Interview: Jay Nelson

Lucky enough to chat with artist Jay Nelson over his magical vehicles, art, and the ocean.

Could you give us a quick overview of who you are, what you’re doing, and where you are right now in life, work etc?

I was born in 1980 in Los Angeles. I’ve spent the last 10 years between SF and NYC and Hawaii. My first show was at Needles and Pens. I built a tree house in the space that was inspired by my tree house in Hawaii. My tree house in Hawaii was built from local found materials. When I built the needles and pens tree house I used that same model, salvaging materials from a walking distance radius of the gallery.  I’ve built similar tree houses at the Oakland airport and at the Mollusk Surf Shops. Building these structures started my interest in art as functional space, which led me to customize my Honda civic into a camper, and then a custom motor scooter, an electric camper car and most recently a small live aboard boat.  My sculptures always border on non-function and sometimes fail to actually work.  I think of them as an optimistic attempt to simplify and control my surroundings.

I don’t think people know me so much as a painter, but of all the work I do I feel most connected to painting and always return to it. I think painting is mysterious and exciting. My new paintings are abstract and although they may look different than the sculpture they feel totally connected.  I think of them as windows. A window in a vehicle or home would be positioned by the maker in a way to control the viewer’s gaze on the landscape.  

My drawing are pencil on paper. I originally started drawing because I was interested in an art practice that could fit a nomadic lifestyle. One pencil one backpack one pad of paper. At the time it made sense for my lifestyle. I wasn’t interested in working to pay for a studio or a large home. The first drawings were small but eventually became larger as I felt the need to completely enclose myself and the viewer into the space of the drawing.

Each one of my processes is a reaction to the other. I primarily paint, but I make sculpture because I feel the desire to make something that is functional. I draw because its seems to be the most simple form of art making. I return to painting when drawing feels to stiff and predictable. Paint can do so much, it always surprises me.  

I’m represented by Triple Base Gallery in San Francisco.  Over the past 4 years triple base has been an incredibly supportive family to me.  The directors, Dina and Joyce are doing very interesting work. Triple Base is a community and everyone involved has a part in the direction of the gallery. They really break down the typical gallery artist relationship.

Where is home?

San Francisco

What other interests do you have outside of creating art?

Growing up in coastal Los Angeles I started surfing when I was 8. Surfing is a wonderful spiritual endeavor and it has to be a regular part of my life.  People say spiritual and surfing all the time, but it really is true.

What is your connection with nature and it’s elements, and how do you channel that into your work?

I have reverie for the ocean and nature but I don’t necessarily feel a direct influence from nature.  I’m not interested in describing the beauty of nature. Nature already does that perfectly. I am interested in how being in nature makes me feel.  Eventually my wife and I hope to leave the city and live in the country, that’s the goal.

Where are some of the places you pull inspiration from for your sculptures/flying/surf machines? What type of journey does your imagination go on to produces these structures?

Ocean beach is huge for me. It’s the western edge of our continent. People have traveled west to escape for a long time and San Francisco has a rich history of escapists. Ocean beach is the end of the road west.  

What do you hope the viewer will take away from your sculptures?

If someone saw one of my sculptures and went home and started customizing their cars and home’s I would be very flattered.

Many of your sculptures are displayed in distant places, isolated, often by themselves - do you intend for them to be solitary, utilitarian or as part of public space?

I built a tree house for Larry Rinder in Ukiah, I made it as a peaceful place for him to write and read.  A lot have people have seen it and naturally find it on the land. I like that people can find it and interpret it.

What are you currently working on?

I just finished a live aboard boat wish I enclosed a picture of, I’m working on modifying an existing car sculpture for the San Jose biennial. I’m in between studios so I’ve just been making small drawings.

What other artists inspire you?

I’m really inspired by people’s lives more than their art. I think Jb Blunk lived a beautiful life, he’s my inspiration right now. He also made incredible sculpture.  

Charles Burchfield is one of my all time favorites.

Something you are still learning?

I’m still learning painting, I think painting is entirely about learning and I like the way painting has the ability to constantly surprise me. I’m definitely still figuring out and developing building methods.

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