An Angle on Art

An Angle on Art

Joel Nelson’s Essential Energy

  • By: Bob White

Click image for slideshow.

I’M FASCINATED BY SCULPTURE, particularly when it’s constructed in a medium in which I have little working experience. So it’s no wonder that I’m intrigued by the whimsical and expressive fish studies of sculptor Joel Nelson.
In fact, I’m astounded by the dynamic playfulness and life Nelson breathes into his work, particularly since his medium of choice is steel. Although I’ve always found metal to be a difficult and unyielding material, Nelson says he finds it to be a forgiving one, and gratifying to use. While new steel is easier to work, Nelson often combs scrapyards for old steel he can bring back to life; about half of the steel he uses is recycled. Using various techniques, including plasma cutting, welding, brazing and polishing, Nelson cuts, bends, grinds and finishes his work into a multitude of forms.
“It’s not for everyone,” he chuckles. “Plasma cutting every piece by hand generates a lot of sparks and red-hot steel.”
Once the pieces are formed into the desired shape, Nelson combines them with copper, stained glass and wood. This mixture inspires a wonderful versatility of imagination, and he says, “The possibilities are endless.”
Nelson is a quiet, hard-working man, who lives alone on the Oregon coast where the Alsea River flows to the sea. His studio is a very straightforward space, with a southern exposure and a view of the river; it’s a place where he loves to spend time. He also enjoys fly-fishing, and the time he spends outdoors, particularly on the water, is important to him. He draws much of his inspiration from the fish he catches, and more broadly, from what he witnesses in nature.
Because he’s spent the past 20 summers working as a mechanic for several remote Alaska fishing lodges, Nelson has had the opportunity to explore and fish some of the planet’s best water for Pacific salmon, steelhead, rainbow trout, char and grayling. Given this, it seems only natural that his first sculptures, and some of his personal favorites, are of fish, particularly of salmon and steelhead.
Nelson’s friends describe him as a calm man with a soothing demeanor; a jack-of-all-trades who never rushes anything, and always “gets it right.” He is a member of the Columbia Art Gallery and was a featured artist in the June 2008 show, “Challenging Sculptural Stereotypes.” While Nelson has no formal artistic training, his personal vision and sensitivity to the world around him allow for expression without distraction, and he captures the essential energy of the fish he loves.
Nelson derives great satisfaction from the process of his work, and his ability to transform raw steel into art. He says he’d like to be remembered as, “An artist who builds solid, long-lasting sculpture, and brings happiness into people’s lives.”
Nelson’s current artwork is an evolving mix of representational and non-representational pieces, and he’s expanded his focus to include a variety of wildlife and abstract forms. When I asked what he’d sculpt if not fish, he responded that he would “build other creatures, both real and imagined.”
Regardless of the sculpture’s form, whether representational or abstract, my hunch is that any piece Nelson builds will be expressive and dynamic, and convey a sense of motion and life.
You can find out more about Joel Nelson, and view additional work, at

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