Jeffrey Nichols spent his career creating fine ceramic art that has been exhibited and sold across the country. Now, after a break to be a full-time dad, he is channeling his creativity in another direction.
"I want to take the same creative instinct and put it into creating exhibitions that will inspire people," says Nichols, who has just completed his first year as the gallery director at the Living Arts & Science Center. "I like work that has a voice. What I like to create in this space is a dialogue between the artists to create a flow."
He chats standing in the midst of Culture and Identity: New Expressions by Latino Artists in the 21st Century, an exhibit of three Lexington artists that was designed to coincide with the center's annual Day of the Dead celebration this month.
Nicholas says when he started last year, the center was just going into its Day of the Dead festivities. That got him thinking about how he could create an exhibit highlighting local artists of Latino heritage.
But there were several shows to come before that, such as August and September's look at contemporary fiber art with Illinois artist Ann Coddington-Rast and Morehead State University artists Jennifer Reis and Elizabeth Mesa-Gaido. Before that, Nichols had presented exhibits of botanical art and works showing the r elationship between math and art.
The new year will bring an exhibit of bronze and large-scale paintings by Western Kentucky University artists David Marquez and Brent Dedas, followed by a look at art and architecture.
But the big story in the new year is the expected groundbreaking for a $5 million expansion and renovation of the center that will transform the facility and affect Nichols' work.
"We're going to have more space to show a variety of things," he says. "I hope to get touring shows, and it will be an exciting time to create."
There also will be a new shop, a regular storefront for work by Lexington artists.
He says the expanded space will give him a chance to make exhibits more permanent, whereas now he sometimes needs to move pieces during an exhibit's run to accommodate classes and programs. Display pedestals are designed to be pushed out of the way, he says, but the situation makes displays of large-scale, three-dimensional work out of the question.
As an artist who has had exhibits around the country, Nichols says he is thoughtful about how he displays pieces in exhibits, wanting to make sure each artist's work is seen in its best light.
"I want artists to come away knowing I understand and respect their work," Nichols says. "I want to take time putting up pieces and get it right rather than rushing an exhibit together."
He had challenges in the current show, Culture and Identity, including a decorated coffin by Diane Kahlo and a sleekly painted Ford Taurus car hood by Agustin Zarate that has several reinforcements ensuring it does not fall off the wall. Standing around the floor are Adan Utrera's fanciful creatures made from recycled products.
Nichols says the objects have sparked compelling and surprising conversations from the students who regularly visit the gallery.
But Nichols work is also part of an effort to advance the idea that the Living Arts & Science Center, well-known for its summer and after-school programs, isn't just for kids.
"We want people to think of this space as a place for work that is fun and challenging, where you will see work by some of the best local and national artists today," Nichols says.
Since taking on the task at LASC, Nichols hasn't gone back to his own work.
He and his wife moved to Kentucky from Illinois in 2005, when they got positions at Morehead State University. In 2010, they came to Lexington when she got a post at Transylvania University, and he settled in to be a full-time parent for the first few years of their daughter's life.
"I can always go back to my work, but I realized I couldn't go back to those moments in her life," Nichols says.
The LASC job appealed to Nichols in a variety of ways, and he says it has been particularly helpful getting to know the city's art community.
"This has to be the best place I have worked," he says. "I get to meet a lot of great artists and deal with great work and figure out how to best exhibit it."
'Culture and Identity: New Expressions by Latino Artists in the 21st Century'
What: Work by Lexington artists Agustin Zarate, Diane Kahlo and Adan Utrera
When: Through Dec. 14. Hours: 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat. Closed Sun.
Where: Living Arts & Science Center, 362 N. Martin Luther King Blvd.
Learn more: (859) 252-5222 or (859) 255-2284, Lasclex.org