Lawrence University sculptor Rob Neilson, who specializes in site-specific public art, will be among the guests of honor Saturday, Nov. 14 for the official dedication of his latest creation — 54 cast iron portraits adorning the new Pico-Aliso light rail station in Los Angeles, Calif.
The dedication ceremonies for the $115,000 commission Neilson titled “About Place, About Face” culminates a project that was three years in the making. The more than four dozen metal portraits, some as big as four feet tall, feature faces of people who actually live in the rail station’s neighborhood.
“All of my work is site specific,” said Neilson, associate professor of art at Lawrence. “But I wanted to take this a step further and make the project not just about the location, but also about the surrounding neighborhood and the people who live there and use the facility.”
In conjunction with the Los Angeles Metro Transit Authority, Neilson used dozens of neighborhood volunteers who were willing to have their faces digitally scanned. The visual information, collected in a process that took just 17 seconds per face, was sent to a computer numerical controlled machine that milled it into dense foam from which molds were made and eventually cast with molten iron — at a toilet factory.
Much of the work on his “About Place, About Face” project was created while Neilson served as an Artist-in-Residence in the Kohler Arts/Industry Program through the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan and the Kohler Company in Kohler. Known world-wide for its toilets, bathtubs and sinks, Kohler’s foundry became Neilson’s art studio.
Kohler employees would take breaks from making toilets and bath tubs to cast his larger-than-life faces, filling his mold with 100 pounds of molten iron.
“Historically public art monuments have been used to commemorate the accomplishments of ‘great’ and ‘powerful’ individuals,” said Neilson, a Detroit native who lived in Long Beach, Calif., for five years before joining the Lawrence art department in 2003. “The ‘About Place, About Face’ project is a monument to the rest of us, particularly the people in the neighborhood who use the Pico-Aliso rail station.
When awarded the commission, Neilson said he was given the charge of creating a piece of public art that involved the community and referenced the area and its people.
“I tried to create a work of art that speaks of the area’s past, present and future inhabitants,” said Neilson. “My goal was to have something that encouraged a sense of ownership and involvement within this community. I think these portraits accomplish that.”
The dedication of Neilson’s sculpture and the opening of the Pico-Aliso light rail station is part of an $898 million extension project of the Los Angeles Metro Gold Line.