If you take a stroll around Clemson, you are no doubt familiar with the beautiful sculptures throughout the campus. What you may not know is that many of these pieces are the creation of two artists with a long history at Clemson. You can learn all about it at a new exhibit in the Brooks Center Lobby entitled “Discovering the Clemson Story through Art and Design,” on display now through Friday, December 8.

Trina Dixon and Jim Nelson

Artists T.J. Dixon and Jim Nelson stand with their latest sculpture, Spirit of the Tiger, before it assembled in Clemson. Dixon and Nelson are responsible for many pieces of public art across Clemson’s campus.
Image Credit: T.J. Dixon and Jim Nelson

California-based artistic team of T.J. Dixon and Jim Nelson have crafted some of the most breathtaking spaces on campus over more than two and a half decades. “In 1991 Campus Master Planner, Gerald Vander Mey, invited us to work on the concept of a project for the Class of 1944,” they write in their artist statement. “That was 25 years ago! We were all so young and Gerald was just beginning to develop what would become a rather incredible vision for the planning of every project on Clemson University Campus. Of course, that vision would start to develop a policy that eventually included all new art elements and landscape projects on campus.”

That project, situated in front of Mell Hall, grew out of conversations Dixon had with Clemson alumni who were World War II veterans. Their sculpture is of a student sitting back-to-back with a soldier version of himself. The quote that marks this sculpture was drawn from one alumnus’s powerful description of the sudden, life-changing experience of the Second World War: “How can I make you understand? We were boys, mere boys, and then there was war and half of us were dead or wounded.”

“Over the ensuing years,” Dixon and Nelson write, “we were joined by an even younger Barry Anderson in the Campus Planning Office and between the four of us developed an extraordinary collaboration process of landscape design and art development that has become a defining force in all of the 10 major green spaces we have designed together throughout campus. The focus of the policy that drives each and every one of these proposals is that, first and foremost, each project must ‘add to the Clemson Story.’ Furthermore, each of these experiences should help cultivate the minds of Clemson students and provide another level of meaning to the landscape of Clemson University.”

Susan Kaplar, business manager for the School of the Arts and an art student at Clemson, was instrumental in making this exhibit a reality in association with the Center for Visual Arts on campus. “While I was working on the financial aspects of the Spirit of the Tiger Sculpture installation, I discovered that the same designers/sculptors created other pieces of art on campus, and the first work was completed 25 years ago,” she said. “Seemed like a reason to celebrate and tell others about this long working relationship.”

She appreciated the fact that each of Dixon and Nelson’s works not only illuminates a piece of Clemson history, but also has an interesting path to completion. “Each piece has a multi-faceted story behind it, and I do like for the stories to be told,” Kaplar said. “Whether it comes from the first inkling of inspiration or the giant light bulb that goes off after visiting the installation spot – the process of each sculpture is a story in itself. The idea of bringing these stories to people who come to this campus every single day really motivated me to share it.”

Working in this capacity has given her an even greater appreciation for the artists’ work. “When I met T.J. and Jim,” she said, “each piece became more real and meaningful. One of my favorites is the Military Heritage Plaza. There are so many features, and I’m sure most people don’t realize how large it really is.”

This exhibit, which consists of panels with photos, blueprints, and descriptions of each piece, differs from the many previous exhibits that Kaplar has spearheaded. Not only has she coordinated with the artists to put together this exhibit, she has talked with Barry Anderson about the role Clemson’s Planning and Design department had in making these pieces a reality. Since the actual pieces themselves will obviously not be on display in the lobby, this exhibit will be “as much about the planning and process as it is about the final pieces.”

Class of 1944 Sculpture

The Class of 1944 project was the first undertaken at Clemson by Dixon and Nelson.
Image Credit: T.J. Dixon and Jim Nelson

Kaplar hopes the exhibit will encourage visitors to experience the works throughout campus for themselves. “I hope each person will walk around campus and visit them, or when they run across them in the future, remember the details they read and take a moment to pause and think about why the memorial was created,” she said. Kaplar invites the public to an artist talk and reception with Dixon and Nelson on Wednesday, November 1, at 5:30 pm in the Brooks Center Lobby. The artists will talk about their work and process in this exciting conversation.