College of Fine Arts

Patricia Nelson: Watershed Moments

by Pat Nelson, Professor, School of Art

 Pat Nelson

Winner of the 2006 College of Fine Arts Dean's Teaching Award

Last fall I was reminiscing with a graduate class about my uneasy life in the arts. I have been forever fascinated…and yet never felt I understood the whole scope. Perhaps that is why I'm still here--I'm still vitally interested.

As I examine and evaluate my career in the arts, I can see several watershed moments where everything changed for me. First was the moment during my undergraduate days when I encountered art that had nothing to do with any art I previously recognized.

I was in the art studios of the University of Washington, patiently and painfully learning to solder. I discovered that art now included a performance piece consisting of an artist getting shot in a gallery. I was alarmed – what, I inwardly screamed, did that mean? What is art, and what am I doing here?

At that moment I knew the artistic ground would constantly shift and I could not formulate a comfortable definition that would sustain me for the rest of my professional life. There was a lot more going on than I had ever imagined! The art of the world was not reducible to a set of rules. That humbling moment--that moment of conceptual leap that lets us know we are in the game but that the rules will always be changing--is a critical part of our education.

Art was, is, and ever will be changing in response to events in the world. That realization made me a student of history, politics and philosophy in earnest. I was no longer studying to get an "A" on a test; rather, I was absorbing information as if my career depended on it.

My first years in teaching once again challenged everything I took for granted. Early in my tenure at Ball State, the School of Art hosted a visiting artist – a designer from Switzerland. He and I team-taught a foundations class; it was somewhat like Einstein team-teaching physics with a math freshman! However, he was patient in his approach and generous with his knowledge. His first design assignment for the class consisted of spending weeks cutting and folding 4" x 4" black paper squares, finding every possible variation using four cuts and two folds. I was ready for that epiphany; I soon understood that the development of a discerning eye was an important part of seeing and making. I became a student of connoisseurship.

I am now struggling to master new digital information. When I began my teaching career, the idea of personal computers was considered science fiction. I have witnessed a digital revolution as powerful and profound as any other great technological revolution. I struggle with keyboard commands just like a first-time metals student struggles with soldering (which I ultimately mastered).

I am a striving and occasionally failing student of logic, math and learning theory. Thankfully, the struggle never ends. How will art be defined in your professional lifetime? You will write that new definition, and I'm glad of it!