Rebirth of Jack Nelson’s Sculpture Clock

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.

Talia Moorman, City Planner with Community Planning and Economic Development, Sculpture Conservators Laura Kubick and Kristin Cheronis, and Mary Altman, City Public Arts Administrator, Community Planning and Economic Development during a visit to the Sculpture Clock restoration studio in Northeast Minneapolis. (Photograph by Regina Flanagan)

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.

Uncovering the Fascinating Story of Jack Nelson’s Sculpture Clock

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 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.