Rob Neilson

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Art professor Rob Neilson featured in exhibition at Madison’s Watrous Gallery

Works by Lawrence University sculptor Rob Neilson will be featured in an exhibition opening Friday, July 6 at the Wisconsin Academy’s James Watrous Gallery in Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts.

Rob Neilson sculpture entitled "Bi-Bully"
Rob Neilson’s “Bi-Bully” will be part of his “Pataphysical Portraits” exhibition.

The exhibition “Pataphysical Portraits” runs through Aug. 19. A free artists’ reception will be held Friday July 13 from 5-7 p.m. with an informal gallery talk delivered at 5:30 p.m.

In “Pataphysical Portraits,” Neilson exploits the traditional genre of portraiture busts in a way that combines iconography and incongruity.

Concentrating on the exchange between the idiosyncratic and collective readings of each figure’s image, Neilson explores the construction of identity and the space where the iconic encounters the absurd. His work asks what this reveals about how we see ourselves, what we value and the meaning we give to individual narratives.

Neilson, who joined the Lawrence art department in 2003, holds the Frederick R. Layton Professor of Art endowed chair. He has exhibited his sculpture, installations and drawings at galleries, museums, and alternative spaces nationally and internationally.

He has created public art commissions throughout the United States, including projects in California, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, North Carolina, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin. Three of Neilson’s projects “You Are Here,” “We Are Here” and “Community Caryatids,” are featured in the Fox Cities Exhibition Center in downtown Appleton.

Rob Neilson sculpture Badly Bain Among the Kye
“Badly Bain Among the Kye (Robert Lambie 1760-1799” is one of the works in Rob Neilson’s “Pataphysical Portraits” exhibition.

A native of Detroit, Neilson earned a BFA degree in fine arts from the College for Creative Studies and an MFA in sculpture from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

The James Watrous Gallery is a program of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters, an independent, nonprofit organization that seeks to inspire discovery, illuminate creative work, and foster civil dialogue. The gallery’s primary focus is the work of contemporary Wisconsin visual artists. We also present exhibitions that explore the history of art in Wisconsin or topics that bridge the sciences, arts, and humanities. The gallery is free and open to the public.

About Lawrence University
Founded in 1847, Lawrence University uniquely integrates a college of liberal arts and sciences with a nationally recognized conservatory of music, both devoted exclusively to undergraduate education. It was selected for inclusion in the book “Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About College.”  Engaged learning, the development of multiple interests and community outreach are central to the Lawrence experience. Lawrence draws its 1,500 students from nearly every state and more than 50 countries.





Sculptor Rob Neilson Named One of 13 Fox Cities’ “Creatives”

Sculptor Rob Neilson

Sculptor Rob Neilson, associate professor of art and Frederick R. Layton Professor of Art, was among 13 “creatives” spotlighted in the March edition of Fox Cities Magazine for helping define “the Fox Cities’ new wave of artistic ambition.”

Best known for his public art, including last year’s “compassionate manhole covers,” which can be found in the sidewalks along College Ave. in downtown Appleton and on the Lawrence campus, Neilson was featured in a story examining community artists, creators and innovators who represent the potential the Fox Cities has “to make its mark on the creative world map.”

Download a PDF to read the article and check out this online only follow-up to the story.

About Lawrence University

Founded in 1847, Lawrence University uniquely integrates a college of liberal arts and sciences with a world-class conservatory of music, both devoted exclusively to undergraduate education. Ranked among America’s best colleges, it was selected for inclusion in the book “Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About College.” Individualized learning, the development of multiple interests and community engagement are central to the Lawrence experience. Lawrence draws its 1,445 students from 44 states and 35 countries.  Follow us on Facebook.

Showing Their Compassionate Side: Lawrence Sculpture Students Turn Manhole Covers into Public Art

Pedestrians in downtown Appleton need look no further than the sidewalk to find examples of compassion these days.

A dozen, newly cast, custom-made manhole covers that feature designs depicting some aspect of compassion are adding a bit of humanity to the otherwise lifeless sidewalks running up and down College Ave.

