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Former ISU animal science professor's artwork serves as his voice since stroke

January 09, 2014

"Me and You" by Steven Nissen, 2012
"Untitled" by Steven Nissen, 2012


AMES, Iowa — When a debilitating stroke robbed him of his ability to speak, Steven Nissen, formerly a professor of animal science at Iowa State University, found a new way to express himself through art.

Nissen will share this journey of self-rediscovery through "Aphasia: Paintings by Dr. Steven Nissen," an exhibition at the ISU College of Design's Design on Main Gallery, 203 Main St., in downtown Ames.

The show, which will feature about 20 acrylic paintings on canvas, will open with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 24. The work may be viewed by appointment Jan. 25 through Feb. 4. Both the reception and exhibition are free and open to the public.

Nissen received a doctor of veterinary medicine (1976) and master's (1977) and doctoral degrees (1981) in animal science, all from Iowa State. He completed a postdoctoral fellowship in pediatric endocrinology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., in 1982, and joined the faculty in the ISU Department of Animal Science that fall. He was well known for his research on various aspects of animal and human growth and metabolism.

In August 2008, a stroke left Nissen paralyzed on the right side and unable to speak, ending his academic career. Following years of intensive physical, occupational and speech therapy, Nissen can now walk with a brace and a cane and has learned to use his left hand for daily activities, but has never regained high-level ability to speak, write or read. He communicates through gestures, facial expressions, a few spoken phrases, typing on an iPad and—since late 2010—painting.

Nissen took up a brush as a way to express complicated, sometimes unsettling and sometimes simply delightful ideas, said his daughter, Lyndsay, now an ISU graduate student in integrated visual arts, who curated the work for this exhibition.

"My father was an incredibly goal-oriented person, and after the stroke, he found himself unable to accomplish the same type of goals," Lyndsay said. "I believe painting allows him some of that personal satisfaction of creation and completion. It is a solitary activity that doesn't require the skills he has lost."

Nearly all of the imagery in her father's work has three main subjects: still life, nature, and abstract patterns of light with or without figures, Lyndsay said. He uses very bright, neon colors and applies the paint in rough strokes with heavy stippling.

"The most grand images are his large (4-foot-by-four-foot) still-life paintings with flowers. They have a loosely realistic style paired with unlikely color choices, then careful detailing pulls them together," Lyndsay said.

"He has gestured to indicate the abstract paintings are like near-death experiences or visions. These paintings are much more difficult to decipher. Some obviously deal with the depression he has suffered from his incident and some are just light, heavenly."

Metered parking for visitors is available in front of Design on Main; free public parking is available in lots behind the commercial buildings on the south side of Main Street. Please contact Lyndsay Nissen for more exhibition information, images or interviews, or to arrange to view the show.

Lyndsay Nissen, Integrated Visual Arts, (515) 231-2907,
Heather Sauer, Design Communications, (515) 294-9289,