The University of Connecticut men’s and women’s basketball trophy rooms are filled with awards. National champions amass plenty of hardware.
But the most intriguing items may be a pair of Husky heads. The eye-catching sculptures are the work of Jesse Nusbaum.
The Weston native presented them to UConn coaches Geno Auriemma and Kevin Ollie recently, in honor of the Huskies’ twin national championships in 2014.
The sculptures are worth quite a bit. One day — perhaps soon — when Nusbaum becomes nationally known, they’ll be worth even more.
The 25-year-old is already gaining a reputation. A little over a year into his career, he earned an invitation to last month’s prestigious Art Basel Miami show. He’s on the fast track — though his favored artistic medium requires patience and time.
Growing up, Nusbaum says he was “a jock.” A black belt by age 7, and youth soccer and basketball player, he was an All-State baseball player at Weston High. Except for an injury, he might have done the same in wrestling.
But he also worked with rock, soapstone, metal and pewter in the school’s art classes. “It felt so natural to me,” he says.
Nusbaum’s father is a noted lawyer, and Jesse grew up with the expectation of law school. He graduated from Muhlenberg College in 2013 not with the political science degree he had started, but as a studio art major.
After studying a year for the LSAT, he entered Charleston School of Law. “The dean loved that art degree,” Nusbaum says proudly. “He thought it was great I was using my brain in a different way. He saw me as very creative.”
It did not take long, though, for Nusbaum to realize a legal career was not for him. “I had no passion for it,” he says. “My mentors from Muhlenberg knew I was miserable. ‘You have a gift for art,’ they said. ‘Don’t waste it.'”
Without telling his parents — “it would crush them,” Nusbaum says — he requested a leave of absence. The dean supported him. “Follow your heart,” he told the aspiring artist.
Nusbaum went to work in his Weston studio. His specialty is animals. His style is hyper-realism. Each piece is intricately, intensely detailed — sometimes including actual animal parts, like bull horns and teeth.
“Although my hands are the tools to make a sculpture, 90 percent of the work comes from my mind,” Nusbaum explains. “I constantly change the shape as the work progresses.”
Bronze gives his work an ageless, timeless, weathered finish — rugged, polished and clean.
It takes Nusbaum 2 to 3 months to sculpt one piece. The finishing process takes another 2 to 4 months.
But the results are worth it. Nusbaum was particularly proud to present the Husky heads to the UConn coaches. After Auriemma asked a lot of questions about how Nusbaum worked, the young sculptor realized there could be a market for animal heads for many more sports teams. “Just think of all the Yale alums…” he says, envisioning a vast bulldog market.
The sculptor works on marketing too. Instagram is key. In just a few months, he’s amassed 75,000 followers.
The Art Basel invitation capped off a fantastic year. Nusbaum attracted plenty of notice at last month’s prestigious show.
As much as Nusbaum loves his current life, he does not regret his brief stint at law school.
“If I hadn’t gone, I always would have wondered ‘what if…’,” he says. “Now I’ve got perspective on both sides: law and art.”
Over the past year, he adds, “I’ve met so many great people in the art world. They’re selfless and happy. You don’t always see that around here.”
He’s picking up new fans — and patrons — every day.
Mersene — whose Indulge by Mersene shop on Railroad Place specialize in unique, funky and very cool items — saw some of his small rhino sculptures. She offered him a showing in her store. A great mix of people showed up just before Christmas.
In the months to come Nusbaum will seek out art shows and galleries, to show his work here and in places like Manhattan and Brooklyn.
And he’ll keep sculpting — patiently, realistically, and very, very happily.
PS: Last spring, Nusbaum told the Charleston law school dean to forget that leave of absence. He won’t be returning.
(For more information, including samples of Nusbaum’s work, click on www.jessenusbaum.com)