Art lives on
Sacramento mourns the loss of artist Nathan Cordero—what path did he forge in this rising creative city?
Stacy McConnen opens the door to her East Sacramento home, her oversized T-shirt marked with long-dried paint stains. She moves through the first floor, passing a white wooden canvas depicting a smoking man with a spider crawling up his face. Then a bright collage; another carving, another collage; and a crutch transformed into art and hung on the wall.
Strings of origami cranes hang from the ceiling. Unlike the other pieces, that’s her handiwork.
“I made those for our wedding,” McConnen says. “Supposedly it’s good luck, it’s a Japanese tradition.” She folded the cranes with her sisters and friends until they reached 1,000 for the at-home ceremony three years ago. There’s still at least one strand of cranes in each room.
The dining room’s baby grand piano is covered in cards with sympathetic phrases like, “I’m here for you.” The cards surround a framed photo of McConnen and her husband, the man whose art spans the house.
Nathan Cordero wasn’t afraid to take up space. He branded the city with small wood carvings of cigarettes and bleeding fingers, which he transformed into stickers using carpet tape. He blasted music in his backyard art studio. He trekked for miles while metal detecting. He occupied spaces with remarkable warmth and authenticity.
Put him in a room, and Cordero made friends. His generosity with time and his welcoming nature is captured in a recurring phrase he used in his work: “Stay awhile.” He would slice this reappearing phrase into paper, carve it into wood and etch it into glass.
“Nate just had an ease in his own environment and the way he interacted with people,” said his friend Liv Moe, founding director of Verge Center for the Arts on S Street. “One of our friends mentioned that he had a very untroubled mind, and I think that’s a really good way to put it.”
Cordero, a Sacramento artist who was a staple at local shows and had a history of exhibiting at museums throughout Northern California, died on August 15 from complications following a seizure. He was 43.
As Cordero developed artistically, the city where he lived grew with him. In recent years, shiny displays of Sacramento’s changing art scene have come in many forms, including through Instagram-worthy temporary art experiences and events that draw artists with international name recognition. The city recently committed to providing support and grants for local arts projects through its Creative Economy Pilot Project, and crowdsourced a longterm arts and culture vision with its Creative Edge plan.
As Sacramento aims to make its mark as a creative city on the rise, what path did Cordero forge, and where was he headed next?
As a kid, Cordero explored Yolo County’s hills and fields in search of treasures, collecting arrowheads and arcane tools. His uncle, a graphic designer, spurred his interest in art, and Cordero was in a high school art class in Woodland when substitute teacher and famed figurative painter Troy Dalton noticed him.
“Troy somehow knew right away that Nathan was an artist,” said Andrew Patterson, a professor at Shasta College in Redding and close friend of Cordero’s. They previously lived together in Sacramento.
Dalton hired Cordero as his studio assistant, or, as Dalton jokingly called him, “studio bitch.” Cordero got hands-on experience prepping canvas and expanded his network, as Dalton introduced him to other artists. Dalton died in 2010.
“That kind of shaped the direction that Nate went in, not necessarily aesthetically … but I think in terms of where Nate was aspiring to and what he thought a professional artist looked like,” Moe said.
Like many artists today, Cordero started with street art. Throughout his career, he stenciled letters and words, including in his large 2008 piece titled, “I will not write on other peoples property, I will.” The phrase repeats in thick block letters, flowing from line to line recklessly. He used discarded chalkboard to make it, and in 2013, it was part of an exhibit that showcased Sacramento sculptors at the di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art in Napa.
Cordero recently sold it to Canon East Sac, where it hangs in the restaurant’s private dining room. Another piece by Cordero, a vertical, multimedia collage made of small tan pieces of wood, pieces of found photographs and pops of colorful painted materials, is displayed in the main dining room.
His street art sensibility came through in many ways, like using DIY stickers to spread an image or message. But instead of sticker paper, he found thin slabs of wood, which he often painted white and then carved.
Always holding the razor with his bare hand, he’d often cut his finger, then carve a gashed finger, dripping with blood.
Cordero created images that were like journal entries. When a co-worker at an old job was bitten by a spider, he gifted his colleague with a personalized carving of an arachnid with the word “Sorry.”
He made funny gifts for friends, like a piece that said, “puberty,” carved into wood in thin, wiry, hair-like lettering. He’d made the piece for Patterson, who laughed as he thought of people getting close enough to understand the pun.
“He was doing it so frequently that it was like sketching,” Moe said. “To come out of street art and then push it into something that’s yours is amazing.”
