Jay Nelson Carves Inner Space in the Outer Sunset

Jay Nelson, "The Golden Gate" (Electric Camper Car), 2009 (photo by Jack Halloway)

On Tuesday, April 19, a Google Street View car was spotted in the Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco. If the crew was lucky, it might have glimpsed San Francisco's most unique vehicle, an old, white hatchback that looks like a snail.

The Honda CRX with the distinctive wooden shell on the back belongs to Jay Nelson (Painting/Drawing 2004), artist and surfer. "I got the car for 200 bucks," he says. "I wanted to create a multifunctional work vehicle/camper. It became a kind of accidental artwork. Vehicles have no boundaries, so they can reach out and create an audience instead of needing the audience to come to them. When you build a house on the back of a car, everyone has an opinion about it, and it becomes a starting point for conversation." The vehicle (along with its owner) was featured on the cover of ReadyMade magazine earlier this year.

The Honda may be Nelson's most visible creation, but it's just one of a series of vehicles he's customized. He has augmented a Honda moped with a surfboard for a roof, modified a rowboat with a plywood canopy, and devised a wooden electric car that looks like an Airstream's eco cousin. Quite a range for a surfer whose favorite mode of transportation, a 1960s longboard, doesn't even have wheels.

Whether he's dropping in on an Ocean Beach wave or constructing tree houses (including one in Ukiah, commissioned by former CCA dean Larry Rinder, and another more recently in Bonny Doon, near Santa Cruz), Nelson's particular skill is the imaginative ability to tailor his surroundings. "I have made things totally from scratch. But taking something existing, like a car, and making it completely functional for me, that's really satisfying. That's something I really know how to do.

"A lot of the attraction to tree house building, for me, is needing to conform to the tree, needing to understand the tree. It makes for a really interesting and fun process. There's this thing that happens with making, where limited parameters actually force creativity. If someone told you write a story about anything you wanted, you would probably sit there for hours with no ideas. But if someone said to write a story about a talking oven, you would probably immediately come up with something interesting. A parallel to that is riding old boards. When we have limits, we have to compensate and force creativity."

Nelson's love for making stuff was inspired by his parents. "My dad was a USC physics professor and inventor, very self-sufficient, always working on projects at home. That had a big effect on me, because I do a lot of construction now. I'd help him with jobs around the house. My earliest memory is one time when he left the room for a minute and I cut my hand on a circular saw." Even Nelson's customized Honda had its roots in family holidays. "In 1985 we went to Europe and bought a Volkswagen Camper. My mom, who was a teacher of art and math, rigged up a Betamax with a TV plugged into the cigarette lighter. It was super cool. That vehicle was way ahead of its time. We traveled for a month, then shipped it home."

Many of Nelson's works straddle the "art" world and the "real" world. Whether he's thinking up non-art settings for his paintings or shaping plywood to make a tree house, this capable surfer is constantly alert for connections between creativity and ordinary life. He cites the wood sculptor J. B. Blunk as a current influence. "My wife (CCA alumna Rachel Kaye, also Painting/Drawing 2004) and I did an artist residency at Blunk's former house in Inverness, in Marin County. It was like living in an artwork. Even the doorknobs are made by hand. Totally inspirational. How do you do that much good work? During his whole adult life he was slowly creating his home, a merging of art and life."

Recently Nelson joined the CCA Alumni/Student Mentorship Program. "It's a good thing to link students with people working in the real world. When I was in school, there was nothing like this, so I was excited to hear about this program. Art school can be a bit insular."

During his own BFA years at CCA, he credits faculty member Linda Geary with having played the largest role in opening up the outside world. "I took three classes with her. She was like a mentor. I still kinda think of her like she's my teacher, although she's now my friend. She broke down the typical student-teacher relationship and that was really cool. She introduced me to people, and she is always aware of what’s going on outside the San Francisco art scene.

"At CCA I gained a really great community. I also developed a work ethic there. It broadened my view of art and exposed me to work I wouldn't otherwise have known about or been interested in."

Nelson is currently building a tree house for a family in Hawaii and working on a storefront on Valencia Street in San Francisco that will be an offshoot of the Mollusk Surf Shop in the outer Sunset District. "We're going to build the space into a submarine. Instead of a typical store setup, where there's a rack of clothes, a rack of surf boards, and so on, it's gonna be like a living room, but a living room in a submarine. Surfboards hanging from the rafters, porthole windows with a view onto underwater things. Somewhere between an artwork and a store and architecture. It's still a little up in the air."

The creative and commercial details may not be entirely fixed, but Jay Nelson isn't worried. After all, it's the kind of project that is made to order for him, with his artist's imagination and surfer's skills for improvisation.

Jay Nelson's artist page at Triple Base Gallery