Throughout his career as an architect, Al Nees helped create some of downtown Wichita's iconic structures, including the Wichita Public Library and the telephone company building at First and Broadway. But in retirement, Al, a new resident at Wichita Presbyterian Manor, has blossomed as a sculptor, creating a wholly new type of structure and art in clay.
It was about 25 years ago when Al first set foot in a sculpture studio at City Arts in Old Town. He and another architect decided to take the class together. "One day were saying to each other, 'I've never done any sculpting before; maybe I should try it.' We did and had that first class. It's really interesting to do, and I felt very, very much like a kindergartener among the professionals in the class. Some of those people are utterly marvelous. I had a lot of teachers around me."
His official teacher was Babs Mellor, who has been teaching sculpture in Wichita for more than 40 years. Over the years, Al had gotten away from sculpting until his daughter suggested he check out the classes at the Wichita Center for the Arts. He walked into the clay studio and right away, there was a familiar face. "Babs was there, and she said, 'I know you!' She's a real neat character."
Babs announced that the class's project for the year would be to create a life-size bust of a god from Greek or Roman mythology. The prospect was daunting.
"I just thought, 'Oh my goodness.' I went home and thought about that, and I prayed about that," Al said. The next week, he went in early and showed Babs a sketch he'd made. It was a Christ-like shepherd carrying a lamb in his left arm and extending his right arm in invitation. He spent the school year sculpting "Jesus Shepherd." When finished, he painted the bust a dark color with a bronze glaze, to give it a metallic look.
Al moved to the Westwinds neighborhood at Presbyterian Manor this year. Shortly after he settled in, activity director Angela Page asked if he had any ideas for trips the residents could take. He didn't hesitate to suggest a trip to the arts center, which was renamed this year to Mark Arts. "Jesus Shepherd" was still on display (it has since moved to his church library).
The sculpture is meant to signify that Christ is asking us to walk hand in hand with him through life, as Al has tried to do himself.