by Hailey Helms
photography by Kayla Salas
In his academic field, Mark Nelson, professor of chemistry at the University of La Verne, deals with the composition, structure, and properties of substances and with the transformations that they undergo. In the art world, it could arguably be said he does the same, as he transforms pieces of glass into prize winning exhibits that regularly win “Best of Show” recognition at the Los Angeles County Fair. His talent does not just include stained glass. Photography is way up there in his creative soul.
Mark says building these shards of glass into stunning pieces is a form of self-therapy and can heal where one is damaged and can give the power to satisfy one’s soul. “I strongly believe being exposed to art and involved with it can impact your mental and physical state of being. A creative outlet enables one to grow, to look at the world through another lens, and appreciate what you see. It is good for your soul,” he says.
Mark describes his mind being focused while creating masterpieces out of glass but shares that his subconscious mind is constantly going and chipping away at the other things that may be on his mind. “I am able to gain clarity on the other things in my life when I’m working on my art. For example, when I’m working on a challenging portion of building a stained glass window, I come away relaxed, rejuvenated, energized, and with a wonderful feeling of self-satisfaction.”
The professor found the stained glass medium in 2009 when he enrolled in a stained glass art class. He recounts that he became fascinated by what artists were capable of creating out of glass shards. He realized that stained glass allows him to give creative expression to life. He has been creating and building stained glass windows ever since that first life-changing lesson. He describes creating stained glass windows as both relaxing and challenging. “Once it is complete, I have a great sense of self-satisfaction. I enjoy all aspects of the processes of creating and building the windows, though choosing the glass with the color and texture I am envisioning is one of the most difficult challenges for me. Fortunately, my wife helps me a lot with choosing colors/textures for my pieces.” Some of his glass art is based on geometric patterns and are highly symmetric. A few of his windows have the look of Celtic knots incorporated into them.
It is one thing to create but another to share your art with the world and to be judged as being outstanding by your peers. Mark has entered his stained glass windows into the Los Angeles County Fair six times and has earned five “Best of Show” and one “Judges’ Award.” Modest Fair cash prize awards accompany the recognition. He has applied the $165 award money to purchase art supplies. Often, he donates the money to the ULV Chemistry Department.
His work is created in his home. “I have a space at home that I can work on my stained glass. Most of the time I am by myself, or my dog hangs out with me. I typically have some type of music in the background.” His recent choice of music is Elton John.
Fortunate are those who discover their passions at some point in their lives, and Mark discovered his love for art at a young age. But photography came first. When Mark was a young child in the 1960s, his parents gifted him his first camera, a hand me down Kodak, which he says was an extreme privilege given that his family was not financially wealthy. He shoot only black and white film, attempting to capture life’s moments on film. During the long, hot summers, Mark enrolled in summer school photography classes gaining skills that included darkroom development of his film and photos. He recalls at age 12 traveling through the Grand Canyon with his parents, where he experienced his first opportunity to shoot in color, describing it as if it was a phenomenal privilege. “Since I knew there was a cost for every shot, I gave a lot of thought about what I was attempting to capture before I ever took a shot.”
Current day, Mark travels to Alaska every summer with his cameras to capture jaw-dropping moments of wild life including grizzly and black bears, caribou, moose, puffins, sea otters, harbor seals, eagles as well as photographing alluring landscape images. His passion radiating off of him as he says every individual deserves to see the jaw-dropping sunsets within the Alaska sky, the rainbows that suddenly arise, and how the clouds and snow on the very tip of the large mountains have the ability to scroll fascinating pinks and purples. “I feel so small in the vast spaces of Alaska,” Mark says. “It is quite a humbling experience, and I find the experience very peaceful, so much so that I want to share it and my feelings with others through the images I capture. It simply takes my breath away. We are so blessed in this country to have so many wonderful and beautiful places to visit, explore and experience.”
