Jack Nichelson, an artist and longtime professor within the School of Art + Art History’s Graphic Design program, passed away on Saturday, February 4th at age 83. Nichelson taught art and graphic design for 35 years before his retirement, and had an illustrious career spanning over fifty years.
Nichelson was born in Lafayette, Indiana in 1934, but moved to South Florida after high school, where he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami. He completed his Master of Fine Arts at Indiana University before moving to Gainesville to start teaching in 1961.
Soon after he joined the faculty at the University of Florida, Nichelson traveled to Paris, where he was inspired by the Catholic churches, and specifically the reliquaries, which would greatly influence his later work. Nichelson was so moved and inspired by the reliquaries — which were beautiful containers that housed “sacred relics,” usually from saints — that he began to utilize and build upon the medium for his own body of work. His reliquaries were often called “box environments,” and they generally housed an eclectic mix of found objects. In 2011, Nichelson displayed his series “Jack Nichelson: Sojourner Dream Reliquaries” at the Harn Museum.
During his time at the University of Florida, Nichelson inspired many young designers, both by his impressive body of work and his unique teaching styles.
Jim Harrison (BFA Graphic Design ’10), who credits Nichelson as his main mentor at the University of Florida, recognizes the impact that Nichelson had not only on his individual students, but on the industry as a whole.
“Multiple generations of Gator design thinkers have made enormous impacts in our industry thanks in large part to Jack’s emphasis on visual problem solving, gestalt thinking, attention to detail and meaningful visual communication,” Harrison said.
Harrison has not forgot any of the lessons Nichelson taught him, and he uses them today as the Creative Director at The Agency at UF.
“I carry with me from Jack’s teachings the understanding of a zen-like approach to all the various ways good designs come together, how to manage them holistically, and what it means to constantly strive for better, more refined work as a standard for constant exploration and improvement,” Harrison explained.
Carl Byrd (BA Graphic Design ’89), of CarlByrd&Co, remembers Nichelson as “legendary” for his tough critiques within the Graphic Design program.
“But he was right,” Byrd said. “We weren’t very good those first couple of semesters. Jack was training us for the brutal real world of advertising and design and we did not even know it.”
Byrd recalls two lessons from Nichelson that have stuck with him over his long and award-winning career as a Creative Director. The first was a technical piece of advice: “He used to say a good layout had elements that are large, medium and small,” Byrd said. “I still use that design instinct today.”
Nichelson’s other piece of advice was as formative as it was simple.
“He told us to look — really closely look — at good design, and ask yourself why you like it and why it is good,” Byrd said. “I’m still looking and learning all these years later.”
A memorial service will be held for Nichelson at the Harn Museum on Saturday, March 25 from 12-4 pm.