A visit to a major metropolitan museum usually includes a gallery filled with the busts of statesmen whose faces rarely attract more than a cursory glance. Touring the castles of Europe can make one’s eyes glaze over with the numerous, historical statues of family members and of heroes whose names hold little interest.
Contemporary and vernacular sculpture has waxed and waned with art lovers over the years, and has been more prevalent in public spaces where it is seen as part of the streetscape, or as significant and relevant to its environment.
Since the early 1970s, according to local artist Peter Nishanian, the popularity of modern sculpture has gradually increased as an accepted art form for one’s private space. Garden sculpture has proliferated as outdoor areas have become enhanced living spaces, where accessories are used as focal points or to define points of interest.
Fickle Design Trends
Elements long associated with industrial applications were showing up in design showrooms by the early 1970s, when polished stainless and brass lamps were the sleek and functional accessories for the sophisticated interior, and Nishanian was at the forefront of the revival.
“When I first started designing lamps and furniture in 1960, it was a bold move. By 1974, the interest in anything modern died — you couldn’t give it away,” he said.
There were many factors at work that effected the short-lived interest in contemporary materials. The gasoline embargo and the recession made the cost of materials prohibitive through the end of the decade.
Nishanian, a New York native who received his degree in industrial design from the Newark School of Fine Art, first worked in the automotive industry. In his first job with a design firm, he worked on projects for Packard-Studebaker, developing new models for automobiles. Working on another assignment for American Motors, his prototype for the front end of a 1956 Hudson was incorporated into the new model.
With the same firm, he designed 20-foot Century speed boats, six of which were sold to Saudi Arabia for inspecting the sultan’s caviar beds. Not all of the jobs were so glamorous — he also designed Eureka vacuum cleaners — but he had established a name for himself in his field.
In 1959, Nishanian left the firm. With two partners, he founded Delia, Stolaz and Nishanian, a furniture design and manufacturing company that, by 1965, had 65 employees and a 35,000-square-foot warehouse. Unfortunately, this was a period when trends in furniture design were influenced by the Mediterranean craze, so, according to Nishanian, “I was forced to design and build some really ugly furniture!”
The good news was that by 1974 the gaudy furniture was no longer popular and classical interiors were once again on the pages of design magazines. The bad news was the demise of the partnership and of the company in the aftermath of the dramatic change in decorating tastes.
New Direction for a New Yorker
Nishanian was stationed with the Army at Fort Gordon for two years after graduating from college and said he liked the South. By the 1970s, he was married to a Macon native, Barbara Barry, a fashion designer who had been bold enough to answer an ad in the men’s employment section of the New York Times for a design position with the firm her future husband had founded. Today she says, “I didn’t get the job, but I did get the vice-president.”
In 1977, they moved back to her hometown and her husband had the opportunity to indulge his long held interest in the applied arts. Although Nishanian paints, his best known works in Macon galleries are his angular, aerodynamic figures in metal and wood. He works and exhibits in a studio in the Mulberry Arts Exchange downtown, participates in exhibitions in local galleries and his work is available through the Macon Arts Alliance.
Painter Joe Adams and his wife, Evelyn, were early admirers of Nishanian’s work and have one favorite, a red lacquered sculpture in the living room of their new loft in downtown Macon that has moved with them several times since its purchase.
A small steel and wood piece displayed in the home of Al and Sue Bond is finished naturally and reflects the clean lines of forms that also must function, as they do in industrial design.
Nishanian’s work is found in the homes of numerous collectors, some of whom have purchased multiple pieces from the artist to complement their interiors and who look forward to future shows when Nishanian will introduce new creations. In addition to his studio work, he teaches drawing at the Mulberry Arts Exchange.
An Oregon Artist Brings His Talent to Macon
Like Nishanian, Jim Bodell moved to Macon from Oregon because he married a Maconite, Susan Long, a writer who has been involved in the arts and in the community since she moved here years ago.
Bodell has established himself in his adopted hometown as a sculptor whose most recent work is an interpretation of the administration building facade at Mercer University, which he installed in the lobby of Mercer’s medical school offices downtown. It is apparent he prefers working with large projects, for he also designed and built the new entrance to Tattnall Square Park.
When the Macon Arts Alliance invited Bodell to participate in an exhibition in its gallery on First Street, he did not have anything in his inventory small enough to display inside, prompting him to create a series titled “Diversity United,” symbolized by unbroken lines or welds in each piece. In his home, he has one of the series of circles rising sinuously from its base as if lured by a snake charmer.
Bodell’s sculptures are on substantial bases to support the dense metal from which he fabricates each piece. One of his series of burnished steel circles rests on a massive black granite base, which he had cut and polished particularly for this sculpture.
In James Caldwell’s living room, his large red pillar of circles stands on a pedestal in one corner, a complement to the contemporary paintings in the same room from other Macon artists, including Travis Hart and Joe Adams.
Bodell’s work with metal welding started with his job as a maintenance pipe fitter, which he did for six years after finishing college. However, he had always tinkered with artistic designs that could be adapted to metal. In his display cases are two small prototypes of ribbon folds, made in a white composite material many years ago, but never executed in steel. If he takes another break from his monumental commissions, one of Macon’s art galleries could be interested in a new series from a prolific sculptor.
Sculpture, like ceramics, has become mainstream in the array of accessories available for the home. Standing alone or paired with other collections, it can be a focal point of a room’s design or part of a collage of shapes, textures and colors that reflect the eclectic taste of the people who live there.