In his studio at the Williams Visual Arts Building, Nestor Gil is seated in front of a window typing furiously on a laptop as the Bushkill Creek drifts past his view on a bright December day.
“I’m writing semester evaluations for my students,” explains Gil, assistant professor of art. “It’s something my professors did for me as an undergrad at the New College of Florida where we had a pass/fail policy. With letter grades there’s no context. What does a B really mean? I like context.”
Take for example the inflatable elephants that students in his Dynamics of Sculpture class created from sheets of clear plastic and installed in the lobby of Farinon College Center this semester. Without the whoosh of air from a fan, the mother and baby elephants are puddles of stitched plastic, formless intentions. Breath brings the sculptures to life, and their weight defies scale as they bulge and float, trunks wagging midflight while engaging passersby with the unexpectedness of it all.
“I can’t believe it happened,” he says as students position the balloon-carrying baby just out of its mother’s grasp. “This makes me laugh so much. It’s ridiculous. It’s an elephant. These things weigh so much.”
“But they don’t,” notes Jon Cohn ’12 (Allentown, Pa.), a philosophy major.
“Exactly,” says Gil, who joined Lafayette in the fall of 2011 after teaching at Bowdoin College in Maine for two years.
Although he is quick to credit his students for pulling off an incredibly complex installation through creative problem-solving and collaboration, the project is pure Gil, a journey of whimsy and imagination infused with meaning and metaphor and it captures his essence far better than a resuscitation of his dossier. Yes, he is a teacher, poet, sculptor, activist and performance artist, but those titles are just signposts of identity. This is a man who not only brings life to art but lives it.
Consider the tattooed etchings of his children’s names that peak out on his forearms from a tweed blazer acquired, he’s happy to reveal, at a thrift shop. His son is named Sol, meaning “sun” or “shining light” in Spanish, and his daughter goes by Harvest, a nod to the idiom of reaping what one sows.
Describing his work as “a crossroads between sculptural, new media, and social practices,” Gil not only toils in materials but ideas, the more absurd the better. His performance repertoire includes playing the character Vernon Twinburger, a bumbling politician with a bushy mustache who hands out balloons as a “historic event for the good of the world.” (“Vern” references the newness or immaturity of spring, and burger is the lowest grade of meat.) It’s not intended to mock the people Twinburger interacts with on the street, Gil says, but elected officials and the political process.
The creative process, however, is sacred, and woe to the student who misunderstands this exploration as a means to a grade.
“If you pursue art strictly for the accolades it undermines the process,” Gil says. “It’s fairly easy to make objects that people will like, but I want the semester to be a series of experiments. I want them to try something risky and dangerous. We want the dragons at the edge of the old map. We want something to eat us whole as we’re trying to find out what interests us. We’ll never know where the limits are unless we move past them.”
Boundaries are something Gil learned about while growing up in Jacksonville, Fla., the son of Cuban immigrants.
“It wasn’t the most welcoming community,” he says, particularly after the Mariel Boatlift in 1980 when more than 125,000 Cubans arrived in the U.S. almost overnight. “People would say, ‘You and your family with the loud music don’t belong here.’”
The Ku Klux Klan carried signs that read, “We love Cubans, as long as they’re in Cuba.” But Cuba, the island his parents identified as home, was off limits to him and his brothers and sisters. As a result, creating art that engages community and evokes ideas of “memories and identity” is important in Gil’s work today.
The second of five siblings, Gil came late to the academic world. During his 20s, he worked in the oil fields of Wyoming, at a half-way house in North Carolina, and at landscaped golf courses in Florida.
“When you do manual labor, you can give over all of your mental space to thinking about whatever you like,” he says. “You can write entire poems and songs while doing so-called mindless work.”
During this time, he submitted his poetry to literary journals and performed at poetry slams where he would move among the audience, often touching them on the shoulders and arms.
“It wasn’t revolutionary but it wasn’t conventional either,” he says. “I began to see it as much as performance art as spoken word.”
Eventually the road tracked home, and upon graduating in 2000 from New College with a bachelor’s degree in humanities, Gil began teaching English and creative writing to high school students, inmates, and youth in the Upward Bound program. In 2007, after staying home with his daughter for two years and teaching part-time so his wife, Brandi, could pursue a master’s degree in special education, Gil returned to the classroom and in 2009 earned a master’s of fine arts from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
By now he was incorporating the creation of objects with his affinity for words, a shift that coalesced during his stint as a stay-at-home dad and continued as a post-doctoral fellow at Bowdoin. There, he initiated a project called Know Their Names where 3,000 postage-paid postcards bearing the name of an Iraqi civilian killed since 2003 were distributed in American cities. People could use them to write a note to anyone in the U.S. Another project called Papalotes involved making 59 paper kites and inviting the community to fly them.
“My concern was not whether people got that the string suggested an umbilical cord that draws me to my late grandfather in Cuba, but that we created a new memory,” he says.
So what might Lafayette students expect from this new professor come spring? Get ready for New Media: Sculpture Against the Digital Horizon.
“It deals with the fact that we live a more mediated existence. We experience the world through a screen, via television or phone. And while those things have given us seemingly unlimited access, you’re also sitting in one place,” Gil says. “It’s the paradox of being more connected while being more isolated.”
It strikes at the heart of Gil’s personal and artistic journey, providing a bit of context to the life of a man who has found home through the nuanced lens of his own dreams.