gallery from 1959 to the early 1970s. I learned he established an innovative multi-media program at Syracuse University that influenced video pioneer Bill Viola who was his student. But there was no extensive bio material anywhere online and no Wikipedia citations.
Nelson had created this physical work – the Sculpture Clock – and I could see before me the artist’s aesthetic decisions in the idiosyncrasy of its composition and movements, and the touch of his hand in its construction. But Nelson, the artist, stubbornly remained an enigma, a vapor. Then came the breakthrough: sculpture conservator Kristin Cheronis had picked up the search and her persistent interns tracked down the artist’s widow in Upstate New York. Boxes in her garage contained Nelson’s effects and in one, they found extensive documentation about the Sculpture Clock.
Remarkably, here were photos of Jack Nelson himself, a young and handsome man in a black t-shirt cutting, drilling, grinding and assembling the elements for the Sculpture Clock in his workshop. The trove of materials in the garage also yielded sketches and doodles, blueprints, scrapbooks documenting the construction of the work and color slides of the studio where Nelson assembled the pieces and tested the motors, refining the Sculpture Clock’s composition and movements.
Cheronis and her team, who are repairing and restoring the Sculpture Clock, pore over these materials, comparing the gleaming work in the early photographs to the corroded, damaged piece before them. The historic blueprints and photographs show the composition and relative locations of the parts but the artist’s intentions are perhaps most revealed in his actual handwork on the sculptural elements themselves: his choice of materials, construction techniques and welds, and finishes.
Fidelity to an artist’s original intentions guides the professional practice of conservators. Daily, Cheronis and her team are living inside the head of Jack Nelson as they restore his Sculpture Clock. The careful and loving conservation of this work, the only known existing permanent installation by the artist, will surely bring about a reassessment of Nelson’s career. The Sculpture Clock will have another opportunity to delight passersby on Nicollet Mall as it did when first installed in 1968, and we will have assured that this significant fifty-year-old work by young artist Jack Nelson lives on for at least another generation.
To view a photo essay showing progress with the restoration of the Sculpture Clock, click here.
Who Is A Conservator and What Do They Do?
Conservators are devoted to the preservation of cultural property for the future. They have graduate-level training in art conservation; credentials from the American Institute for Conservation; and follow a code of ethics and standards.
Conservation activities include examination, documentation, treatment, preventive care and restoration, supported by research and education.