The project is the latest brainchild of public art specialist Rob Neilson, the Frederick R. Layton Professor of Art at Lawrence University, who challenged students in his sculpture class this spring to come up with their own personal definition of compassion.

"Answered Prayers" by J.R. Vanko '13

The manhole cover assignment was inspired by the community-wide Compassion Project, in which 10,000 Appleton school children used 6-by-6-inch ceramic tiles to create drawings and paintings of what compassion means to them.

Using manhole covers as a medium was a welcomed return to Neilson’s Detroit roots and his foundry background. His father worked for Kasle Steel and he spent a good part of his youth rummaging through scrap yards in search of discarded metals he could repurpose into art.

“This project was great fun and something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” said Neilson, who contributed one of the 12 new manholes. Titled “Mandela Mandala,” Neilson’s creation features eight images of former South Africa President Nelson Mandela arranged into a design bordering on the abstract.

Student covers include a thumbprint, representing an individual responsibility to show compassion; a hand grasping a human liver that honors a friend who underwent an organ transplant and a series of intersecting ripples of water to illustrate the far-reaching effects of each person’s actions.

After creating their designs, Neilson and his students visited the company synonymous with manhole covers — Neenah Foundry — which made molds of each design and created new cast iron covers.  The covers will be installed by crews from the city of Appleton.

“This was a great opportunity for my sculpture students and Lawrence to collaborate with the world famous Neenah Foundry and the city of Appleton on a project that benefits the community, the college and the industry,” said Neilson.  “It was a chance for my students to stop and think about what manhole covers are, what their purpose is and how to use them to actually create a functional piece of public art.”

The manhole cover designs, which are essentially relief sculptures, were chosen for installation in the sidewalk rather than the street, so that people would be able to stop, view and admire them.

In addition to the set of 12 manhole covers for the sidewalks, two complete extra sets of covers were made for Lawrence and the Trout Museum of Art by Neenah Foundry, which underwrote the cost of the project.

Sculptor Rob Neilson Named to Endowed Professorship

Rob Neilson, associate professor of art at Lawrence University, has been named the college’s Frederick R. Layton Professor of Art. Appointments to endowed professorships recognize academic distinction through teaching excellence and/or scholarly achievement.

A member of the Lawrence art department since 2003, Neilson is a sculptor who specializes in public art and how that art engages the public and becomes part of their lives.

Rob Neilson

Working with metals, plastic, rubber and other exotic materials, Neilson has been awarded commissions for site-specific installations St. Elizabeth Hospital in Appleton, the cities of Charlotte, N.C., and Los Angeles, Calif., and the Long Beach Transit Authority. His foam and rubber sculpture, “Two-Head Trojan Ducky” was selected in 2004 for display at Chicago’s 10th Annual Navy Pier Walk exhibition.

One of his most recent commissions involved a series of 54 cast iron masks based on digitally scanned faces of local residents Neilson created for the Los Angeles Country Metropolitan Transit Authority. The four-foot-tall masks were affixed to the canopy of one of the L.A. county light rail stations. They were formally dedicated last November.

“Rob Neilson is an enormously creative artist and a wonderful teacher,” said Provost and Dean of the Faculty David Burrows. “His large-scale works have attracted national interest and praise for their unusual style and use of novel ideas. Rob is able to see the world in new and exciting ways, and his work reflects that vision. As a teacher he works many long hours and inspires his students to accomplish things they never thought possible.”

Neilson earned a bachelor of fine arts degree at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and a master of fine arts degree in sculpture at the University of North Carolina.

The Layton Professorship was established in 1983 in part from a trust established by the assets of the Layton School of Art and Design as well as funds raised by Lawrence.Originally designed to bring distinguished artists to campus for multiple year stays, the endowed chair now supports a permanent position in the art department.

Rob Neilson’s Los Angeles Public Art Commission Dedicated Nov. 14

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.

Rob-Neilson-Train-Sculpture.jpg 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.