CHAMPAIGN — The window and other displays inside Urban Outfitters in Campustown might lead visitors to feel they've stepped into a contemporary art gallery.
Sure, they're a bit commercial, made to look cool in an urban, industrial-lite style. They're meant to draw customers in. And they do.
While similar to displays in other Urban Outfitter stores, many of the ones in Campustown were created and built by Nathan Westerman, the full-time display artist at the store.
He has free rein to follow or modify the guidelines he receives from the head office for building the displays — the shelves and other fixtures come with the store.
"They want you to be inventive and take it in one direction or blow it out of the water," said Westerman, a 36-year-old alumnus of the University of Illinois master's of fine arts program in sculpture.
Westerman seems to blow it out of the water, and it's hard to believe he can make all that he makes during the 40 hours a week he works at Urban Outfitters. He said he has help pulling it all together from a team headed by store manager Alexis Hale.
Among the displays recently in the two-story front window were a staircase Westerman built that goes nowhere. It served as a frame for the men's clothing and accessories section of the store.
Silver Mylar paper covered parts of the steps. There was more Mylar and holographic paper inside, covering large sections of some walls.
On an upper floor, in what looked like a large framed painting, strategically placed pieces of faded denim stood in for paint.
Urban Outfitters employs a full-time display artist at each of its 170 locations in the United States and overseas. Sometimes Westerman travels to other outlets to help out; earlier this month he was at the Rush Street store in Chicago.
Some display artists are carpenters. Others have graphic design degrees and learn to work with wood on the job, Westerman said.
"Some of these guys are amazing," he said, adding that about a fourth of the Urban Outfitters display artists are female.
As a display artist, Westerman follows in the footsteps of other fine artists, among them the major American artist Robert Rauschenberg, who had worked early in his career in that field.
Before signing on with Urban Outfitters in 2008, Westerman had experience working with wood and other materials in art school, at two art museums where he worked, and in his own art practice.
In his small workshop at Urban Outfitters, he works quickly to meet deadlines, using mainly a circular saw, a hand drill and lots of latex paint.
He makes displays for four seasons: back to school, winter holidays, spring and summer.
The aesthetic of his pieces at Urban Outfitters, which sells young men's and women's clothing and accessories, as well as apartment accessories, has bled into his personal aesthetic as he works more with geometry and color.
"That's something that's always been in my work, but now it influences it more," Westerman said.
Most recently, in his own art practice, he is making circular abstract paintings from strips of wood. The new paintings look museum- or gallery-ready; some of them were on display recently at Amara Yoga & Arts at Lincoln Square Village in Urbana.
David O'Brien, a UI associate professor of art history, was surprised when he first saw the round paintings.
"When I first got to know Nathan about 10 years ago, the work I knew he was doing was with photography or video," O'Brien said. "It often had an absurd or comic character, somewhat in the mode of Bruce Nauman, things like 'Really Repulsive' and 'Very Vulnerable,' or the photograph 'Up the Shorts,' which was outright crass and awkward.
"He also seemed interested in the intrusive, disciplinary aspects of photography in the world today."
Westerman, whose father was a police officer in Houston, said he might return to the topic of surveillance, and he has a couple of ideas for video art.
"I'm in a place where I'm not really thinking of themes," he said. "I'm more interested in making and reacting."
Westerman might be onto something with his circular works. O'Brien said he's fond of these kinds of paintings because for effect they rely heavily on the juxtaposition of strips of color, and they force viewers to fall back on their own subjective response to the color arrangements and to make aesthetic judgments when they have few solid criteria to go by.
"Of course, Nathan's paintings are more complicated because they are made out of recycled materials — materials that have banal, semi-artistic origins," O'Brien said. "They have a heavy, solid object quality to them. And the circular paintings recall both the sun and sunsets, as well as other landscape motifs."
Like O'Brien, Lisa Costello, director of the Parkland Art Gallery, is a fan of Westerman's work.
"I always find his work to be very smart and luscious," she said. "He has a wonderful ability to transform materials into an amazing piece of artwork. Whether he is using video, recycled paint or sound, he reinterprets the materials and allows the viewer to enjoy the work on many levels or to step back and reflect on the ideas behind the concept."
Like many contemporary artists, Westerman doesn't stick to the same material or subject matter, Costello said.
"But there is an underlying thread of idea that makes his work congeal," she said. "We are lucky to have him in our community!"
Westerman arrived about a decade ago to work on his MFA. He grew up in Houston and studied at Sam Houston State University, where he graduated cum laude in 2000 with a bachelor's of fine arts degree in painting and sculpture, with a minor in art history.
After that he worked at the Houston Contemporary Art Museum, where he was a preparator, helping build exhibitions, and a member of the FAQ Team, answering questions from museum visitors.
At the same time, he worked at the museum as a guard and at a private firm as an art handler, or mover.
Being a museum guard led to his interest in the topic of surveillance, which became a theme in his early work in photography and video.
After leaving Houston, Westerman came here, having received a fellowship for his first year of study at the UI. While in grad school he also taught at the UI and worked as an exhibition preparator at Krannert Art Museum.
Westerman also worked a part-time job, from 2004 to '08, as the exhibition designer at the Springer Cultural Center in downtown Champaign.
In his own art he now works primarily with wood, using as much recycled materials as he can.
In his circular paintings, he incorporates strips of wood that came from painted moveable exhibition walls at Krannert Art Museum. He "collected" them after the walls, which hold a lot of history, were discarded.
One reason he's into making the round paintings is he can cut the strips of wood he uses from odd-shaped pieces of recycled wood.
The new pieces call to mind the work of Sol LeWitt. Another big influence, Westerman said, is Josef Albers, an influential German-born American artist and educator.
Westerman also cites artists Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Paul McCarthy, Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg.
"I feel I'm not so much inspired by them but standing on their shoulders," he said.
As for how he first became interested in art, Westerman said it might seem cheesy but one of his earliest memories is of watching his father draw a tractor on a T-shirt for Nathan's kindergarten homeroom team, the Tractors.
What really sealed his interest is typical of many artists: He had great art teachers through junior high and high school, among them Jana Macy, the high school teacher who inspired him to become an artist and teacher.
"She taught us art history along with the art-making process," he said.
Westerman has shown his art in at least 10 solo exhibitions and numerous group shows. An upcoming group show in which he will be represented is "Neopopstreetfunk 5," which opened Dec. 13 at Gallery M Squared in Houston.
Westerman also is a musician; he was the drummer in Evil Tents, a folk-dream band now on hiatus.
In a review of its 2011 CD release, a writer for Buzz Online of The Daily Illini described Evil Tents as "somewhat of a super-band, an amalgamation of various C-U projects like Withershins and The Firebird Band."
Whatever he does, Westerman chooses the best medium for executing his idea.
For now, that's wood and paint.
"Wood is one medium I know how to work well," he said.