Written by Erika Block
Rob Neilson spent his youth in Detroit, creating strange contraptions out of scrap steel at the steel factory where his father worked. “At that time I had no real understanding of art or what constituted contemporary sculpture. It wasn’t until I got to art school years later and took my first sculpture course that I realized, ‘Hey, I might just have been making art.’”
While attending high school, Neilson had no intention of going to college. “Where I come from you simply graduated and then got a job working the line at Ford Motor Company.” With the encouragement of his “exceedingly generous” high school art teacher, Kris Darby, Neilson applied to art school. “To my reach success as a professional artist, Neilson majored graphic design and advertising, but quickly realized it was not his calling. “What I really wanted to do was draw and paint; you know, get messy, get weird.” He then switched his major to fine arts. After taking his first sculpture course, Neilson was hooked. “I got it immediately: that pesky third dimension; creating objects with mass and weight and gravitas.”
Neilson was certain he didn’t want to become a teacher, but shortly after college he got his first small public sculpture commission, which involved working with students from a local Detroit public high school. “This was my first taste of what it might mean to teach; to see young people discover art and the powerful role it can play in our lives.” He is currently an Associate Professor and the Frederick R. Layton Professor of Art at Lawrence University in Appleton. “I love what I do; teaching and being an artist. The two inform one another. My creative practice deeply influences my teaching and vice versa. I spend the entirety of my professional life thinking about, talking about, looking at, and making art. Sometimes I’m awestruck someone pays me to do this.”
In addition to his teaching career, Neilson has achieved a high level of success as a commissioned and collected artist. (His curriculum vitae can be found on his website.) The majority of his works are public.
As Neilson worked to develop his craft, the natural evolution of his work steered him toward the realm of public art. “Public art provides an unrequested and unrequited aesthetic experience. We do not have to seek it out, we do not have to make a purposeful excursion to an art gallery or pay an admission fee to a museum; we simply need to go about our daily lives and public art proffers us a free but priceless visual encounter.”
“Public art helps us to mediate and placate our manmade environment. It reminds us of who we are, of what we can accomplish. It recalls to us what we value and it reiterates back at us our view of ourselves, as well as what we aspire to be. All in all, not a bad day at the office.”
To follow the career of Rob Neilson and view more of his work, please visit RobNeilson.com.
Erika L. Block is a professional writer, artist and art director working exclusively with the art, publishing and music industries through her company, Creative Studios. Connect with her at facebook.com/elblockcreative.