The University of South Florida’s Department of Art and Art History held a memorial service last Friday in honor of Dr. Bradley Nickels, who was an art historian and USF associate professor of art history for 41 years. Nickels was 75 when he died on Sept. 24 of cancer in Tampa.
Originally from Orlando, Nickels was a dedicated, charismatic and somewhat controversial figure who often thought outside the box and used innovative approaches with his students.
“He had a very eclectic range of interests and brought those into what he would teach,” said Wallace Wilson, director of USF Department of Art and Art History.
Nickels taught many art history topics that were different from those of other contemporary art history professors. For example, some of his classes were “Nuclear Mythology” and “Anarchy 101,” which was an examination of a series of films about students, inmates and the mentally insane staging anarchic revolts.
An expert and proponent of anarchism, Nickels always went against the grain of commonly-accepted belief systems and political ideologies, said USF professor of art Bradlee Shanks, a long-time colleague, friend and mentee to Nickels.
“He was an archetype, an embodiment of someone who questioned and understood the flaws and futility of human constructs,” he said. “He understood that constructs, things like religion and all the “isms,” were kind of silly when really examined in the way that they became falsely idealized and the obsession with the ideas of worth based upon some arbitrary set of principles.”
Nickels always tried to get his students to assess their acquired knowledge and views critically instead of just accepting what was given or imparted on them by mass media, peers and other influences. He wanted students to discover their own identities through a thoughtful investigation, Shanks said.
Nickels was also instrumental in changing the way art history was taught in universities.
Originally, college students learned art history primarily by memorizing an artwork and its facts, such as its name, artist, date and location of its creation.
Nickels rejected this instructional method by lecturing anecdotally and making strong, articulate connections between art, its history, its effect on people’s lives and culture. He began teaching in this manner before the educational movement went that way in art history.
One of the first professors at USF to employ computers for educational purposes, Nickels required his students to use email for communication and submission of written assignments. He developed websites and pre-blog discussion forums for his classes before the internet became a popular academic tool.
Nickels loved being an art history professor and came to work every day, including weekends and during summers when he did not teach classes.
“He loved teaching, loved the engagement with the students,” Wilson said. “I think he gained a lot personally from watching students learn.”
Although he cared for his students, Nickels could get severe with those students he felt were being lazy or not honestly applying themselves. Nickels had way of jolting the daydreamers so that all students gave their full attention during class but it often was done with good humor.
“Art history classes are always taught in a darkroom because you are showing images, so the lights are dimmed,” said Dr. Riccardo Marchi, USF professor of art history and Nickels’ faculty replacement. “There is a tendency sometimes for the students to lose their attention, so he would have this booming voice going and call on the students to wake up.”
For his valuable professorial contributions to USF, Nickels won every major teaching award and honor that USF has to offer, like a TIP Award and two Outstanding Teacher Awards. Art History students that went through his classes remember and respect him after they graduated and move on, Marchi said.
Nickels earned a doctorate degree from Indiana University in European and American Art (19th to 20th century) in 1966 after getting a bachelor’s at the University of Florida in 1959.
In addition to teaching, Nickels presented research papers at least five times at national conferences, published catalogs at various Florida museums and participated in several distinguished events within the arts community.
Nickels is survived by one son, David Nickels.