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click to enlarge Paul Nesse's hot rod outside his nicely detailed 3-car garage.

An Artist's Dream Space

Thorough car nut and professional sculptor lives with the subjects he sculpts.

by Phil Berg

When J. Paul Nesse was three years old he could name every brand of American car on the road. That was in rural Montana, circa 1954. “If a car passed you on the highway, you didn’t forget that. I could remember the tiniest details of cars from childhood.” Even in his small town, there were plenty of cars passing through that intrigued young Nesse. “In Montana, that’s where I saw a lot of foreign cars. Before a lot of air travel people drove from New York in Mercedes’, British cars and sports cars.”

He built his first car model when he was eight. By the time he was ten, he had devoured all the car knowledge of the local teenagers and from his prized collection of Road & Track magazines, and he built models until he went to college.

Nesse’s father was a fine-art painter, and when Nesse went to college, he majored in art, and went to graduate school for art history and sculpture. One of his classes required a bronze portrait sculpture, and while he was modeling the portrait in clay, he realized that’s what he wanted to do in life. His professor was so impressed with his work, that he asked Nesse to do a bronze portrait of the professor’s youngest son. Right away Nesse was a paid sculptor.

click to enlarge Sculptures reside on platforms in the garage.

However, he started a young family and got a job running a book store. “I was asked to do a portrait of Mario Andretti by a friend who owned a body shop.” In trade, the friend painted Nesse’s Healey 3000. “Then I was asked to do Zora Arkus-Duntov, with a GS Corvette. It was a small figure standing next to the car. Then I did a bust of him, too, and now that’s in the Corvette museum. In 1985 I did a Cobra with Carroll Shelby.”

At this time Nesse was making as much money sculpting as he was managing the book store, and his boss suggested he give sculpting a full-time effort. The sculptures became popular, and he was frantically busy in the late 1980s, selling his art as quickly as he could produce it.

click to enlarge This is a regular roll-up door disguised to look like a carriage house door.

His first major show was at Meadowbrook, outside of Detroit, and he remembers he got to sit next to grand prix driver Phil Hill at the banquet. “I also met Rene Dreyfus, and that led to a wonderful relationship.” Nesse spent three months sculpting the famous driver and auto importer in New York.

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