From Geometric Concrete to Urban Cairns: Exploring John Nelson’s Artistic Vision
A 16-foot-tall sculpture depicting the natural and geologic elements of the desert is now on display at Scottsdale Entrada. “Squash Blossom,” a public art piece created by John Nelson, is an “urban cairn” of stacked geometric concrete, with a squash blossom flower and bird adorning the top, that marks the entry of the community at McDowell Road and 64th Street. “I hope that it contributes to the cultural, social and aesthetic fabric of the site and promotes a sense of place,” Nelson says. We caught up with Nelson, who has created X public art pieces, to discuss his work and what it’s like to create art for communities.
Discover the Majestic “Squash Blossom”: A Q&A With Artist John Nelson
Tell us about “Squash Blossom” and where it is.
“Squash Blossom,” at Scottsdale Entrada, is inspired by the flower of the same name. Made of painted steel, the flower’s geometric shape reflects the geometry of the stone cairn (a human-made stack of stones) upon which it sits. This urban cairn, and its bloom, reference the geologic shapes and the dusky glow of the Sonoran Desert. Cairns are used to mark the beginning of a trailhead. My “Squash Blossom” cairn marks an urban trailhead: the entrance to Entrada. You can see it at 64th Street and McDowell Road.
How do you approach creating public art?
At least half of my time is directed toward my traditional studio work and commissions, but I also like the collaborative nature of public art. You work closely with community members, architects and designers to create a work that is both open to the public and contributes to defining the neighborhood in which it’s placed. Once I have a clear idea of what various stakeholders are interested in, I typically begin by creating a scale model of the project, which allows me to experiment with different shapes and forms before starting work on a final idea.
After finalizing the design, it moves on to the fabrication process. I work with a team of fabricators and artists to create and install the final piece. Depending on the size and complexity of the sculpture, this part of the process can take several months to a year or more. Once the sculpture is complete, we work with an installation team to transport and install the finished piece in its final location. Overall, the process involves research, conceptualization, and collaboration with a team of skilled professionals to bring the final idea to life.
Let’s talk about the scale of this piece and how you approach creating and installing large-scale artwork.
I’ve recently been working with a range of materials: steel, aluminum and concrete. For “Squash Blossom,” I experimented with different textures, shapes and colors. Size-wise, “Squash Blossom” is almost 16 feet tall and weighs about 3,500 lbs.
The finial at the top of the piece, the yellow squash blossom flower, is painted steel, and the stones of the cairn are cast concrete. I worked with R. J. Ruff & Co. to fabricate the steel flower, and the concrete pieces were fabricated by Brandon Boetto at SlabHaus. The installation was the final collaboration between R. J. Ruff, SlabHaus and Tempe Crane & Rigging.
Why are public works of art important in a community?
I think public art adds to the cultural richness of a community by providing an opportunity for people to experience and appreciate art in their everyday lives.
Public art can instill a sense of pride in a city or neighborhood by creating a sense of identity and a unique character for the community. It also can have a positive economic impact by attracting people and businesses and by providing a focal point that brings people together and encourages social interaction.
The key to a successful public art project is open communication with the community and understanding their unique identity and character. The goal is to create meaningful and impactful artwork that resonates with the local community.
How did you get into this realm of public artistry, and what do you find most impactful about it?
I was interested in expanding my studio practice into the realm of public art. My first large-scale public project was produced for Tempe in 1998. A successful public art project can help define a community.
Where do you find inspiration as an artist?
My projects are inspired by a variety of things. For public projects, I’m particularly interested in creating works of art that respond to the specific context and community where they’ll be located. Public art can provide opportunities for people to encounter art in unexpected ways and can also help to build community and foster a sense of place. I’m also inspired by the challenge of creating large-scale works of art that have a significant physical presence.
The approach for every project begins by emphasizing the point of view, perspective and scale of the site itself. Make it impactful, make it theatrical and integrate it into the surrounding environment.
Ultimately, the inspiration for all of my art practice is a combination of my personal art language, the desire to engage with the community and an interest in exploring the possibilities and challenges of creating large-scale art in the public realm.
What’s next for you?
I have two really exciting projects that I’m currently working on.
First, I have a solo exhibition opening at Gebert Contemporary in Scottsdale this coming season. Bill Lykins, the gallery director, and I are curating a series of new paintings and sculptures inspired by the Sonoran Desert to show at the gallery.
I’m also working on a 20-foot-tall abstract owl sculpture, titled “Pink Owl,” for San Diego. Located at Horton Downtown in downtown San Diego, it will have a significant presence located right at the entrance to Horton Plaza on 1st Street.