November 3, 2022

Newspaper Profile: "Helping Us See With New Eyes", plus Autumn Exhibitions

The Montague Reporter chronicled my artistic life and teaching experiences. (After the clicking the link scroll down to page B1.) 

The report mentions upcoming exhibitions of my art as well as my December online Zentangle drawing workshops.

My double exposure using a film camera, Now and Then, is in a juried group show at The Lava Center, 324 Main St, Greenfield, MA 01301 On view: 11/5 - 12/17, Opening reception 11/5 11 am - 2 pm

Now and Then

Artist Statement: I shot film as an internationally travelled and published photojournalist in the 1980s and 1990s. As I shifted to teaching in the 2000s, standard camera gear shifted to digital. I discovered with my digital camera that I could purposefully create in-camera multiple exposures, layering images to abstract reality. In the late 2010s, I picked up film cameras again. Employing techniques refined using modern digital tech, I used old school tools in a new way. I currently teach visual and digital arts courses at American International College.

Speaking of digital in-camera multiple exposures, Sea, Sand, Sky, from my Reality-Based Abstraction series, will join the work of my teaching colleagues in the Massachusetts Art Education Association Members Exhibition at the Worcester Art Museum, Higgins Education Wing, 55 Salisbury St, Worcester, MA. Please use the entrance on Lancaster St (off Salisbury) On View, November 2, 2022 – December 2, 2022 Reception: Saturday, November 12 , 2022 from 6:00 – 7:30 p.m.

Sea, Sand, Sky

Artist Statement for my Reality-Based Abstraction series:

This set of images evokes in me the excitement I felt 5 decades ago watching my first photographs emerge in a developing tray.  Today I eagerly watch the screen on the back of my digital camera as the machine develops a series of exposures into these multilayered offerings.  As the image combining occurs in-camera, the spirit of my art is photographic rather than digital. 

 The raw files that emerge, however, are flat and gray looking, so I use a computer darkroom to reveal rich detail, texture and color. 


The art of the Cubist painters shimmers with life.  These painters have inspired me to utilize multiple views simultaneously to portray the essence of a subject.   


Engaging light and graphic beauty draw me to subject matter, which usually relates to the constructed environment.


The “zzt” sound of the camera’s shutter encourages me.  I joyfully bend, stretch and strain while photographing.  Heart, technology and technique combine to reflect the overlapping planes in which I see the world these days.


I have been working on this series since 2007.


A print of Art Museum Columns resides in the collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

John Nordell teaches courses in the Visual and Digital Arts Program that he created at American International College in Springfield, Mass. He blogs about the creative process at and teaches online Zentangle drawing workshops. Instagram: @john.nordell

September 21, 2022

Stepping Out of the Comfort Zone Part 327

I contacted Anna Hepler about doing a collaborative project involving her creating art and me playing drums. Anna is a friend, mentor, brilliant artist and collaborator on previous projects.

My father played jazz drums, leading a combo.  I inherited his bare-bones drum set.

At a minimum he wore a coat and tie for gigs; for fancy events, he and his band wore tuxedoes.

Following my father’s lead, I suggested to Anna that we dress up for our art and music experience.

We had a brief planning phone call before getting together.

When I arrived at the former industrial building that houses her studio, Anna emerged on the loading dock and upon seeing each other we just burst into laughter.

I said, “If I ask my students to step out of their comfort zone, I have to do it myself!”

She replied, “Yes… but for some people stepping out of their comfort zone means using more yellow paint, not getting dressed up and doing this (entering unexplored territory).”

We decided to do one take with me as leader.  Then another take with her as leader. And then one with both of us leading.

We changed outfits for each experimentation.  I somehow thought the video camera angle of view would only capture my waist up coat and tie formality.

The first take was slightly stilted as we were like two individuals operating mostly independently.  By the second take, a synergistic, natural call and response type of thing emerged.

We hoped ultimately for cohesive improvisation. And found it.

It was a joyous experience.  We each brought our own strengths to table.

Reflecting on the collaboration, we at first discussed possible meanings and interpretations.   In the end, we wanted the performance to speak for itself.

As Anna concluded, “I want to treasure the experience as an experience.”

My dad performs at a gig:

Rod Nordell

August 4, 2022

What do photography and fishing have in common? Tales from a mill pond.

With time to spare before collaborating with photography teacher Jess Lazarus at Pembroke (Mass.) High School, I discovered a herring fish ladder at nearby Glover Mill Pond.  I packed a plastic Holga camera loaded with a fresh 12 exposure roll of film. (Click to learn about this camera.)  