Cigarettes were another ubiquitous image. He carved single smokes onto his wooden stickers, or a worn pack of Marlboros, sometimes using leftover floorboards. Sometimes he unfolded, deconstructed and displayed the actual Marlboro cardboard packaging.
He tagged high-traffic areas like Sacramento State University and the Warehouse Artist Lofts on R Street with these wooden stickers.
“He liked that idea that you could be going about your day and something would stop you and remind you that life’s pleasant,” Moe said. It was his whimsical way of engaging people he’d maybe never meet.
After more than a decade knowing Cordero, Moe said the past few weeks have given her time to recall cherished memories. Their friendship began in 2008, around the time Verge launched its original iteration. She thought Cordero’s easy-going nature would be a good addition to Verge, but he moved to New York.
She figured their short-lived friendship was over—until she started receiving postcards.
“He’d be like, ‘Hey, I think about Verge a lot. I’m really bummed I didn’t get to be part of that community, it was really neat getting to know you and Tim [Moe’s husband]. I’m sad we’re not friends,'” Moe said. “And I remember thinking, ‘God, you know, people don’t do that. They’re just not that thoughtful.'”
Around 2011, Cordero returned to Sacramento and rejoined the Verge community. They’d moved into a larger space at S and Sixth streets, but all 37 artist studios were occupied. When Moe offered the only room left—a shared kitchen space—Cordero happily took it. He eventually shared a studio space with Patterson, but not before he’d destroyed the kitchen’s linoleum floor with razor blades and spoiled a few refrigerators full of food in the name of art.
“Myself and a couple other artists here used to joke about Nate being like a goldfish,” Moe joked. “You know, he would go to fit the size of his pond.”
Around the time Cordero returned, he experienced a series of hardships: he was going through a divorce, his mother Susan had died and he was hit by a car in Midtown. But from the outside, he didn’t slow down.
“During those three or four months,” Patterson said, “he continued to explore, make art, meet new friends, spend time with old ones, and work. … Some friends recently told me they didn’t know he was going through such a hard time.”
At Cordero’s funeral, McConnen told the crowd that they tried to live without fear of his epilepsy. Moe said the same reality that made him such a consistent worker ended up taking him away.
“I feel like Nate had this dimension of his life that impacted him in a way that just was so fucking unfair,” she said. “And it just makes me … angry.”
The word “obsession” comes up when talking about Cordero. McConnen’s own creative leanings in photography and graphic design were fueled by her husband’s enthusiasm. She included support for his art in her vows, but admits it wasn’t always an easy promise to live up to.
“He could be kind of frantic about it and super messy and always bringing materials that he saw as potential for art,” she said. “But he also had that unique ability to share that passion and bring it alive for other people … When he got into something, he just got so into it. And I envied that.”
Cordero found his next major obsession in McConnen’s step-father’s garage: a metal detector. He began scanning Midtown and set out to make friends who shared his appetite for discovery.
Ryan Lambert regularly hunted the hills of Sacramento’s surrounding towns with Cordero. Because of his epilepsy, Cordero couldn’t drive, so he got rides to spots like Colfax and El Dorado Hills. He could spend hours researching mining camps in old Gold Rush towns.
“That’s the whole kind of key to finding good stuff,” Lambert said. “So he’d do the research and I’d do the driving.”
Cordero extracted cans, bottles, pipes and diamond rings, countless items he’d often use in his art. One of Lambert’s favorite Cordero pieces is simple.
"[It’s] just a smashed aluminum can, from maybe the ‘60s era, and it’s framed,” Lambert said. “It might not be amazing for other people, but it’s just a personal thing for me, especially because it was gifted.”
Forgotten objects were part of Cordero’s artistic toolkit. His 2014 show at Shasta College, called “We Will Explore and Take What We Can,” featured art created from his finds. He made a video to show students his process: from the detecting to the extraction, and ending with the neatly organized found items. His di Rosa show also highlighted found objects, and a Napa newspaper clipping shows him searching the museum grounds—detector in hand—during his exhibit there.
“Everything he did was some sort of inspiration or fodder for the content of what he was developing,” Moe said. “It was so interesting to see where Nate has gone in the last 11 years that I’ve known him. … It just makes me wonder where he was going.”
At JayJay Gallery, Cordero’s pieces from a July-August show recently came down off the wall. They are simple and abstract, reflecting his work as a house painter. One piece is a used painter’s drop cloth stretched across canvas; another is a thin, abstract self-portrait he created, using his work shirt and pants.
