One of Jim's drawings exhibited at MCAD over the summer.
One of Jim's drawings exhibited at MCAD over the summer.

Catching up with Jim Nelson, a lifelong artist who took classes here in the 1950s and continues his love for art today, having exhibited drawings at MCAD just this past summer.

Professor Lynda Monick-Isenberg has been a force of education-inspired work here at MCAD. She spearheads the teaching artist minor and is interim chair of the Fine Arts Department. In addition to all of the work she does for the school and its students, she is also a co-founder of the Drawing Project, along with Shannon Brunette.

MCAD Professor Lynda Monick-Isenberg 

“The Drawing Project aims to collaborate, encourage, and engage diverse local and global perspectives on contemporary drawing through nomadic workshops and classes.”

Over the summer, Lynda and the Drawing Project teamed up with Common Bond Senior Housing-Riverview and EngAGE to offer drawing lessons and supplies to older adults who were interested in drawing. Among the participants was Jim Nelson, a photographer who had attended MCAD back in the 1950s. He has had a long and fruitful career in many fields, including but not limited to photography, track and field, and filmmaking. I got to sit down and talk with Jim about his time at MCAD and several other interesting parts of his creativity-filled life.

Jim Nelson with his dog at Common Bond Senior Housing-Riverview

It's nice to meet you, Jim! What do you remember about your time at MCAD?

I was going to the University of Minnesota and Augsburg University simultaneously back in the mid-1950s and I was trying to find a curriculum that would work for me. I interviewed at MCAD and ended up taking night courses there for three years. In fact, my neighbor Don Zwernick* was a professor at MCAD. He was in charge of the 3D Shop back then, and was also a professor. He knew about my interest in filmmaking—that was my primary interest in those days—so, we ended up making a film together of one of his modernistic sculptures; it was a story of the sculpture. 

What were you studying at the University of Minnesota and Augsburg?

They had a two-year program just for general studies, that was what I was doing there at the time. And then I started taking night courses at MCAD because I had a family to support, and the only way I could go to school was to go at night. It was a real hassle getting to class since I was working full-time and going to school full time. It’s always a grind, as I’m sure students these days know, too.

Do you remember any of the classes that you took at MCAD?

I remember taking a figure drawing class in the Morrison Building with a professor, Walter Quirt. When I took that course from him he was ranked as one of the top twenty-five American artists. He was an older, feisty little guy. I liked him, and you know these people that paint nudes are unusual people, you know.

Jim's Drawing

Did you have any other creative interests?

I was always more interested in photography, and then I got into cinematography. I think I made around ten or twelve short movies while at MCAD on a variety of topics. One of them was Don’s sculpture, which was challenging because he had some modernistic ideas about it. It was fun working with him because we got along together fine. My mode of operation was to ask him what he wanted to do with this scene or this particular point of view or angle, and then he would tell me and I would try to do what he wanted to be done. We couldn’t always do it because the lenses had physical limitations, and only part of the field of range was in focus and clear. Lenses can be difficult to operate when you’re doing close-up work, and we were doing close-up work.

I worked independently and I was also in a photography club in the city, which was made up of a membership of rich doctors. Their hobby was photography and they got into photography because they took all these exotic trips and they wanted to record their trips and bring it back and share it with their friends. So, I ended up working with a few of those doctors on projects and such, in fact one of them became a good friend of mine.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your life?

My dogs have been a big part of my life. I had an exhibition of photographs that I made of my dogs back in 2008 at the Medica Skyway Senior Center in Minneapolis. 

"Jim taught dog school for ten years, was named photographer of the year in 1984 by the Minnesota Nature Photography Club, and has exhibited at the Bell Museum. He is listed in Who’s Who in motion picture photography by the Photographic Society of America. The exhibit focuses on Thor (Doberman pinscher), Tokaji (Golden Retriever), Gina (Italian sheepdog/Border Collie) and Gracie (Labrador Retriever). The latter three are certified service dogs covered by the federal American Disability Act (ADA) of 1990. Gina and Gracie are both 12 canine years old (anthropomorphically 75 years). In 2007, they logged 1537 miles (4.21 miles average every day) wiith Jim strolling and brisk walking the trails near Lake Nokomis."

-Excerpt from Rev. Jim Nelson’s Four Great Dogs photographic exhibit didactic

Jim with his work from The Drawing Project at MCAD

After several weeks of drawing classes with Lynda and Shannon, Jim and his peers' drawings were installed in the exhibition Crossing the Line at MCAD over the summer.

It is never too late to learn to draw; there is never a time too late to have a desire to make our mark(s)!” –Description of Crossing the Line

Jim's drawings on the wall at MCAD 

After listening to Jim reminiscence about his years at MCAD and the things that he's done since then, it was cool to see that while you can start out by majoring in something specific at MCAD, you might end up doing something you never thought you would (or could) do. Exploring all of your interests and taking advantage of every opportunity that passes by (like the Drawing Project for Jim), can lead you through doors and down paths that you might not have considered before. Living life this way will not only keep things fresh and interesting, it will also create memories worth having and revisiting in the future. 


*The late Don Zwernick was an artist, builder, teacher, problem-solver, and a committed family man who served in the army before becoming an MCAD professor and then head of the college's 3D Department. "He was a master woodworker who preceded all of us in his tenure at MCAD (pre-1973), and was, as Dean put it, ‘a genuinely good guy,’” says Fine Arts Professor Brad Jirka.