Neilson


St. Norbert College Art Faculty Triennial Exhibition

October 2, 2017

Priest-artist-teacher Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.

Priest-artist-teacher Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.

From August 28 through September 22, 2017, Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem., professor of art at St. Norbert College, exhibited a collection of new sculptures in the Baer Gallery within the Bush Art Center on campus.

Artist Statement

Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.

Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.

This collection of new work gives expression to my belief that we do well, always and everywhere, to deeply consider the value and beauty of that which seemingly might no longer be thought useful or attractive. In other words, I believe we too quickly remove and dispose of things that have much yet to say and reveal to the world. Therefore, I champion the use of materials that are wonderfully weathered and have been joyfully and seriously used, over and over again, so much so that they have achieved a patina only time can produce. It’s the incredible surface texture of “old things” that are beautiful to me; they declare they’ve been loved, needed, and used. This “memory” is worth preserving and I like to re-present such things as “three-dimensional collages.”

There is a definite and intentional element of “play” in the construction of many of these new works; far too often the “hard work of play” is downplayed (no pun intended!) when it comes to serious art—the very natural tendency we all exhibit as children to build things (forts with couch cushions, towers with boxes, etc.) is stifled too early in life. So in lieu of pulling out a can of Lincoln Logs, I collect objects and playfully build and unbuild new works until they seem to be “finished.”

I like the idea of unexpected juxtapositions; of ideas and materials that might seem contrary or contradictory, and seeing what happens when they’re bound together. For example, in Trypanophobia, I’ve combined syringes and hypodermic needles with 19th-century architectural spires (once part of a wooden altar in a Catholic church but discarded in a 1969 renovation project). To me, the shape of the spire, with its spear-point, anticipates the shape of the syringe and needle, inclining me to optimistically wonder how this particular shape suggests healing, restoration, and new life. This integration of objects of science and religion become a visual treatise in the goodness of a shared or mutual approach to living a happy, healthy life.

It’s the incredible surface texture of ‘old things’ that are beautiful to me; they declare they’ve been loved, needed, and used.

—Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.

I have extended a decades-old inquiry into deaccessioned books as primary medium and am now exploring a new method of altering the appearance of the book to suggest new ways of being indebted to books as sources of inspiration, hope, and delight. Au is a “combine” wherein an old wooden drum (found in the trash outside a renovated foundry) holds a number of books revealing the gold-edges of the pages, with a nod to the art of Renaissance tondo paintings and the scientific process of discerning information via lateral cross-sections.

Ghost Town in an assemblage of materials gleaned from houses that once made up the neighborhood in and around the campus of St. Norbert College. Architectural elements from porches, staircases, and doorways are stacked and placed next to and upon wooden boxes and the remnants of an old circus-train to create a sculpture that evokes thoughts and ideas of small towns across the country and how “relics” of such old spaces-and-places can be preserved within a new work of art.

A Closer Look

Below are descriptions for each work of art.

Au

Au

Title: Au

Artist: James P. Neilson, O. Praem.
Date of Work: 2017
Medium: Books and Wood
Size of Work (H x W x D): 18 x 18 x 6
Insurance Value of Work: $200
Special Handling Requirements: None

Ghost Town

Ghost Town

Title: Ghost Town

Artist: James P. Neilson, O. Praem.
Date of Work: 2017
Medium: Mixed Medium
Size of Work (H x W x D): 102 x 66 x 24
Insurance Value of Work: $500
Special Handling Requirements: None

Text Visualization

Text Visualization

Title: Text Visualization

Artist: James P. Neilson, O. Praem.
Date of Work: 2017
Medium: Books and Wood
Size of Work (H x W x D): 24 x 20 x 5
Insurance Value of Work: $200
Special Handling Requirements: None

The Jules Ferry Laws

The Jules Ferry Laws

Title: The Jules Ferry Laws

Artist: James P. Neilson, O. Praem.
Date of Work: 2017
Medium: Mixed Medium
Size of Work (H x W x D): 27 x 23 x 5
Insurance Value of Work: $250
Special Handling Requirements: None

Easy Cake Decorating Ideas

Easy Cake Decorating Ideas

Title: Easy Cake Decorating Ideas

Artist: James P. Neilson, O. Praem.
Date of Work: 2017
Medium: Mixed Media
Size of Work (H x W x D): 80 x 28 x 28
Insurance Value of Work: $100
Special Handling Requirements: Suspended from ceiling