“The pieces that he was showing there started to look an awful lot like art,” said Chris Daubert, an artist, educator and curator. His work appeared alongside Cordero’s at di Rosa, and he also invited Cordero to exhibit at Sac City College’s Kondos Gallery. He said Nate’s recent pieces were more fitting for what galleries like JayJay show and sell. It’s not so much a reflection of maturity, he said, but Cordero working with his environment as he’d always done.
“He was making beautiful abstractions out of drop cloths and painters pants.” Daubert said. “Since he was kind of untethered to traditional structure … everybody was wondering what’s he going to be doing in five years.”
Gallery owners Beth Jones and Lynda Jolly have known of Cordero’s work for a decade and a half, but got to know him personally when he started helping them install exhibitions earlier this year.
The gallery had just started representing Cordero, which could have opened up opportunities for him to connect with collectors and further market his work. Daubert said the absence of an art market in Sacramento has created a scrappy, ground-up approach.
“It’s always been a do-it-yourself environment,” he said. “Nate fit into that really well. … He was recognized both in museum and gallery settings but also on the street.”
That DIY work ethic was behind the capacity-pushing M5 Arts projects Art Hotel and Art Street. Organized by the nonprofit M5 Arts, the exhibits gave local artists large, temporary spaces to showcase their work. Cordero was included in both.
The downtown landscape is now dotted with works by prominent contemporary artists. Two years ago, an 18-foot sculpture by pop artist Jeff Koons was unveiled outside Golden 1 Center, just a block down from a 41-year-old mural painted by the Sacramento-based Royal Chicano Air Force. This summer, street artist Shepard Fairey painted a giant mural of Johnny Cash that overlooks L Street as part of Wide Open Walls.
At the same time, the city and county have teamed up with arts organizations to bolster support for Sacramento creatives. The city enacted its Creative Edge initiative—a seven-year plan to invest in efforts like arts education and artist opportunities. In early 2017, Sacramento City Council green-lit the Creative Economy Pilot Project, a grant program which funded 57 local arts and cultural efforts, including the homegrown, all-local First Festival.
And later this month, an effort led by Sacramentans Jay Siren and Jay Sales to highlight the city’s visual and performance artists will kick off with the first of a series of pop-up events at the California Automobile Museum.
As the city continues to see new opportunities for artists to create and show their work to a larger audience, it’s impossible to know exactly the direction Nate was headed.
“He was very well thought of, very active and when that spirit goes away there’s an empty spot,” Daubert said. “But I’m sure Nate hopes someone’s going to fill it, and we all do.”
Alone in the pond
Back at McConnen’s house, wooden Trumps line a wall in the hallway. The yellow hair, black suit, white shirt and red tie is painted onto several slender planks of wood, each three to six feet high. Cordero had posted pictures of his Trumps on Instagram in late July, using punny captions like “Dumb as a plank of wood,” and #dumbasastump.
McConnen sorts through the Trumps. “We didn’t care for Trump,” she said. “It’s just like a caricature.”
He had added a white square at the base with a red X inside to one of the Trumps, to indicate the art wasn’t necessarily posted in support.
On the last Monday of Cordero’s life, the couple had dinner with friends at Shoki Ramen House, kitty-corner to Warehouse Artist Lofts. He came equipped with a Trump, posting it nearby, where the four-foot depiction stood for about three weeks before it was removed.
But more will be up soon. McConnen just needs to paint the red X at the base of the rest of them before she plants them around town. That was Nate’s plan.
McConnen said there’s an overwhelming amount of artwork to go through in the house. Folks have asked about purchasing his work, but she’s not there yet.
“First, I want to just take stock of it all,” she said. “[There are] definitely pieces I’m going to keep.”
Cordero often gifted his art, and McConnen said she knows he would have loved for people to have it.
“I think I’m going to sit with it all for a while,” she said.
In the living room, McConnen handles the last few of Nate’s wooden cigarette slap stickers. She holds them out, runs her fingers over the “RIP” she’s carved above the single smoke.
“Being close to someone who’s an artist and watching how they work and think, it’s just amazing,” she says. “I’m so glad to have been so close to that, for the little time that I was.”
She’s going to post the few remaining cigarette stickers around town—a little higher than Nate normally would, to dissuade folks from taking them. Or at least make them work for it.
She recently posted one at 10th and L streets, facing the Golden 1 Center. It’s still there, inviting folks to look up for a moment, maybe light up a smoke and stay awhile.