Oroville sculptor/fabricator Steve Nielsen never stops
“I love to do anything creative. During the day, I run my own business, building custom parts for custom vehicles. When I get time, I like building sculptures from steel. Many options still not explored, but time is always against me. I hope I can retire one day and just become a full-time artist.”
These words by Steve Nielsen, from his profile on the Art Bistro artist/designer networking site on which he is a moderator, are characteristically understated.
Yes, Nielsen runs his own business building custom parts for custom vehicles.
What Nielsen doesn’t mention, however, is that he—and his Oroville-based after-market automotive customizing business CanDo Specialties Inc.—is widely known internationally in the customized mini-pickup-truck world, and has been since the late 1990s.
When pressed about his fame, Nielsen—brown-haired and brown-eyed, with a boyish charm—admitted, “I’m kinda known more worldwide in the truck industry than in Oroville.”
Nielsen has written more than 100 step-by-step DIY articles for Mini Truckin’ magazine, and currently has a series of similar articles running in Street Trucks magazine. Vehicles that he’s tricked out with his elaborate airbrushed paint jobs and modified with the how-low-can-you-go “body-dropping” have also been featured in mini-truck magazines worldwide. “Alter Ego,” a super-low-riding, bright-lime-green 1989 Toyota pickup with headlights and a front-end grafted from a ‘98 Toyota Tacoma and taillights from a Chevy S-10, is one prime example.
Nielsen also employs his precise, painterly eye for realism in the making of metal sculptures of dinosaurs, butterflies, dragonflies, salmon and steelhead, which he had on show in his beautifully landscaped back yard (his first job out of high school was doing landscape maintenance for Oroville Union High School District) during the recent Open Studios Tour weekend in Oroville.
A shelf in Nielsen’s office crowded with dozens of stacked, empty cans of Rock Star energy drinks and his red-rimmed eyes are the only clues to just how in demand and impossibly busy he really is. The energetic 37-year-old works about 100 hours per week—the only day he takes off during the first six months of the year is Jan. 20, his wedding anniversary.
Nielsen’s 12-hour-plus work day consists in part of answering hundreds of e-mails and phone calls, and filling orders from around the world for his custom-made mini-truck parts. In the shop, he does all of the lowering, streamlining and installing of air-suspension systems into his customers’ small pickups, as well as customizing the vehicles by adding such slick items as Lexan (a highly durable plastic) rear windows and metal tailgate “skins” that make the rear end of the truck appear seamless. Both the Lexan windows and the tailgate skins were created by Nielsen—who is also an experienced metal fabricator—during the mid-1990s.
“Yeah, I’ve kind of changed the industry a little bit,” said Nielsen of his hugely popular inventions.
His business is rocking and rolling, but like he says, when he gets time these days, he likes to build sculptures from steel.
“I’ve been an artist as far back as I can remember,” explained Nielsen, his voice softening, before telling a story of how he was asked in kindergarten to paint a landscape picture. Nielsen brought the assignment to his father, who had studied art through high school, for advice.
“My dad showed me how to paint a mountain, how to look at a mountain—its depth, shape, shadows, light,” Nielsen reflected. “I think of his advice on a weekly basis. From that little thing, everything I ever did—painting motorcycle helmets, trucks—I always think of what he taught me about realism, about depth, about perception.”
The city of Oroville recently gave Nielsen a grant to create a large metal sculpture for the park area currently being developed along the river behind Municipal Auditorium. Nielsen plans to make a stainless-steel eagle with open wings landing on a rock with a fish in its clutches.
“Every feather will be hand cut, sanded, shaped, polished and applied one feather at a time,” said the meticulous sculptor. “I want to look back 10 years from now and know that I couldn’t have done it any better.”