Synesthesia

Synesthesia

Title: Synesthesia

Artist: James P. Neilson, O. Praem.
Date of Work: 2017
Medium: Mixed Medium
Size of Work (H x W x D): 60 x 36 x 5
Insurance Value of Work: $500
Special Handling Requirements: Heavy

Trypanophobia

Trypanophobia

Title: Trypanophobia

Artist: James P. Neilson, O. Praem.
Date of Work: 2017
Medium: Syringes, Needles, and Wood
Size of Work (H x W x D): Dimensions Variable
Insurance Value of Work: $500
Special Handling Requirements: Work is attached to shelves (that are attached to the wall)


More about Fr. Neilson

  • Colleague + Friend
    Lessons on Virtuous Friendship by Dr. Paul Wadell
    By Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.

Colleague + Friend

Lessons on Virtuous Friendship from Dr. Paul Wadell

As seen in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Abbey Magazine (page 10)

By Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.

Dr. Paul Wadell (left) and Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.

Dr. Paul Wadell (left) and Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.

Maybe it was his smooth Kentucky accent or the fact that he greeted, by name, every student who walked into class. I immediately knew my time spent with Dr. Paul Wadell as a grad student at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago was going to be as enjoyable as it was instructive.

In a course referencing his own book, Friendship and the Moral Life, Paul’s class was more like an invigorating retreat with a group of friends than a series of lectures in a room of strangers. Exalting the virtues as essential components of true friendship, Paul revealed a glorious truth: Being in right relationship with others, cultivating and maintaining a circle of good friends, is nothing less than the very dream of God for each and every one of us.

He modeled for us in our teacher-student relationship the virtues to espouse in our own friendships:

Friendship and the Moral LifeGenerosity

Paul clearly spent a great deal of time in preparing his classroom lectures. They were always rich in facts, personal insights applicable to everyday life, and wonderfully articulated in the most conversational tone. Our lectures were conversations with and among friends.

Inclusivity

Paul received us in an atmosphere that valued spiritual understanding and wisdom. We learned that cultivating genuine and deep friendships facilitates the growth and development of the spirit.

Sharing

Paul invited us to consider a variety of ideas and insights by way of many voices. His recommended reading list was an introduction to new friends; that is, authors we might never know personally, but would know via their writings. Sharing books, authors, works of art, and artists with new and old friends, with colleagues and students, is a lesson in friendship I practice to this day.

I find a wealth of virtuous friendships at my home, St. Norbert Abbey. As confreres, we share intellectual pursuits, mutual respect, collaboration in liturgical celebrations, and warm and inviting conversations at table. Together we believe God’s triune nature is an experience of mutuality. Therefore, as those created in the image and likeness of God, we enjoy a natural orientation toward being in mutual relationship with others. In our friendships we strive to mirror on earth what we believe is the very reflection of God’s own and true self. Today my professor is my colleague at St. Norbert College. I count him as one of the single most influential educators in my life. And I treasure him as a friend.


Paul Wadell, Ph.D., is a professor of theology and religious studies at St. Norbert College. Read his America magazine article, “Not Settling for Less,” which started as a presentation for The Conrad J. Kratz, O. Praem. Abbey Lecture Series at the Norbertine Center for Spirituality in 2014. He also has contributed to Abbey Magazinesee page 12 of the Spring/Summer 2016 issue for his thoughts on “A Ministry of Mercy.”

Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem., is a priest, artist, and teacher. He is an assistant professor of art at St. Norbert College. Read more about his varied ministries.

The Stations of the Cross: A Thoroughly Catholic Devotion

As seen in “The Compass”; reprinted with permission

By Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.

 The Eighth Station: Jesus meets the women, as portrayed at Our Lady of Lourdes, De Pere | Photo by Fr. Tim Shillcox, O. Praem.


The Eighth Station: Jesus meets the women, as portrayed at Our Lady of Lourdes, De Pere | Photo by Fr. Tim Shillcox, O. Praem.

The Stations of the Cross, one of our most beloved devotions, chronicles the last few hours of the life of Jesus Christ and is a way for the faithful to literally walk with the Lord in prayerful gratitude, wonder, and awe.

