‘Making things and building stuff’

Published 7:00 am Sunday, January 1, 2017

Sculpture becomes Nelson Grice’s passion–and avenue for connecting with students


Story by Grace Thornton

Photographs by Keith McCoy


Nelson Grice says he was kind of saved through art in high school.

“I was kind of a mess,” he said, “into a lot of stuff I shouldn’t have been. And this art teacher really just changed my life through her encouragement and seeing something in me that kind of validated who I was as a person.”

Nelson Grice holds a piece that is the "core" of a larger sculpture. This is an example of a work in progress featuring a baby face, a symbol of the child at the core of his work.

Nelson Grice holds a piece that is the “core” of a larger sculpture. This is an example of a work in progress featuring a baby face, a symbol of the child at the core of his work.

Grice had taken that class — a photography course — because, as a senior at Berry High School, he’d thought it would be an easy A.

“It was just a switch that went off,” he said.

And it changed the course of his life.

Grice went to the University of Montevallo to get a degree in photography, but when he got there, “if you’re getting a BA in fine arts, you have to do it all,” he said.

And when he got into sculpture, he knew he’s found his love.

“I’ve had my hands in clay since 1990, and I haven’t stopped,” he said. “Since then, I’ve done sculpture work almost every day of my life.”

And he’s using it to connect with students who might need a little extra hand, much like he did.

“When I did my bachelor’s, I decided I would go back to high school to connect with those kids who fall through the cracks who I think are like me, like I was in high school,” said Grice, a longtime visual arts teacher at Hoover High School. “I get a chance to really connect with those kids here in high school. I feel like I owe society a little something because a teacher changed my life.”

He loves “making things and building stuff,” and he loves being around teenagers, so his job is perfect, he said. The imagination of teenagers inspires him and his work.

And his sculptures have continued to evolve and grow with each passing class of students across his 21 years of teaching, Grice said. “I’m always learning something new.”

He paints. He does ceramics. And just recently, he got into bronze and won Best in Show in the Shelby County Art Council’s 8th Annual Adult Juried Art Show on Sept. 30.

The piece, called Storytime, beat out more than 100 pieces of art submitted by 25 other local artists. Forty-four of them were selected for the show and judged by Ted Metz, a retired University of Montevallo professor and artist.

“Storytime is about 80 pounds of bronze, and it’s about 30 inches tall,” Grice said.

The sculpture is a jester with a monkey face who’s “telling a story and he’s got this giraffe in his hands,” he said.

Monkeys and giraffes are recurring themes in Grice’s whimsical work, he said.

“Monkeys are fun. They are so close to human that you can do something comical with them,” he said. “When you put a human face on a sculpture, it takes on some other feeling. So I take the monkeys and put them in situations that are adult and human.”

And jesters are his signature subject. His sculptures are often kind of like self-portraits, he said.

“In this piece (Storytime), he’s sitting in a chair telling a story like a teacher would do,” Grice said. “He’s the jester, the one who always brings the comedy or entertainment into the king’s court.”

The pieces are always pointed in a humorous direction, “albeit dark at times,” he said. “I’ve had mixed comments over the years. Some people think it’s a bit too scary, others think it’s pretty sublime.”

His work has been shown widely on a number of occasions — most recently in Andre Kohn Fine Art gallery in Scottsdale, Ariz., and notably in a one-man show in New York in 2010.

Grice said he hopes that his pieces make people smile and laugh when they see them.

And the magazine Ceramics Monthly said people who encounter Grice’s work should “look a little closer” — if they do, they will “see that the work is about the child living on in the adult.”

Grice now has several children of his own in addition to the ones he teaches every day, but that only encourages him in indulging his own inner child in his art. He builds “custom Legos” and makes things with Lincoln Logs in order to exercise his imagination.

“Everything is fresh and new” that way, Grice said.

Mary Martin, who has displayed Grice’s art in her galleries in Charleston, S.C. and Naples, Fla., said there is “something magical in Nelson’s work.”

“It takes me to realms beyond. For those of you with vivid imaginations and a love of art, come in and spend some time with his unbelievable iconic pieces,” Martin writes on her website. “And then there is Nelson himself, a handsome unassuming loving family man, who is inspiring in many ways.”

For more information, visit www.nelsongriceart.com.