The sun smiling down upon Sioux Falls, unmuffled by clouds, I leisurely walk into the East Bank Art Gallery. Instantly enchanted by the creative expressions of local artists hung from wall to wall, I am warmly greeted by John Nelson; a man modest in stature but enormous in personality and compassion. I am surprised to find that he is a free-spirited, easy going guy, with a contagious smile that never seems to leave his face. He pulls out two chairs, hand-painted with bright colors and complemented with delightful flowers. Treating me as an old friend, we chat for a while before I get around to interviewing him. – Patrick
[Photos by Rachel Polan, Sketch Crawl 2017.]
What led you to become an art educator, and was there anyone who specifically played a role in your decision?
The first time I truly understood how important art was for educators to use was when I was in third grade. At that time, South Dakota had made this great idea that it was going to close all our country schools and bring them into town schools. Beresford was part of that, but they also promised that they wouldn’t raise taxes, so we had these massive classrooms full of kids. I wasn’t learning very well, and my teacher found out that the best way for me to learn was through art, so she had me do various bulletin boards and illustrations for her. I was fortunate to have various teachers “catch me,” so to speak, throughout elementary, middle school, high school, as well as college. Through their encouragement, I came to understand how important not only art itself was, but also how large an impact educators can make on young people if they chose to put in the extra effort.
Were you a class doodler?
Yeah, that’s what I was doing in the back of the class. That’s how my teacher figured out I learned better through art, because she’d walk around the classroom as I was doodling. A lot of teachers will go around their classrooms and frown upon doodling in class. Although in my class, of course, I am encouraging that. If doodling in class helps you calm down and focus, then doodle! By all means.
What do you find most rewarding about teaching art?
I think the same thing that led me to become an educator, that I can catch students who were like me, and help them be successful; give them a little bit of leeway, so that they can feel ownership in what they finally come up with. I think that’s the most rewarding part of teaching any subject, plus the hugs! I genuinely enjoy seeing kids get turned on to school. The kindergarten teachers tell me with the new curriculum they’re not going to do fine motor skills with their kids, so the arts will play a vital role in developing the fine motor skills, and that thinking, that creative thinking. What I am noticing more and more is that they are becoming so in tune with playing with technology that they don’t interact with anyone. At least art brings them away from technology. That’s why I try and do group projects as much as possible. It gives them an opportunity to socialize by sharing their work with their peers.
What have your elementary students taught you about art?
Well I think how I teach has really changed. Standing up in front of the class and thinking I have all the answers doesn’t work with students anymore. There’s a new philosophy out there of choice, where the kids choose what they are going to come up with. I think that’s what they have taught me, to think outside of the box a little bit more. I tend to get stuck in my ways. Part of it is my training in Japan. You didn’t choose, you were told you will do this and you will do it exactly right. Although it did teach me things that I see that a lot of young artists neglect; that eye for detail and presentation.
What do you hope your students take away from you class?
To be inquisitive, to accept art that maybe their families don’t appreciate. I want to expose them to the world of art, and for them to see the minimalist period as well as the abstract period. They seemed to be stopped at the impressionist period.
How would you like to be remembered by your peers and students?
I think, just as a person, that I cared. That I took an interest in the individual. I never saw a group of kids, but I saw individuals in a classroom. That I truly took the time and cared.
As an artist, there are always periods of frustration, of self-doubt, how have you been able to work through those challenging times?
I think the group that I belong to has been a tremendous help. When I’m really stuck, I don’t let it beat me up too much. I realize what is happening, and it’s not due to a creative shortcoming, I’m just not getting it at the time. Sometimes I just can’t get it, but I’m persistent and keep working and try to look at it from a different angle or perspective. It’s important to keep writing or painting and eventually you will work through those challenging periods. It important not to stop. Over time, with practice and patience, it will become easier. You will eventually get over that creative hump, but if you stop, you never will.
Who are a few of your favorite artists and what do you admire about their work?
When I was in college, it was Cezanne. I really like Cezanne; his use of color. He did still life and landscapes and that’s what I was really excited about. As far as living South Dakota artist’s, I don’t mind John Crane at all, but I think that’s because his watercolor, and his use of pen and ink underneath. I am a printer so the Japanese printers have really influenced my work a lot.
John and I continued to converse after the interview, exploring subjects from art, to politics, to sexuality, to what it means to be human. I felt as though I was talking to a man with such humility that he’d simply forgotten that just a short year ago he had been awarded the South Dakota Art Teacher of the Year for his work at Rosa Parks Elementary. The same year being recognized as a Western Region Awardee by the National Art Education Association in New York. It became clear to me that the accolades were simply icing placed on top of the true reward of teaching, of inspiring young people to explore their passions, and enabling them with the tools to follow their creative and intellectual pursuits. It takes a special kind of person to dedicate their life to help mold the minds of others’. I can say, without an ounce of doubt, that I have yet to meet someone so well suited to do so than John Nelson. It was truly a pleasure to be able to sit down and speak with him.