Despite how others might label him, Mark says he does not view himself as an artist, but that he simply just enjoys photography and creating colorful masterpieces out of glass. He adds that his true passion lies within wildlife and nature. “For me, it is about the light, contrast, and most importantly the subject. And then I do my best to capture and share this moment with others via a photograph. I feel that if I focus on the subject and how I can best get a glimpse of it in a fleeting moment of time, and if I am passionate about the pursuit, then all of the other things, like light balance and composition, will take care of themselves.”
As a chemist, he enjoys the research that goes into a photograph, along with determining what to shoot as well as where and when. However, in the end, it is just about the feeling he receives from his art as well as the feelings he can provide to others. “Ultimately, my goal is to share this moment with others.”
Mark was originally hired as a chemistry professor at the University of La Verne in 1989, but his talent for financial modeling led La Verne’s administrators to ask him to serve as assistant to the president (2000-2007) and assistant vice president for Academic Affairs (2007-2009). He has now returned to his role as professor of chemistry, where he shapes the academic lives of his students. He holds a strong belief that teaching students at the University of La Verne is his calling.
His academic interests include Introduction to Chemistry, General Chemistry II and lab, Analytical Chemistry I and lab (quantitative analysis), Instrumental Analysis and lab (analytical chemistry II), Physical Chemistry I (thermodynamics), as well as co-teaching Chemistry Seminar to aspiring student chemists. He is known for involving and joining his senior students in their unique and educational research projects, which gives them the edge to thrive in the professional science field. Among their varied senior projects, some have studied the growth morphology of very thin metal layers on a silicon crystal and analyzed soil samples for heavy metal and metal concentrations. The opportunity is there for his students to analyze soil samples collected in Montana, close to the research station the University owns in Drummond, Montana.
He strives to provide dynamic demonstrations to his students. “If in class we are talking about the impact of increases or decreases in pressure, then how can I visually show the concepts to students? It takes a lot of time to develop something that has the visual impact I am looking for and is safe to do in a classroom setting,” Mark shares.
He says he cherishes his time mentoring chemistry students grow and mature during their four years at ULV and enjoys assisting them through challenging situations. “It is great to watch a student persist and grow, to do what they need to in order to achieve a goal, and to watch them succeed in life,” Mark says. “I guess I made the decision that fit me well because after 30 years I am still in the classroom having a positive impact on the lives of my students and helping them achieve their goals,” he says, adding, “I know I have had a positive effect on many students over the years. I would venture to guess that many faculty and staff have done the same. It is our nature to help others. Over time, I have heard from past students who tell me how I positively impacted their life through conversations, advice or simply listening. In the end, I am very happy I was in a position to give them assistance.”
Chemistry can seem intimidating, but according to many students, Mark has the ability to demolish that stereotype by simply being Mark. “Professor Nelson is extremely knowledgeable and approachable,” Janelle Pedroza, senior biology major says, adding, “and has the ability to brighten up the classroom to make a difficult subject like chemistry enjoyable.”
He has served as a career guide to his students. “A couple of years ago, a senior chemistry major was in my classes that year and worked with me on their senior project. I could tell his heart was not in it. I am not sure how it came up, but he confided in me that it was not his idea to major in chemistry. He was in a family where it is common to have the parents/elders decide what children would take in school and/or do with their life. After we talked for some time, I showed him that he could use his major to accomplish his goal.” He proudly shares that this particular student has kept him posted since graduation and has said how thankful he is for Mark’s continuous help throughout his academic journey. The alumnus is currently in a master’s program.
“I am very fortunate to be at this point in my life where I have the opportunity to spend my time on a creative process like stained glass art,” he says, adding, “I am also quite fortunate to be able to create the opportunities for photography. Most of all, I am fortunate to have a wife who supports me in these ventures. She understands that it is good for all of us to pursue our interests and passions.”
As for his passion for stained glass and photography, Mark Nelson is excited about his future. “With retirement coming soon, I will have more time to spend with family and friends, to work on my art, and to have some new adventures and experiences.” ■