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Art, collaboration, conversation

By Claire Carlson '12
September 12, 2011

Anders Nienstaedt '12 (left) and James Wilson '12 spent much of their summer in the Dittmann woodworking shop. "We tried wood-bending, different finishes, even lighting things on fire," says Nienstaedt. "A lot of the experiments didn't work out, but some took us and the pieces in completely new directions." 

Anders Nienstaedt '12 and James Wilson '12 lived any aspiring artist's dream this summer: they were paid to work full-time on pieces for an established artist's show.

As part of St. Olaf's Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program, Nienstaedt and Wilson collaborated with Professor of Art Wendell Arneson to develop three-dimensional pieces for his upcoming retrospective show. Titled Back and Forth: A Transformative Journey, the exhibit will display an array of Arneson's paintings from the last 20 years of his work.

Indirect interpretation
After touring Arneson's studio and talking with him about his ideas and inspiration, Nienstaedt and Wilson began creating mockette sculptures made from cardboard, toothpicks, and other small materials. As they moved forward, they chose wood for their final designs, noticing that the organic medium matched nicely with Arneson's aesthetic.

Both Wilson and Nienstaedt came to the project with woodworking skills, and this experience allowed them to get creative. "We experimented almost constantly," says Nienstaedt. "We tried wood-bending, different finishes, even lighting things on fire. A lot of the experiments didn't work out, but some took us and the pieces in completely new directions." 

While the students drew inspiration from Arneson's paintings, their creations were by no means direct translations of his work. "They responded to marks, gestures, and textures of paint, not just the images in my work," says Arneson. "It was really interesting to see how they made those segues."

Throughout the summer, Arneson met with the students about three times a week, stopping by the studio for a half hour to chat about their progress and ideas. He was intentional about giving them time and space to work on their art together, not wanting to interfere with their own ideas and creativity.

The collaborative process
The project was unique in that two artists collaborated on all of the pieces of work. This teamwork necessitated a lot of communication about the process, as well as articulation of ideas and general vision. From this necessity to communicate with one another, the students also learned about their own ideas and artistic thought processes.
Detail of a sculpture by Nienstaedt and Wilson.
"James, Wendell, and I talked about the ways in which we were engaging in an artistic conversation ― with each other, with Wendell's paintings, with the sculptures ― and how each one of us could grow and change from the experience," says Nienstaedt.    

Wilson learned that this type of partnership called for a balanced verbal conversation. "I found that if we didn't talk enough we would lose track of what each of us were thinking and go on tangents away from a cohesive product," says Wilson. "On the other hand, if we talked too much, neither of us felt like we were influencing the piece."

Retrospective results
Nienstaedt and Wilson found this balance, creating pieces that were cohesive, yet maintained individual marks and signatures of each artist. Inspired by their collaboration, Arneson created once last painting for the show that referenced the students' 3-D work. "Whoever interacts with the show will see the connections, but also pause and wonder," says Arneson. "It's not always obvious, and that's what makes it really interesting."

The retrospective will run from September 16 to October 23 in the Flaten Museum of Dittmann Center.

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or