At 49, after 25 years of making and teaching art, Nixson Borah still speaks of himself as an "emerging artist." And he asks that even though it's called "Nixson Borah: 1967-1987," his current show at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center not be thought of as a retrospective.
The soft-spoken artist--whose 68 paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures will be on display at the center, in Fullerton, through Dec. 27--has taught at Fullerton College since 1962, and his commercial exposure has been limited to three shows at a gallery in San Diego and a scattering of solo shows at small local colleges and museums. He describes his life as an example of what happens if an artist wraps himself for too long in a suburban family life away from cultural centers and doesn't push hard enough for a career.
"I have just in the past 10 years been slowly moving in the direction of building a career" and now, he said, he wants to become "a recognizable name."
"I was divorced a year ago, and that's given me a measure of new-found freedom," said Borah, a Santa Barbara native who lived in Fullerton until two years ago, when he moved to Los Angeles.
"I moved to a studio-loft downtown, and I have much closer contact with collectors and gallery and museum people than ever before. I've had more people come to see my work in two years in Los Angeles than came in Orange County in 20 years. The important people in the Los Angeles art world just don't come to Orange County."
In 1980, he experienced the tragic but liberating death of his father, a 68-year-old manufacturer of sports trophies. "My father was a man with a Teutonic perfectionism, a man who found giving praise very difficult and was very skeptical about my artistic production," Borah said. "He was . . . intolerant of the art objects I created. In Greek mythology, there is this story that the king must die. Mary Renault wrote this book about this. There is this psychological truth to that . . . that to a degree the son is not free until the father is out of the way."
The reference to Greek mythology is a glimpse into a key aspect of Borah's art--a search for psychological truth in the myths of other cultures. "My father's mother was very interested in Greek mythology, and she read me Greek myths frequently, and Asian myths. She was a theosophist, and theosophists are very interested in Indian culture, so that was there, too. There is a sense of tragedy and metamorphosis that interests me.
"You will see in my drawing that I work a great deal with figures in states of transformation. I have a belief that people are in a state of constant change."
The physical changes of the body in motion is another major element in his work. And the physical gestures of dancers and athletes blend with masklike, myth-inspired imagery. For example, a 1985 piece called "Red Ladder Victor" shows the large figure of a contemporary basketball player throwing a ball that is also a grim mask shaped like Borah's face.
"I've always been conscious of the mythic sense in myself," he said. "We all have our own sense of our own heroic quest, the way in which I want to succeed. Inside the basketball player, integrated in the figure's body, is a red ladder. The ladder integrates the desire to succeed, to have higher visibility, to get up where people can see me."
More than half the pieces are devoted to this theme of self-fulfillment. He said that even when working with images from the most famous Indian epics, the "Mahaburata" and "Ramayana," he looks for ways to express his ideas about human growth.
Starting with a journey to Mexico while still an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara, he has traveled widely. Over the years, there have been trips to India, Greece and Egypt.
Until his junior year in college, he wanted to be a writer. "Then I met a series of teachers in the art department who made a very great impression on me," he said. "An art teacher at UCSB took a class I was in to the studio of an artist named Rico Lebrun in Los Angeles, and if there was one day that I experienced a religious conversion toward a life of making art, it was that day.
"Lebrun was working on a painting based on an etching by Goya. It was this mythic figure, a double figure--like Siamese twins, with two heads and shoulders and so forth--that was changing and in motion. It was partly divine, partly demonic. It was very powerful. I remember how I asked him about this and he sat down with me and just talked to me for 45 minutes, just the two of us sitting on the floor and talking. This was a fully mature grown-up adult male who was devoting his life to making art. There was a connection to my father. This gave me the authority to do what I wanted to do. I could be an artist. It was permissible."
Borah went on to do graduate study at the University of Washington in Seattle but interrupted his studies there to return to Santa Barbara when Lebrun became an artist in residence there. But he soon found that the Lebrun influence was so strong that Borah had to break away from it.
Relationships with father figures continue to inform his work. "Cloudburst" is a partly abstract, 1982 sculpture of a thunderstorm, made of homemade paper cast on a plaster mold. The cloud forms are meant to hold double layers of meaning--he says they are natural images that also resemble the two faces of father and son. The storm is a burst of anger and energy, an expression of the lunge for freedom and prominence.
" I feel that I'm on a new plateau now," he said. "I have such a tremendous sense now that I've gotten free of a lot that was holding me back. I think the best is still ahead."