“The artist must employ the symbols in use in his day and nation to convey his enlarged sense…” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

neilson_head_shot_2013You can take the boy out of Detroit but apparently you cannot take Detroit out of the boy. Born and raised in the industrial capital of the automotive empire, my work is an examination of the physical and conceptual imagery of a place and a time that acknowledges both the reality and myths of American culture.

Falling into two main areas of interest: sculpture and public art, the work shares a reliance on physicality, a utilization of materiality, and exploration of conceptual content. Both areas are concerned with the fantastic representation of the commonplace alongside iconic forms. I am interested in the “object” and how it can become imbued with meaning and content: How “things”, through the manipulation of scale, material, placement/site, and the juxtaposition of imagery and iconography can contain and express a narrative.

Content and meaning in my work comes from a personal and societal context, through the development, appropriation, and use of iconography. I am interested in what we as a culture choose as our icons and what this tells us about society: How we view ourselves and what we value.

I embrace and revel in our Western – and specifically American – culture. I choose elements and images from our shared culture and history including art, television, advertising, myths, tchotchkes, and the manufacturing process of our post-industrial economy. At some point all this imagery becomes interchangeable to me; there is little cultural value judgment made. It carries symbolic meaning and cultural connotations that I may usurp and thus utilize the associations and implications that we as a culture have already given these images, objects, and icons in an attempt to examine what this reveals about us.

Rob Neilson is the Frederick R. Layton Distinguished Professor of Art and Associate Professor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. Born and raised in Detroit, he received a BFA in Fine Arts from the College for Creative Studies. A professional artist since earning his MFA in sculpture from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Rob has exhibited his sculpture, installations, and drawings at galleries, museums, and alternative spaces nationally and internationally.

Neilson has created public art commissions throughout the United States, including projects in California, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Illinois, Michigan, Virginia, and North Carolina. In 2006 Rob completed a 6-month residency at the Kohler Arts/Industry program where he fabricated 54 iron castings for a public art project commissioned by the Los Angeles Metro Transit Authority.

Equal parts artist and educator, Rob has been a visiting artist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Virginia Tech University and Longwood University (Virginia), Dickinson College (Pennsylvania), Millikin University (Illinois) and California State University.

Visit Rob’s website to view more work. Click here.

Contact the gallery for availability at frankjuarez(at) 



Compassionate Manhole Covers

Appleton, Wisconsin


Click here to listen to Rob Neilson talk about how this project began.