I set out to tell the story of the fish ladder with the enabling constraint of only 12 shots.  Like a baseball pitcher waving off a proposed pitch from their catcher with a slight head shake, I moved on without pressing the shutter button when what I saw through my viewfinder did not measure up.

12 Images - The One Repeated View Was to Refine the Plane of Focus

Knowing I would soon be in a classroom of eager students prompted me to be mindful of my creative process and decision making.  What wisdom could I distill from this documentary experience to effectively teach about storytelling, framing, lighting and exposure choices?

Fish Ladder is at the Upper Right Rule of Thirds Crash Point

Herring are born in rivers, travel downstream, and then live in the ocean before returning to their birthplaces to spawn.  River dams built for industrial purposes, such as creating water power for 19th century mills, obstruct the upstream progress of the fish.  Fish ladders are thus built to facilitate the passage of herring up and over the dams.  

Imagine Swimming Up this Fish Ladder 

The day before this exploration I met with legendary photographer Lou Jones.  I knew him from the 1990's Boston commercial photo scene.  We reconnected a few years ago as he mentored a few of my students.  Subsequently, from my viewpoint, he has slid into the mentor seat for me.

"I feel like I keep taking the same picture over and over," I said to Lou, describing a creative photographic rut.

Protecting the Herring

Lou replied that while when you look through the viewfinder there are thousands of considerations in terms of camera settings, exposure, light, etc., and over time you can refine the speed with which you make these split second decisions.  However, none of that matters unless you have access to interesting subject matter.  (Lately Lou has been photographing in Kenya for his panAfricanproject: Redefining the Modern Image of Africa, and capturing IronWorkers walking across girders 53 stories above Boston.)

A Great Blue Heron Flew Across the Sky as I Photographed Gino Fellini

Fueled by Lou's urgings, when I saw this fisherman, I summoned the courage to ask if I could take his picture, thereby gaining access. In my photojournalist days, I went to the Soviet Union on a tourist visa, climbed over fences to photograph Super Fund sites and disobeyed Secret Service agents.  Lately, however, ensconced in the Ivory Tower, I have been timid with approaching strangers, let alone trespassing!

For My Students, Found in Their Syllabi

Gino Fellini, who has been Pembroke's Conservation Chair, explained the ins and outs of the herring restoration program.  Also, as he described his process of recreational fishing, I found parallels to the creative process that I strive to imbue into each cell of each student.

Seeking to deepen the connection, I asked Gino to write an explanation of his fishing process.  He graciously complied via email:

Hi John,

It was a pleasure meeting you. As far as fishing being a “process” I refer to the actions associated with the routine of rigging, tying knots, selecting a rod and reel, a variety of lures to experiment with, artificial or live bait, hook size and style, etc.. The process also includes location, time of day and season, weather and wind conditions, water temperature, water clarity and depth, hook set, retrieval speeds... Every day is different. I’ve had a variety of successes and failures. 

My happiness is not predicated by how many or how large a fish I catch. For example, at the pond where we met, Ive gone weeks without a substantial catch and then boom 10 large mouth bass of average size in an hour! The next day only 2 bass, but the first was over 4.5 lbs, number two was 3.5 lbs. then nothing again for a while. The process is not all about the fish. While fishing I am observing and contemplating the sights and sounds of nature that surrounds me. It has afforded me a myriad of experiences that can be as rewarding as outsmarting and landing a whopper! 

So that’s it. The process in a nutshell. 😎



From Water Power to Solar Power: This "Farm" is About 100 Yards from the Dam
"The process is not all about the fish." Amen, Gino!  Yes, I had a camera and took these images. However, I also connected with another human, enjoyed a brilliant summer's day, learned, reflected, had fun, experimented, took risks, made psychic connections to students and mentors, and delighted in the wonders of nature.

Like fisherman, we photographers also love to tell stories about "the one that got away."

John Nordell teaches courses in the Visual and Digital Arts Program that he created at American International College in Springfield, Mass. He blogs about the creative process at   Instagram: @john.nordell

July 3, 2022

Plein Air: Watercolor Painting on the Water using Ocean Water

I recently passed my "sail check" so that I can rent sailboats from the Duxbury Bay Maritime School in Duxbury, Mass.  On this day, I brought my watercolor paint set and sketchbook.

Along the edge of the marsh, a tern splashed into the water, flying away with a fish.  Meanwhile, I splashed my brush into the ocean for water to paint with.

