Art is an expression, yet it expresses itself in many different ways. Expression goes on everywhere we look; sometimes its form is nothing more that two people who are able to achieve an understanding of what is being said. Learning from an artist is learning how to decipher their expression. If you listen, watch and allow yourself the freedom to let go, you will get a gift from an artist without ever picking up or even observing the particular piece they are working on.
I know such a man, he carries his art everywhere he goes, his silence is art, and yet when he speaks he gives you a gift. I have received many gifts from him in the years I have known him. I have asked him if I can interview him, and suddenly I began to learn more about this man, more understanding, and our communication is becoming a form of art, it is an art of expression.
John is a simple man, he carries no great presence, small in stature, moving about his community most of the time he would go unnoticed. He does not speak loud; he does not carry a big stick. He is very humble and sometimes he almost disappears. John has done many things; he has experienced life in many ways that in my opinion has helped develop his art. John is an also a very spiritual man, he expresses his spirituality in many ways, and when you ask him to tell you about that, he speaks little.
I asked John several leading questions about his early influences in art. John continues to drift back to his family. John tells me early on “there was no art in (k-12) school, and I am thinking I never really had anyone I looked up to as an artist or a sculptor”. Nonetheless, many of his comments would lead to a conclusion that John’s early influence even in art, was his dad.
Jimmie: So John when did you first get the feeling that you had a calling for art?
John: Well it goes back to when I was a kid growing up on the farm. I was probably about 8 and would go out to the barn and take various materials that I could find and make things. I recall one time making my mom a birthday present, she put some plastic flowers in it and hung it on the wall. [John laughs telling me this.]
Jimmie: Did you mind that she was re-decorating your handmade art piece with plastic flowers.
John: Not back then, but today thinking back on it, it seems rather funny.
Jimmie: So John, tell me more about your education in art and how you have evolved into the work in sculpture that you are doing today.
John: As I said, I grew up on a farm in Missouri, my Grandfather and my Father worked that land, when I grew up my Father wanted something better for me. He had worked hard all his life and did not want to see me have the same struggle as he, you know, he wanted me to have a better life. So actually when I got to college, even though at the time I had a keen interest in art, I knew that I would not make my Father very happy. As you know artist life can be just as much a struggle as farming in some ways. I took a class in Industrial art when I first started school, I was thinking about teaching shop.
I was always trying to do the “expected” you know. My Father expected me to do something other than a farmer. Education was the only way in their eyes that could happen; otherwise I would just be like he was. Stay there on the farm just like he had to all his life….
The Anvil, the Little Giant….
I asked John to describe his shop…
“Steel requires extreme measure to move around and manipulate, heat and pressure. What I have here are hydraulic abilities one is a press one is spinner and both are hooked to a power house. So I can spin or press metal. That multiples my human strength 100 times.” John tells me the trip hammer came from a blacksmith who lived in a town near where he grew up. It is called little giant trip hammer. It was built at the turn of century for the WWI effort. “They were built to hammer out parts to build armored vehicles with; they ran off shafts that used steam engine…later electric.” he continues, “This particular item was used to pound out plow shears for my Grandfather.” “I just got this trip hammer…..they are very rare. I made a bid on ebay for one, and found out the man who had it…..had pound out the tools that Grandfather used on the farm.”
“The anvil was brought over on a ship from Germany by my Grandfather, both my Grandfather and Father used it on our farm for horse shoes, I got this when my Father died back in 1990, this is one of the few things that I got from our family farm.” John then goes on to explain, “That piece of metal has a lot of meaning to my work in metal, my ability to use it allows me to remain connected to my roots. Just knowing I am “hammering out a living” with the same anvil that my ancestors used as farmers allows me to hold on to that family work ethic in a real physical way.”
Bringing that work ethic back into his art.
Suddenly Johns art becomes almost a metaphor for what the heat and metal are able to do, which is merging something as basic to our culture as the family farm work ethic into art. You begin to sense a very deep and spiritual core that co-exist in John which is his desire to create art and love of family values that were passed down to him from generations of men who as John stated so beautifully ”literally straighten a river by hand”. Yes, there is art here, and John expresses it through a deep love and longing to remain connected.
