In 1986 the Senate commissioned sculptor Jud Nelson–-Walter Mondale’s choice–-to create Mondale’s portrait bust for the Vice Presidential Bust Collection. Announcing the commission, Mondale said, “I credit my wife, Joan, for introducing me to Nelson’s work, which spans a broad range of exceptional creative endeavor.” Active in the art world, Joan Mondale had served as honorary chairperson of the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities during her husband’s vice presidential term.
Vice President Mondale sat three times for Nelson in the sculptor’s New York City studio. For reference during the intervals between sittings, Nelson used a series of photographs of Mondale, as well as a life mask of his face. Between the first and second sitting, however, the vice president lost considerable weight–-the desired effect of a diet regimen. When the leaner Mondale appeared at the studio, Nelson reacted with shock: “Into my studio stepped a new Walter Mondale, dashing, trim, and three months into his vegetable diet. I was panic stricken. How was I going to hide all those extra pounds before he saw the sculpture?”
Mondale, of course, did view the clay model, noting with dismay the too-heavy face and jowls. Nelson set himself to the task of shaving down the clay to accurately reflect the slimmer vice president. Once the revised model was approved, Nelson himself carved the figure in Carrara marble. He relied upon traditional carver’s tools rather than the modern dental drill he uses for his contemporary pieces. The completed bust was placed on view at the Capitol in 1988.
The Oregon-born Nelson studied at Bethel College and the University of Minnesota. He is best known for his detailed sculptures of everyday objects: a bulging plastic garbage bag, sunglasses, folding chairs, and Popsicles. Nelson carves his pieces himself and is one of the few modern sculptors who works directly in marble. “Carving is my approach to form,” he has noted. “My work is based on direct observation, line for line, fold for fold.” Nelson’s most celebrated sculpture is a heroic bronze astronaut figure at the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His work has been exhibited widely and is held in several permanent collections, including those of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City.