Layer by Layer—Creating a World on Canvas

In 2008, Steve Nissen was entering his 26th year of an extraordinary career as a professor of animal science at Iowa State. He was a renowned scientist who made key discoveries in understanding animal and human growth and metabolism. He was an entrepreneur who founded Metabolic Technologies, Inc., a company in the ISU Research Park that commercialized his patented research, focusing on nutritional supplements targeted at preventing muscle loss in the elderly and those suffering from disease. He was an inaugural co-director of the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

In 2000, he planted the first vines that would become the family-owned and operated Prairie Moon Winery and Vineyards in Ames. (This year, the Nissen family, led by son-in-law Elliot Thompson, opened a new business next door, the Alluvial Brewing Company.)

But in August 2008, a stroke paralyzed Nissen’s right side and took his speech. Over time, he has learned to walk with a brace and cane and to use his left hand for daily functions. He can speak a few phrases, but where his eloquence now is in his expressions, his eyes, the gestures of his left hand and, perhaps most vividly, through his art. In 2010, he took up painting. His work now adorns the walls of Prairie Moon and Alluvial.

On a recent visit, Steve’s wife, Holly, and daughter, Lyndsay, join him in his studio, a short walk from Steve and Holly’s home. It’s a small building built in a style reminiscent of former barns on the Iowa State campus.

Inside it is warm, inviting and redolent of paint. Large, medium and small paintings are stacked against the walls. He works on four or five canvases at a time. (“You may be the most prolific painter I know,” Lyndsay tells her father; she is an Iowa State graduate student in integrated studio arts.) The colors are often bold, thick and vibrant. When asked if there’s a technical name for Steve’s style of painting, Lyndsay says, “It’s called loading the brush. It’s fully loaded.” Steve smiles at her.

During the visit, Steve’s sense of humor is ever-present, as vital as it ever was. Holly and Lyndsay channel answers to questions that are posed, with Steve supplying his own phrases, agreements, endorsements, questions or nods.

“Painting is a pretty important part of his life,” says Holly. “He’s usually in the studio by 8 o’clock every morning. He’ll spend the mornings painting, come up to the house for lunch and then maybe come back to work another couple hours in the afternoon. He’s in the studio every day, unless he doesn’t feel well.”

Steven Nissen painting“I believe he paints three main subjects,” says Lyndsay. “One is very abstract, where he’s referencing scientific things, such as blood vessels or microscopic things that are blown up so big they almost become outerspacey. He tries to communicate certain things about his stroke through some of these. He paints people. He’s got a series of a lot of people and also individuals. Some are quite intriguing and they’re mystical and spiritual in a way. He paints flowers, which are big and gorgeous and very bright, and reminiscent of Van Gogh or Matisse.”

Steve reacts to this comparison with an exaggerated impressed sound.

“Lyndsay was his inspiration to get started,” Holly says. “She would set up a canvas on the floor of our living room and he’d sit in his chair and she would show him the paints and what to do. That’s how it started. He really has evolved since then. We thought his early works were amazing, but now some of them lately are truly wonderful, layer after layer.”

Steve says, “Van Gogh,” and they laugh together.

“Steve’s painting has been so inspiring to me,” Holly says. “I’m just so happy that he has this passion and he has this place to come to every day and work on his art. It gives you a purpose, I think” — Steve nods in agreement — “and a way you can express the creativity and inventiveness you’ve always had. And you love to show off your artwork, don’t you?”—Steve shrugs and smiles — “He likes to have people visit and share his work with them.”

“He’s always been a creator,” Lyndsay says. “He always wanted to build things.”    Steve says, “Yeah,” emphatically.

“Before the stroke, it was in a more collaborative and social way,” Lyndsay says, “with his work in the college, in building businesses and working with many people. Now, his painting allows him another way of building something that he can do on his own.”

Steve lifts his left hand and nods, “Yeah.”

“The common thread that connects his artwork with the rest of his earlier accomplishments,” says Lyndsay, “is creativity, that building of a world.”

She looks at her father. “You were always curating everything around you, from your lab and your business to our house and yard. You were always building a world. Now you’re doing it with your painting, which is just as fascinating if not more so, because it’s a blank canvas. Instead of modifying what’s around you, you start from nothing and build.”

“The best word to describe Steve’s spirit,” Holly says, “would be determined. He’s always been a very determined person. He’s going to do it his way.”

Steve looks from Holly to Lyndsay and says, “You?”

“Fearless describes you best,” Lyndsay says. “You enjoy the risk-taking, knowing that what you may do might fall flat, but it might turn out amazing. It’s served you well in your science, your business and now in your art. You’re not worried if a painting isn’t perfect. You’re not trying to make it look like or be anything other than what it is.”

Steve nods, murmuring his agreement. Holly and Lyndsay put their heads together to try to recall whether Steve ever had a quote or a saying he was partial to. Then Lyndsay remembers something.

“His favorite book and his favorite movie is A River Runs Through It, written by Norman Maclean,” she says. “There’s a quote in the book, something about art imitating life and that art is hard.”

Steve’s eyes fill and, for a moment, they are the brightest things in the studio. “Yeah,” he says, nodding.

“To him, all good things . . . came by grace; and grace comes by art; and art does not come easy.”

—Norman Maclean, “A River Runs Through It and Other Stories.”

Holly and Steve Nissen (center) are shown with their children, from left, daughter Lyndsay Nissen and husband Elliot Thompson, son Matt Nissen and wife Janet, and daughter Kaitlyn Nissen.

Holly and Steve Nissen (center) are shown with their children, from left, daughter Lyndsay Nissen and husband Elliot Thompson, son Matt Nissen and wife Janet, and daughter Kaitlyn Nissen.