December 17, 2012
Custodian steps out of the closet with unexpected art skill
By Barbara Baker
When you walk into the Phillips Whyman Hall on the campus of Northeastern Junior College, you immediately know that someone takes a great deal of pride in how the building looks. The floors shine, the corners are clean, the bathrooms sparkle and the windows are usually smudge-free. That someone is Jesse Moreno. A member of the college’s physical plant staff since 1998, Moreno has done an immaculate job of taking care of his assigned building. And over the past six months, he also discovered some exceptional talent. You might say he’s an artist who has come out of the closet. Literally.
If you had a chance to attend the Annual Faculty and Staff Art Show that was held in the Peter L. Youngers Fine Arts Gallery in E.S. French Hall during December, you may have seen Moreno’s creations. The story on how they came about is almost as fascinating as the artwork itself.
As a self-proclaimed doodler, Moreno, a life-time resident of this area, says that over the years he has dabbled in Play Dough®, occasionally building an animal for one of his grandchildren. “They would ask me to make people, but I never did because I could not figure out how to create the heads,” Moreno recalls, indicating that he was always bothered by the fact that he struggled to make a decent face. He’s done some wood carving over the years and had a similar experience in this medium. “It was easier to just tell them I couldn’t do it,” he admits. So, imagine the surprise he must have felt when he discovered that he can make heads and faces—good heads and faces. The ironic thing about it is that Moreno still doesn’t realize how really good he is at it.
In the art gallery, ten miniature faces including Indians, a cowboy, a miner, a soldier and a Viking—each intricately sculpted into an almost living being, sat on tiered, miniature clear shelves inside a cleaned up fish aquarium as part of the holiday art show—all created by Moreno. This entry was by far the “sleeper” of the event. Even Moreno himself had just discovered his own talent and these heads were one of the most admired entries in this year’s show.
It was last Spring when Dr. Shelby Nichols, who teaches chemistry for the college, had a lab class using clay to work on the geometry of molecules. “I give the students some special kind of putty-like clay and they have to make the various parts of the molecule and then fit them together,” explains Nichols. “I give them some of the same clay that we use in the anatomy labs for students to make muscles and place them on the plastic models,” she continues. “Once they have their molecules built, I tell them that they need to keep busy waiting for the other students to finish.”
Last spring a student in Nichols’ lab, Aria Arndt of Denver, finished early and she spent her time sculpting her remaining clay into a very neat head and face. “I was so taken by her artistic skill that after the lab was over, I took the head and showed it off to others in the building,” Nichols remembers. This particular kind of putty doesn’t dry out or get hard. When Nichols showed it to Moreno, he thought Arndt’s artwork was really good and mentioned to her then that he would like to try doing something similar someday.
NJC is a culture built on encouragement. After showing it off for several days, eventually Nichols crumpled Arndt’s creation and put it back into the putty can. Remembering that Moreno had said he’d like to try his hand at doing something artistic with the putty, she took out a supply and dropped it by to him at his office, albeit a closet, on the first floor of the building.
Over the summer Moreno began dabbling with the dark red clay on his breaks and during lunch. Using only his pocketknife as a carving tool, in the weeks and months to come, the heads emerged and the faces came to life. “I would take a chunk of the clay and begin working on it,” explains Moreno. "Some days it was so hot in my office that I could only handle the clay about 10 minutes and then it would get too warm and soft and unmanageable. I never knew what I was creating until the end and the character would just emerge. I was even surprising myself,” he laughs.
Moreno’s characters all turned out to be males. He’s yet to make a female figurine. “I would catch myself focusing on faces when I would watch TV,” Moreno said. “I would really study someone’s eyes and nose and memorize what I was seeing and then try to recreate it in the clay. Some days the clay would be so hard to work with that all I would get done might be a set of eyes and a nose.”
Nichols was in awe when she finally got to see what Moreno had created. He didn’t show any of the heads to anyone until he had all 10 done.
“He showed me what he had done,” said Nichols. “First of all, I was totally amazed. Then, I told him that they had to be put into the faculty and staff art show for everyone to see and enjoy.” Nichols rallied a few of her fellow faculty to find a suitable glass showcase—a cleaned up aquarium from the Biology lab—after all, the faces are, and will always be soft since the clay used to create them is not the kind that can be fired or dried out to become hardened.
In his modest character, Moreno doesn’t take the kind of credit he should for the magnitude of his artistic talent. He didn’t have any intention of keeping the faces and felt certain that after the show, they would be wadded back into balls and returned to the putty can. His colleagues on campus have different ideas. “I’ve had several offer to pay to replace the clay for the lab so that Jesse’s creations can be kept on display in our building,” Nichols notes. “The consensus is that the collection of ten characters must be shown off for others to enjoy year-round.” Moreno’s own sister, Geneva Skeels, who saw his artwork at the gallery for the first time, was blown away by his talent. Moreno’s immediate family has yet to see the creations. His grandchildren will probably be so surprised to learn that he can make faces. The art show closed on December 14 with the end of the fall semester.
One faculty member suggested that he try making some of the sculptures with a particular kind of clay that is used by veterinarians when they need to make a mold of an animal part when creating casts or other devices for medical treatment. That kind of clay can be baked in the oven and it becomes hard as nails. Moreno looks forward to trying it once he finds out where to get some of it. He says he will do more sculpting in the future.
As Nichols points out, “NJC has always been a place that encourages students and others to follow their dreams and pursue their passions and find their gifts. It has been so much fun to watch Jesse find his.”