John continues to reflect back to his Father telling me this:
“He had aspirations I think as a poet, he did beautiful poetry, he wrote under a pen name and would submit articles and poetry to the local newspaper. Since my Dad wrote under a pen name, they never mentioned his name; I think he was ashamed that he liked poetry”
Looking back in rural America in communities where John and I grew up, I asked John if he ever got the sense that becoming an artist was a career move. John tells me this:
“That is why I thought if I majored in Industrial art, I could make furniture, or maybe teach shop, but the work was not the free form that I was looking for and what I found was the art classes that allowed me more freedom of expression was what I was drawn to. I also realized that my focus upon art in college was not making my parents happy; after all they sent me to college to make a living. And my Dad had a point. It has been a long haul trying to hang on to my art and living in world that demands rent.
John completed college, got a BSE in Art, he tried teaching for a while, but “that was not my calling’’ I dropped out of the art world for a while, however he finally remained true to his heart and keeping his dream alive has gotten to a place where his art is his total commitment.
“In the moment” creatively speaking
“I have begun to dovetail into a making a living and let go of sculpture for sculpture sake. I am beginning to make architectural related objects that are artistic in nature, but they have function. So I am selling function with artist artiness.”
Do you feel that is giving you the creative freedom that you need?
“There are days when I don’t want to fit any mold at all, especially function. So I will hammer out objects and they are almost a rebellion and these things, they just go through me, and they please me to no end, meaning they don’t have to do or look like anything. Whatever it is, it doesn’t have to fill any function other than this creative moment.
Iron lends itself to that creative moment, cause you only have a few seconds to move it. To be able to change its shape, form, and to not have to a goal what that has to look like and let the metal and the heat be the deciding factor. There is some real value in that [letting go].
I am starting to realize that this creative moment can happen in functional art as well. Like the current piece I am working on is a Hall Tree, it is sitting right there. It did not even start out as a Hall Tree, it was different moments where I had a piece of iron and would take it and go through the shaping and forming process. So these objects are from “in the moment” and I take them and lay them out, and draw a picture and still did not know what it was [going to be]….finally it began to reveal itself, and now I am making a hall tree. So I am starting to see how function can be expressive, as long as I am not dead set on what the function is, and it may change before I finish. I need the mystery and freedom that will allow my art to reveal itself; I need this in order to be alive at what I am doing.”
The Paradox’s of John’s Life…
The diamond has many points….a diamond cutter analyzes the rough diamond, and has to determine how to extract the most beauty and most profit out of the rough stone.
Cut refers to not only the shape of the diamond, but its proportions and finish, factors which determine the sparkle of the diamond. To me, John’s life has emerged like a well cut diamond; he has taken all the roughness of his life and shaped it into a glorious multi-dimensional sparkle. Art being one of the many facets.
Teaching tai-chi to the monks
John went back to live with his mother while she was suffering with Alzheimer’s, during that year he was able to teach tai-chi at a nearby monastery. “I was 36 years old, going through my first divorce, trying to fight life, and it was killing me and I was not doing my art. Tai Chi miraculously showed up, and through that body consciousness I became strong. I have been very fortunate to have met up with people who have what I need, just at the right time. Today I am seeing an even deeper level of doors open when one follows their bliss.’’
The sweat lodge…
Something happens in that heat, we become pliable enough to pray, deeply pray, and respectful, something going on with that heat….Sun, Father, comes down and heats us, alchemy….making something that is one thing into something else. Mysteriously transforming changing something from heavy physical into spirit. There is something very alchemical to all of this.
“That spray of sparks”
“I used to watch my Father sharpen tools on the mower cycle on the emery stone, and watch the spray of sparks. I wanted that to be more real, there was some pull that required more knowing, more understanding. Seems thinking back that is what I have done here, I have that back.”
John leaves me with this one last thought:
“Key to my art? My connection to my family, I see the work here as the masculine principle that guides me, I see the spiritual as the feminine principle I combine them both to create my art.”
John has such a broad range of talent, at times you see that unassuming and gentle creation and it seems his humble nature is always in lead position. However, all of this changes when he begins to work on the massiveness of his sculpture or building his own home, suddenly that same man transforms into what I would like to describe “that little giant, hammering out his art”.