Nils Folke Anderson A’94
Nils Folke Anderson is a painter and sculptor. He, his wife, Alexandra Posen and their children live in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. Nils graduated from The Cooper Union School of Art in 1994, and earned an MFA from Hunter College in 2007. He became President of the CUAA on July 1, 2015.
He was recently interviewed by Mary Lynch, ChE’82.
Did you grow up in New York City?
No. I was born in Washington, DC and grew up on a small farm in northern Virginia. It was not a working farm, though we grew a lot of our own food and raised some hogs. The oldest part of our home was a log cabin built in the 1750s. When I was about 14, my family moved to downtown Baltimore so that my mother could attend the Maryland Institute of College of Art. My mother had been an art teacher in my elementary school. After getting her BFA at MICA she went on to get her MFA at the New York Academy of Figurative Art around the same time I was at Cooper.
What did your father do?
My father is an anti-trust lawyer. He worked at the Justice Department and for a time was lead attorney on the break-up of AT&T. Both of my parents infused me with a strong sense of social justice. It is because of that calling for social justice that I feel a very special bond with Cooper. I am awed by the role that Cooper – especially the Great Hall—has played in the promotion of many important causes.
When did you first hear about The Cooper Union?
I first heard of The Cooper Union on Portfolio Day at the Maryland Institute. I was there in this big room with lots of school representatives and many tables with long lines; and thankfully one of the reps was speaking loudly, saying she didn’t want to see any more paintings made from photographs. My mother heard her and this jogged her memory. My mother had grown up in Brooklyn and had heard of the Cooper Union, but forgotten about it until she heard this woman. So I brought my portfolio to the Cooper Union table and it was reviewed by Niki Logis who would later become one of my favorite professors.
What were some of your favorite classes and who influenced you while you were at Cooper?
The first year in the art program was known as the foundation year and we had to learn a comprehensive array of techniques and methods. I had to learn things like welding and egg tempera as well as painting and drawing. I loved the whole experience. The professors that influenced me were Niki Logis who taught 3D design, Robert Slutzky who was an architect that taught Color Theory, and James Wiley who was a Humanities professor. I took 4 courses with James Wiley including African Art History and Black Literature in a World Perspective. Other professors who were great influences were Jack Whitten, Fred Wilson, Irving Petlin, David True and Day Gleeson. And of Course Marina Gutierrez who was my supervisor in the Saturday Program.
I know that you have worked as an Art Teacher. How big an influence was the Saturday Program on your decision to teach?
The Saturday Program was a major influence. Marina Gutierrez was both a supervisor and a mentor. She encouraged me to get some training in the pedagogy of teaching. I took courses in education at both the New School and NYU while an undergraduate at Cooper. There was a program in place at the time that allowed Cooper Students to both take courses at these schools and use the libraries at those schools. I also worked at New School as a teaching assistant in their cooking courses. I did that so that I could audit the cooking courses.
Did you have any interaction with the Engineering Students while you were at Cooper?
I did. I lived in the Cooper Dorm that was on 35th Street in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan with several Cooper Engineering students. I had most of my Humanities courses in the Engineering building and I was involved in demonstrations against the first Gulf War. Through the demonstrations, I made some good friends that are engineers. It was during this time that I helped organize a Teach-In in the Great Hall about the war, with speakers including physicist Michio Kaku and the late Ramsey Clark. It was an amazing thing to be a part of, and that deepened my connection to the Great Hall.
What did you do following graduation from The Cooper Union?
First I worked for a sculptor. That was a job that I found through the jobs board at school. A few months after graduation, I moved to Leon, Nicaragua at the invitation of a friend who was working there, and I began to teach art classes in a historically indigenous section of the city known as Sutiaba, which was a significant urban center in pre-Columbian times.
Was this during Nicaragua’s civil war?
No, this was 4 years after the civil war ended, but the scars from the war were everywhere.
What did you enjoy most about your year in Nicaragua?
I really enjoyed getting to know the people and their culture. This was also an intense place and time. The country had experienced a rebirth, with great hopes and disappointments, and great trauma. People had been shocked to see the Sandinistas lose the election in 1990, and were in the midst of sorting out what would come next.
I also saw that people can make a difference, and when they work together they can accomplish great things. Back in New York City, as a new graduate, I was pretty insignificant, but in Nicaragua, I saw I could make an impact. As my time came to leave, I helped secure funding so that two Nicaraguan painters could continue the program I’d started, and these classes grew into a school called Taller Xuchialt which is run by former students and now enrolls about 120 kids per year in art, dance and computer classes.
What did you do when you returned to the U.S.?
I came back to New York and had a variety of jobs that included working in a wood shop for a framer and teaching wood working in a youth employment program at Henry Street Settlement. I also formed a mural painting company with another Cooper Alumnus, Nicky Enright, A’96. We painted about 50 murals around New York City. And I taught in the public school program, Studio in a School. This program was part of an initiative to put art back into the school curriculum. I taught at PS157 in the Bronx for 2 years. I also taught in Jamaica Queens in a program jointly administered by the Saturday Program and Saturday Outreach Program. Then I went back to school for a masters.
Where did you go for your masters and what was your major?
I went to Hunter College for a Masters in Fine Arts (MFA). I majored in painting, but eventually came to focus on sculpture. It was at Hunter that I first began to develop a formal principle that I refer to as reciprocal linkage, which informs much of my work.
Where is your studio?
It is in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Have you shown your work?
My sculptures and installations have been exhibited at the Robert Miller Gallery and Phillips de Pury, and in numerous group shows internationally. I have several public works including a large-scale stainless steel sculpture in Ilford England, and another work permanently installed in Hamburg Germany. Most recently, I have been working towards incorporating architecture, public space and development into my artistic practice. See Work
Have there been any Cooper Alumni that have influenced you?
Absolutely. John Hejduk, AR’50, was teaching at Cooper when I attended, and he was a major supporter of the Saturday Program so I had several opportunities to speak with him. I was impressed by both his work and his students’ work, and his commitment to teaching. Eva Hesse, A’57, is another inspiration. I remember when I got to Hunter and was revisiting Josef Albers’ Interaction of Color, realizing that the book included her student work from Yale, the same kind of project I’d done many years later studying with Bob Slutzky; I felt a sense of connection. The unique rigor of the Art School creates a common bond with the alumni who came before and after you.
How have you stayed connected to The Cooper Union?
One serendipitous connection, is my father-in-law, Stephen Posen, who taught in the Art School for many years, and left 2 years before I enrolled. I have attended the E.O.Y. shows and I have donated works to Cooper auctions. In 2011, I began following Cooper events more closely and felt a deep sense of sorrow and disappointment about the path the school appeared to be taking. I started attending CUAA council meetings in the spring of 2013. I was heartened by the people I found at these meetings — other alumni that shared my concerns and some of my frustrations. They were also willing to work for change, and they have been working hard.
What is one thing you hope to accomplish and see during the new school year?
I’d like to see the school create a path that leads to a return to full tuition scholarships. I believe that if we can agree on a compelling, actionable plan that speaks to the founding values of Cooper Union, we will be able to leverage the collective resources of the alumni at an unprecedented level.