For 22 years, a now-iconic bronze statue of civil rights activist César Chávez has stood at the top of an enormous outdoor staircase at Cal State San Marcos, beckoning students to reach their own personal heights with the words engraved below his feet “Si Se Puede. It Can Be Done.”
Over the years, it has become a rite of passage for graduating seniors to pose in their caps and gowns with the statue of the former United Farm Workers leader, who died in 1993. The students’ embrace of the Chávez statue means a great deal to
“That was always part of the plan,” said Nelson, 50. “What you want to do is try to address the students. You want to give them something they want to talk about or commemorate. If the students love it, then it’s a successful piece. If they walk past it every day and they don’t see it, then you’ve failed.”
Commencement ceremonies at Cal State San Marcos begin Friday, May 17 and continue through Sunday, May 19. This year’s graduating class of 3,800 is the largest in university history. Among that class will be Nelson, who with Dixon, will receive an honorary doctorate on Friday for their contribution to campus culture.
Nelson, who dropped out of college at 22 to pursue his art career with Dixon, said he’s deeply honored by the gesture and he believes Dixon would have been, too.
“There’s nothing bittersweet about this. She would have loved it,” he said. “It’s sad that she’s not here to share in that, but it’s such an honor to be recognized. It really is.”
Nelson and Dixon met and fell in love in 1991 when he was a student in her sculpting class at San Diego Mesa College. For 27 years, they collaborated on every project from concept to drawing to clay modeling to installation. Over the years, they completed hundreds of public art pieces in hospitals, parks and colleges nationwide, including a dozen projects at
Some of Nelson’s favorite local projects are their first co-commission, the terracotta Indian warriors at Mission Trails Regional Park, the playful bronze pelican near the Pacific Beach lifeguard station and his all-time love, the mixed media Magical Garden at Rady Children’s Hospital.
Many of the couple’s projects incorporated words, stories and water features. Nelson said they always did site visits to draw inspiration from the space and conducted multiple interviews with clients to get the right focus and tone for each piece.
Back in the mid-1990s, Nelson and Dixon beat out five other sculpting teams to win the commission to build a tribute to the labor leader on the newly named César E. Chávez Plaza at Cal State San Marcos. It was the university’s first piece of outdoor public art and it was intended to represent the university’s commitment to diversity, inclusion and social justice. Nelson said his and Dixon’s plan was to depict Chávez as honestly as possible.
On their first site visit to the plaza at the top of the stairs, Nelson said he and Dixon decided he should stand on the top step facing the students as they’re climbing to inspire them to push their limits. They also wanted to install the sculpture at ground level and make it near life-size so it represented who Chávez was, a man of the people.
“When you get (a commission to sculpt) someone like him, there’s this temptation to make him into a larger-than-life superhero. But he was just a normal person who did something really exceptional,” Nelson said. “We wanted him to feel approachable, because I think everybody has that potential. We all make choices but he put the needs of others above his own self interest.”
To get his likeness right, Nelson and Dixon worked closely with the Chávez family. Although Chávez didn’t go to college, his family said he was a voracious reader, so in the sculpture he holds a book. Chávez also wears a sweater vest, his favorite article of clothing.
The sculpture was installed on March 31, 1997, which would have been Chávez’s 70th birthday. It was a hit from the start with staff and students. CSUSM Catalog and Curriculum Coordinator Lourdes Shahamiri was involved in the statue’s commissioning nearly 25 years ago and she still appreciates how it continues to represent Chávez’s perseverance in creating social change.
“I strongly believed then — as I still do today — that future students, regardless of race, color or belief, could relate to the work of César Chávez by persisting in their goals of obtaining an education,” Shahamiri said, in an interview for the university’s website on the statue’s 20th anniversary in 2017.
Nelson said he and Dixon were pleased by the project’s positive reception as well as its continued popularity over the years.
“You don’t always know how these things will take off but this one struck a chord with everyone from the outset,” Nelson said. “We were thrilled to get to do him because we both admired him so much.”
Nelson and Dixon did most of their work together in a barnlike studio at their Leucadia home. Now that she’s gone, Nelson said he’s had a hard time figuring out what to do next. He’s now working on a personal project sculpting 50 portrait heads, hoping that as he carves away the clay on each bust, a new direction for his life and career will eventually reveal itself.
“It’s a whole new thing, both scary and exciting, about what kind of an artist I am without her,” he said. “I have to look inside a little bit and figure out where I’m going to go.”
— Pam Kragen is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune