"We love culture, but not at our dinner table."
That bleak assessment by James Nestor -- artist, educator, philosopher -- gives him both pause and fight.
Dr. Nestor -- or simply "Nestor" as his students reverentially address him -- is retiring at the end of this term after a distinguished 25-year career at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Last week he took time to reflect upon cultural attitudes, art education and the roles of art and artists today, and his conclusions are a blend of circumspection and faith.
It's evident as he talks that he's felt, across four decades, gratification from and gnawing by the creative impulse, "that dust that gets stuck in your eye when the wind blows."
An artist, Dr. Nestor opines, is "a facilitator. In some ways a provocateur. For others, there's a shaman-like quality."
"It could be an extinct role if it becomes blurred with leisure-time activities, or it's tied in a way with entertainment, which it's becoming. An Elvis Presley impersonator could be the shaman of our age. Elvis Presley is a kind of a god to some. He's more than a sum of a man.
"Art has become a big production."
The 60-year-old Youngstown, Ohio, native, who grew up in Akron, Ohio, and Phoenix, entered the architecture program at the University of Notre Dame after high school. But soon he and the saxophone he'd begun a partnership with in the third grade were lured away by a newly formed blues band.
Shortly after, he enrolled at Kent State University to study painting, a medium he'd begun exploring in his early teens, and sculpture. The latter won him over, and he stayed at Kent State to earn a master's degree in sculpture but kept company with his first love by attending a summer art program at prestigious Blossom Music Center on a merit scholarship.
The blues band continued to practice regularly until May 4, 1970, when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a group of student protestors on the Kent State campus.
"After the shooting, everyone dispersed," he says of the band members.
After graduate school, he entered professional life, and "it was an absolute disaster. I was sincere in a world where you had to be a lot better than that. You had to have something to offer. I needed to be a smarter individual."
He entered a nascent program at Carnegie Mellon University and earned, as a Carnegie Corporation of New York Fellow, the first doctorate in sculpture. "This was going to be a continuing part of my life, providing a broader base of operations intellectually."
With such a background it's no surprise that Dr. Nestor expects a lot from students. Like a caring parent, he pushes them to excel, on campus but also in the outside world, applying to exhibitions and putting their all into venues they've been accepted by.
"Being an educator isn't antithetical to being a creative individual. This is part of my art."
IUP students have starred in shows ranging from Pittsburgh Center for the Arts to Associated Artists of Pittsburgh Annuals to Three Rivers Arts Festivals. Others have successful careers as curators, university faculty and independent artists.
While some students have been recalcitrant, the admiration many feel for Dr. Nestor was evident at the opening of his exhibition, "Elapsed: Works From 1970-2010," at IUP's College of Fine Arts. Approximately 250 people, many former students, traveled from out of and across the state to celebrate with their mentor.
Works in the show, a mini-retrospective, range from early drawings that are perspectival exercises to "Eternity 2010," a 22-foot-high sculpture placed in front of the college that began life as "Auschwitz: A Day at the Beach," in homage to those lost in the Holocaust. "Auschwitz" was exhibited in 1996 at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and in 1988 in the Brooklyn Navy Pier show, New York, where it toppled into the East River during a storm. When it was hoisted out, the "A" that crowned it was missing. Dr. Nestor replaced it with an "E" and renamed the work, a permanent memorial to a historic event and to a sculpture.
Other artworks exhibit his signature style -- spare, sometimes post-apocalyptic -- their re-cycled components reflecting less a sensitivity to the environment than to the inherent memory of material. The subject is intrinsically, if not blatantly, socio-political, as in "Last Supper," comprising cigarette butts, broken glass, rolls of rubber and metal, or the two busts of "Civilisation" forever facing away from one another. The art initiates a discomfort in the mind that equals its visual discordance.
"Even if the viewer doesn't like this stuff, it's OK" Dr. Nestor says. "It's not about liking, but about re-engaging with themselves."
He began re-engaging with a part of himself when, decades after the Kent State tragedy, he began playing his saxophone when alone in the studio. Now it's an essential part of performance works that feature the artist, concealed under layers of plastic or cloth, and the sounds of a saxophone. (Go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWwngcS2ysI for a video of his exhibition opening-night performance.) Six videos of performances enacted this decade play in the gallery. Particularly unnerving is "dance at the mouth of Hell" as the artist, his lace covering swirling in the wind, sways on the precipitous edge of a sulfur smoke-spewing volcano in Masaya National Park, Nicaragua.
One is struck by the ritualistic aspect of the shrouded figure, the cacophonous sound emanating from a mysterious place. Dr. Nestor demurs when asked about a possible religious or spiritual component to his work. He doesn't see himself in the shaman role, although a student has compared him to the pied piper. He allows that one component of an exhibited work that was destined for destruction instead achieved, upon re-examination, transcendence, and his relationship with it "became ritual, unwittingly."
"I'm not a very religious man. Spiritual? I don't know. We are not just where we sit," he observes, indicating three people seated at a table, "and we aren't what we appear to be."
Dr. Nestor plans to remain in Indiana and to remain engaged, whether developing art objects, theory or both simultaneously.
"I don't see the word retirement meaning an escape to a better place. The teaching end of a life is eternal beginnings. I'm at a point where I want to feed my own level of discourse and curiosity."
"Elapsed" continues through Nov. 19 in the Kipp Gallery, College of Fine Arts, Sprowls Hall, 470 S. 11th St. Hours are noon-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday. Dr. Nestor will reflect upon his work and career at 5 p.m. Thursday in Room 118A. Admission is free. Information: 724-357-2530 or www.arts.iup.edu/kipp.
Young readers are in for a treat at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday when Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette illustrator, will talk about and demonstrate the art of illustration at the Sewickley Public Library. Beginning at 5 p.m,, he'll sign copies of "Lincoln Tells a Joke," a book he illustrated written by Paul Brewer and Kathleen Krull. The School Library Journal wrote: "Innerst's colorful and unconventional acrylic illustrations cover the entire page and are the perfect complement to both the text and the subject matter, making this a standout biography." His paintings from the book will be on display through Nov. 27 at 500 Thorn St., Sewickley. Information: 412-741-6920.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: email@example.com or 412-263-1925.