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Nathan Cox: Sculptor/Animator/Theologian

What do you do when you have a bachelor's in Theology, a penchant for Norse Mythology and a desire to create?  You get your MFA of course.  That's what Nathan Cox did at least.  A native of Chicago, IL Cox believes having as much of his hand in his work as possible.  The ability to create something by hand is an incredibly important aspect to the process of creation with  Cox.  

To see more of Nathan's Video Work CLICK HERE.

Sitting in front of one of his animations, Cox, prefers the layers of mythology that evolve within his pieces as well crafting the pieces that perform in the animations.  Photo © Aimee Santos

You have a background in Theology. Can you elaborate a little on what prompted that path and how you feel it has contributed to  your art practice?

I spent a lot of my childhood and adolescence in pretty close proximity to religion, but I'd say that as an undergrad my approach shifted from a practical one to an academic one.  I took a few courses from the religion department as electives, and at the time I was, for the most part, interested in understanding that part of my formative environment a little more clearly.  It dawned on me within a couple years that I wasn't able to be a believer anymore, but was still fascinated by the mechanics and the trajectories of the types of thought that I'd been studying, so I ended up taking religion as a major.  An aversion to Calculus and Geochemistry also had a say in the matter

'The Mountain King' Cast Iron, Steel Rings, Sunlight.  12"x10"x8" 2013. Photo © Nathan Cox

'Kronos' Cast Iron, Steel, Patricide, 8"x6.5"x4.5" 2014. Photo © Nathan Cox

'Loki' Cast Iron, Steel, Wood, Mischief.  18"x12"12". 2012. Photo © Nathan Cox

'The Storyteller' Performance,  2012.  Photo © Aimee Santos

As far as my art practice goes, I'd say that aside from the subject matter and source material of the pieces I produce, the practice of theology has been a major influence on what I do in the studio.  There's a certain image of the late antique, or medieval, monk toiling away at some lonely retreat in pursuit of some form of higher understanding that's always been very intriguing for me.  Being a socially awkward guy, maybe I'm just naturally inclined to chase an hermitic (or, in more general terms, ascetic) ideal, and even though I don't consider myself a man of faith anymore I'd like to think that I'm somehow involved in the same tradition.  That's what I've been telling myself, anyway.

Nathan Cox in front of a portion of the set from "Two Saints and a Philosopher Walk Into a Funeral Parlor" Live-action puppet film 2014.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Death is a concept you have explored a few times in various forms.  Can you explain why you are drawn to this subject matter?

The easy answer here is that death is unavoidable.  It's one of the few experiences (maybe the only one) that are truly universal, so it's a subject that concerns everyone, and (by extension) gives the audience a built-in entry point for much of my work.  Being part of a culture that takes such great pains to keep death (and the dead) at a distance, I tend to take a rather flippant approach, and I take some satisfaction in knowing that if I do my job properly I can trick people into being a part of that conversation.  On a more personal level, since I've recently parted ways with my own religious upbringing, my studio practice is a way for me to process the concept without the safety net that I used to have and learn to be more comfortable with the inevitable.

"Two Saints and a Philosopher Walk Into a Funeral Parlor"  (still) Live-action puppet film 2014.  Photo © Nathan Cox

Safety first. Cox wears this very standard safety gear to create his sculptures.  Photo © Aimee Santos

You transitioned into Animation while in Graduate School at San Jose State University from a purely sculptural practice.  What was the catalyst that started you on this path?

I can't rightly say that I've ever had a purely sculptural practice.  Not many people have seen examples from my portfolio before graduate school, but painting, drawing and performance have always made up a large part of what I've done in the studio.  As far as cinema goes, I've been involved since I was in high school, and it was actually film-making (specifically scenic design and special effects) that got me interested in the fine arts in the first place.  One of the reasons I was drawn to San Jose State University was the sculptural facilities available in the department (which I wasn't able to access as an undergrad), so I spent my first three semesters getting myself acquainted with as many of these processes and techniques as I could.  I eventually came to the point where the narratives I was working with couldn't really be shoehorned into a single sculptural presentation, at least not with the resources that were available to me as an impoverished student, so I decided to start experimenting with film.  It seems to have stuck.

"Bogerman" Wood, Rope, Fabric, Terror.  13” x 9” x 15” 2014.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Has Animation given you a greater level of freedom towards the possibilities of creation with your concepts?

Even if I'm working in another medium, I've always approached my practice in the way that a filmmaker would (plot and character development, story-boarding, design, etc.), so the transition felt completely natural to me.  As I mentioned earlier, I tend to work with fairly involved narrative arcs, so in the absence of a large budget and free reign over a presentation space, film is a more efficient way to represent whatever universe is floating around inside my head.  Staying with efficiency for a moment, I've also found that even with a captive audience (a class critique, for example) there's a relatively small window of opportunity for getting my point across, and viewers seem much more likely to invest in the work when they can see the narrative environment developing in real-time (rather than piecing it together after the fact).  Beyond that, I'm of the opinion that film (or any time-based visual medium, for that matter) is a little more hospitable toward my particular brand of humor.  I tend to lean in the direction of deadpan delivery, which (as you can imagine) can be pretty difficult to pull off in a more static format, especially the way I do it.  And, since we're somewhat accustomed to viewing puppetry, animation and B-Movies as funny by nature, my film work seems inherently saner than the rest.

"Rest Stop for the Lost Souls of Latvia," Salvaged utility poles, salvaged lumber, steel hardware, paint, spiritual compassion.  2013

Last summer you did a residency overseas.  What did you learn about that experience that you applied to your work in some way?

I went off on a bit of a tangent during the residency (as if I wouldn't normally indulge in such a thing), but in the end I was able to learn some valuable lessons from the experience.  As is the case with my film work, the most important ideas I developed were concerned with efficiency of story-telling.  My practice has always depended very heavily on words (both written and spoken), so I knew going in that my primary challenge was going to be learning how to make the piece work in an environment (a small town in Latvia) where a language barrier was going to exist for many of the viewers.  I've also grown accustomed to spending anywhere from a few months to a year-and-a-half working on pieces that shown for a few weeks (at the most), so learning how to design and fabricate a piece for permanent public display in two weeks became absolutely critical.  I can probably summarize it best as an exercise in distillation.  More than anything else, I needed to shift my focus from verbal or written elements to purely visual ones (though I'll never pretend that any category is exclusive of the others), as well as come up with something that could be efficiently and safely produced and installed in a very short amount of time.