As I tacked back and forth working with the wind, I alternated between painting with my left and right hands.

The sights, the sounds, the sensations, the creating and the sailing all brought me into the precious now.

 Need I explain how much I love summer?

John Nordell teaches courses in the Visual and Digital Arts Program that he created at American International College in Springfield, Mass. He blogs about the creative process at  Instagram: @john.nordell

March 6, 2022

On Emojis and Jin Shin Jyutsu: Seeing With the Hands of Prayer

A slash of sun glanced off Our Lady of Lourdes in Northampton, Mass.


As I got closer, a person's belongings became visible.  At first I wondered if the owner was present.


Friend and creative spirit Melly Mel liberally uses emojis in ingenious ways.  The gratitude he often expresses inspired me to focus just on her hands.


I then shot an in-camera multiple exposure, layering images.

Seeing With the Hands of Prayer

In the healing system of Jin Shin Jyutsu, likened by some to acupuncture without needles, placing fingers at specific different places on the body can balance energy, thereby unifying a person with the universe and generating health.  Pressing your thumb into the palm of your other hand is one recommended technique. According to The Touch of Healing, a book about Jin Shin Jyutsu, this approach is akin to joining hands in prayer.  

"The ancients knew that this was no mere symbolic gesture but a practical, hands-on way of achieving harmony with the universe."

The next time I use the prayer hands emoji to communicate gratitude or thanks, I will strike the pose as well.

John Nordell teaches courses in the Visual and Digital Arts Program that he created at American International College in Springfield, Mass. He blogs about the creative process at   Instagram: @john.nordell

February 20, 2022

Patterns and Possibility - Reuse Before Recycling

Trash day and I hustled to flatten boxes and set out the bins before heading to teach at American International College.  The day before I had spontaneously decided to teach an introductory block print lesson to my History of Art class.

Trash Can Packing Box Trash

I had chosen a simple pattern to teach.  However, I fell in love with this gorgeous cardboard nest for my recently purchased cylindrical trash can.

Patterned Seat

Within hours of this discovery, I had deconstructed the pattern into elemental shapes and taught a one hour introduction to block printing.  As I Certified Zentangle Teacher, I am familiar with this process of noticing patterns in the world and then teaching workshop participants how to draw them.

The Prof's Show and Tell

As students printed their carved blocks, I inked the bottom of the cardboard packaging and pushed it down on paper.

Not a Deep Impression

After this first iteration, I refined my creative process by applying more ink...

Packaging Totem

... and this time pressing the paper down onto the upturned inked cardboard.

That's What I am Talking About

Here are some results from students:

A Complement to Looking at Art

A novice printer "accidentally" moved his block while printing, laying down two slightly offset impressions, creating this lovely, energized offering.  Where would we be without mistakes?

Only Way to Learn is to Live (Chapter Title from The Midnight Library)

John Nordell teaches courses in the Visual and Digital Arts Program that he created at American International College in Springfield, Mass. He blogs about the creative process at 

January 5, 2022

Vacation + New Surroundings = A Light Camera

At times, the camera seems heavy.  However, on vacation, staying at the TownePlace Suites astride the Chelsea Creek in Chelsea, MA, I headed out in pre-sunrise frigid temperatures, delighting in a fresh and photogenic environment.  A formula: vacation + new surroundings = a light camera 


Famed photographer Jay Maisel, speaking at Hallmark Institute of Photography where I used to teach, opined:  Everyone says the light is incredible in Florence.  It's not that the light is any different.  It's just that when you are on vacation and not thinking about your mortgage or job, the light is amazing. 

Angular Glow
I loved the way The Chelsea Street Bridge changed before my eyes as the sun crested the across-the-creek East Boston triple deckers, light going from flat to angular.  Working on the in-camera multiple exposure below to accentuate color and shape, the tones and shards evoked the paintings of famed Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas.  I pulled up Douglas' The Judgement Day for reference.

Homage to Aaron Douglas

Later in the morning I sat with another famed photographer Lou Jones, in his East Boston studio.  He got a kick out of Maisel's Florence and light story.  Don't miss Jones' panAfricaproject: "Redefining the Modern Image of Africa".  Jones is off to Kenya next month.

The trick is to bring the same curiosity and wonder to photography even when at home thinking about the job and mortgage.  May my camera be light.

John Nordell teaches courses in the Visual and Digital Arts Program that he created at American International College in Springfield, Mass. He blogs about the creative process at