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IUP professor, students make for artful showing

Wednesday, June 17, 1998

By Mary Thomas

"Pull! Pull!" Indiana University of Pennsylvania professor James Nestor commands as he wedges his shoe against the base of a horizontal 16-foot metal pole and joins six students tugging a rope in counterbalance to raise it. As the pole lifts, large wide panels that resemble some absurdist propeller attached to the top heave menacingly.

"Kat, get over here, we need some more weight!" he calls, and recent graduate Kat Skraba, who's just told me she'd help except that she has open sandals on, runs across the grass and grabs the rope. I freeze momentarily, see the pole sway, drop my papers and run. The team effort succeeds and Nat Hayward secures his potentially lethal sculpture.

Nestor and I had agreed to meet at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, and finding his students there was serendipity but typical. Hayward and Skraba were installing their pieces for the July Society of Sculptors show. Recently, Nestor's students have been popping up like mushrooms after a rain wherever there's a sculpture competition.

I first became aware of them at Aliquippa's annual summer arts festival in 1996 where their fanciful installations turned a second floor of an old building into a place of discovery.

Last year they again brought brazen expression to Aliquippa, and this year Skraba is the artistic coordinator of the event.

Nestor's current and former students represent more than one quarter of the entries in the juried sculpture exhibition of the Three Rivers Arts Festival this year. Almost every work in the Wintergarden that isn't on a pedestal, observed student Eric Stern, came from IUP. Stern is, by the way, co-coordinator of the juried visual arts for the festival this year, as well as an exhibitor in the sculpture and two-dimensional categories.

Nestor's students have frequently exhibited and interned at the festival. And they were instrumental in the creation of one of its most memorable past works, "Another Kind of Growth," by artist Nancy Rubins. Rubins heaped 20th-century debris, including an old trailer and appliances, into an untidy column that pushed up through the trees of Point State Park to make a statement about waste and consumption.

So what is it about this instructor and this school and these students?

"It's a phenomenon," Nestor agrees. "It's been going on for a number of generations of these individuals. I have terrific respect for them."

That respect appears to be mutual, although one intuits that at times it's a concession that comes after struggle.

Norman Ed, who did graduate work at IUP and whose "Tricycle" is at the Wintergarden, says Nestor demands a lot from his students but can get away with it because he, too, works hard. "There's an authority that comes from that level of accountability and responsibility." Ed feels the IUP work has "an inner grace and an elegance that comes out of [the students'] sureness of what [they're] about."

That self-confidence comes across in the variety of approaches they take to their work. While they share an inventive redefinition and occupation of space, there's no rubber-stamping that makes these sculptors read like Nestor-clones.

Other IUP sculptures range from Jason Burgess' formally strong yet delicate "Progressive End" to Jill Feagley's raw "Defenseless," Stephen Neff's stately abstract "Untitled" work to Angela Genesi's suggestive "Birth."

Wade Kramm, whose entry was a high point of the 1997 juried exhibition, was awarded Best of Show this year for three cleanly conceptual pieces. The recent graduate will continue study at the Rhode Island School of Design in the fall.

Leanne Rosso received the Festival Award for the cryptic "Untitled." Other work includes Christopher Taylor's fine small "Calander," the expansive "The House that Jack Built" by David Rozzi and Christina Andersen's "Blue Sees Blue, Green Sees."

Nestor's own work, "Dialogue," is sobering in the implications cast by the play between title and the Janus-headed figure isolated by panels from an empty chair.

Stern's philosophic "Deliverance (A New Year's Romp)," a piece that curiously mixes minimalism and kitsch to point out the paradoxes of "WANT," has been purchased and he's delighted. "It's a real honor when people take that kind of interest and want to live with [your work]."

His take on Nestor's effectiveness is that "he's a brilliant professor. But [that's] because he's an artist first, and he always brings that to the table. It's very existential. He lays it all out on the table for you.

"He makes everything seem extremely important. If you take it to heart, it's an incredibly difficult but inspiring message. He tells you you can't be a slacker - just make things in your studio and hope people come by and see you. You've got to submit to shows. It's a very persuasive message that you don't always like to hear, but you have to."

As for Nestor, the message is about living the art.

"I see myself as an artist, and I have to keep going. You have to be a practitioner to ask others to be involved. I enjoy the prodding of the students' fresh perspectives; it keeps you from becoming stale. Creating is really an important aspect of being alive. I don't care what people do after school, but I want them to have a full and active life.

"I don't give them closure. I give them endless possibilities."

Mary Thomas covers art for the Post-Gazette.

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