Whereas history does not provide us with specific evidence of the very first visual (artistic) articulation of the Stations of the Cross, we might well imagine the origin of this popular devotion occurring as our ancestors in the faith walked along the very “way of the cross” in the streets and roads of Jerusalem and pondered in their hearts the great mystery of the passion and death of Jesus.

I like to imagine that perhaps it was Mary herself, in the company of the unnamed women and children of Jerusalem, the apostles and Simon of Cyrene with his sons, Alexander and Rufus, who, after the crucifixion, walked and rewalked the very steps they took in the company of Jesus on that first Good Friday. I wonder if they didn’t pause, periodically, to recall the memory of that very day and their great love for Jesus—and over time, others joined them along this Via Dolorosa, accompanying them with their own memories and prayers, sharing together a mutual love and affection for the presence of Jesus in their lives—yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Many of our most treasured religious and secular rites and rituals, customs, and traditions, have uncertain origins; but what we most certainly and assuredly know about the Stations of the Cross is that its origin is literally in every step of Jesus en route to the sacrifice upon the cross. The practice of ritually and artistically categorizing the footsteps of Jesus along the way to Calvary is equally obscure and its history is subject to great debate. But we are confident that our current 14 Stations of the Cross have evolved in tandem with the Church’s revelation of the presence of the living Christ in our midst, in our own here-and-now.

The placement in our churches of 14 visual articulations of those final hours in the life of Jesus inclines us to recognize and remember an essential aspect of our Christian faith; namely, that our salvation is linked to the suffering of Christ who, even as he bore the torment of hostility and fear of those who hoped to eradicate his presence on earth, he persevered toward God’s divine will with nobility and courage, with tenderness toward the most marginalized and hopeful reliance on the emerging strength of others.

The placement of 14 images of the last hours of the life of Jesus in (or upon the grounds) of a church or a chapel allows us to sense the magnitude of this sacred narrative and to discern its ongoing relevance in our lives. Without these visual cues, these sacred works of art, we are impoverished and risk forgetting the immensity of God’s great love for the world.

That there are five traditional Stations of the Cross that depict instances not recorded in sacred Scripture (there is, in fact, no scriptural record of Jesus falling three times along the route to Calvary nor are there exact passages citing the meeting of Jesus with his mother or Veronica) is not a worrisome matter for a devout and sincere Catholic. Rather, those particular stations reveal the extent of the Christian imagination and how it is rooted in the art of logical, poetic, and compassionate inference.

The inclusion of three stations, wherein Jesus falls along the way, reveals many things that we know to be true: the crushing weight of life and all its complexities can cause all of us to stumble along the way and we then rely on others (like Simon) to assist us. The Catholic imagination delights in recognizing how our journey in life is intimately known to Jesus.

That we believe Jesus met Mary along the way to Calvary feels only natural to the believing imagination as we know, from sacred Scripture, she is there later at the foot of the cross; would not any of our own mothers demure from accompanying us along our own way of the cross? Mary’s presence reveals what we know to be true among women who are full of grace: they walk with us and for us, even when we believe we can’t see them.

Of course, Veronica acts as a counterpoint to Simon; as Simon was ordered to assist Jesus, we have a family legend that recalls the power and beauty of freely and naturally offering one’s assistance to someone in need. Veronica recalls for us a beautiful truth; we have all, at one time or another, enjoyed the sweet relief of someone freely and wonderfully coming to our aid, comforting us with a moment of surprising relief.

During the season of Lent, the church invites us to enter more mindfully into the Passion of Jesus, to set aside a bit of time wherein we can more fully recall the courage and conviction of our Lord’s love of us, particularly as this was made manifest on that first Good Friday.

The Stations of the Cross that we find in our cathedral and local churches, act as catalysts to remember the strength and dignity, the resolve and determination, the complete and overwhelming goodness of Jesus, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Whenever we actively pray the Stations of the Cross, either alone or in the company of fellow believers, we extend a great legacy and tradition of the Church, linking our prayers and footsteps with the very prayers and footsteps of Jesus, our Blessed Mother, the apostles and disciples, the saints and the martyrs, and countless generations of faith-filled men, women, and children.

Fr. Neilson is assistant professor of art at St. Norbert College. Learn more about the Stations of the Cross as a popular devotion in the Fall/Winter 2016 issue of Abbey Magazine (pages 7-10).

More opportunities to celebrate the sacred season of Lent at St. Norbert Abbey »

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