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Sculptor John Waddell
Celebrates the Diversity of Life

by Pamela Williams 

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John Waddell Interview (1995)
Copyright by Don Gray

John Waddell has completed the final figure in his nine and one half year, fourteen figure, sculptural odyssey, "The Celebration of Life." "The Runner," over-lifesize like the entire group, will be exhibited with other work by this major Arizona artist beginning January 5th and continuing through the month at the Joy Tash Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Don Gray: How does "The Runner" fit into the overall plan of "The Celebration of Life"?

John Waddell: "The Runner" is the lead figure in a group of six moving toward an older man in his 70's beckoning to them. She is a lovely young girl in her late teens contrasting with the more mature figures around her.

Gray: Does that mean she is more eager to find the truth the old man offers?

Waddell: She has the life of the young person, the willingness to tackle something different. "The Celebration of Life" is the progression from "That Which Might Have Been," the memorial to the four girls killed in the Birmingham, Alabama church bombing in 1963. I first discovered then, thirty-one years ago, what I've spent the rest of my time doing, what I call the beauty of individual differences.

I was hoping I'd get a commission to do "The Celebration of Life." I wanted to continue to show how beautiful man is because that's the theme of my work. Then I had a large fire in 1984, which completely destroyed my studio. After that I said the heck with it, I'm going ahead and do this piece even though I don't have any backing. So, over the last nine and one half years, I have created fourteen over-lifesize figures which I hope I'11 place. I supported the work through the sale of small sculpture and occasional large single figures, drawings and even paintings.

Gray: How have you kept such a positive view of life and art in the face of our troubled times?

Waddell: Until a few years ago I had apprentices, fifty over the last twenty- two years, usually three, four, five at a time. It was kind of a faint echo of what Frank Lloyd Wright did at Taliesin or what Paolo Soleri is doing at Arcosanti. Being out here in the country and having these wonderful young people around me with their problems and their joys have kept me very positive.

Gray: That's a wonderful attitude in a time of either Minimalist abstraction or "Let's lay out all the possible horrors of life with the worst possible aesthetics."

Waddell: I think that art can become very fragmented. Since I resigned from ASU in the 1960s, I have consciously tried to find settings which would allow me to keep the continuity of a life that has been devoted to the human form; not to allow myself to be fragmented by the commercial world or whatever.

There are so many different things that can fragment a person. It's always been a struggle financially because I'm always trying to do more than I can do, like this fourteen figure "Celebration of Life" without a commission. But on the other hand, I have a lot of people now. The patrons aren't just people with money, but also people with skills who are willing to help make it happen.

Gray: Talk about "Adam and Eve" in "The Celebration of Life."

Waddell: The "Expulsion From the Garden," the "Adam and Eve" figures, are the most poignant and least hopeful of the fourteen figures because they're basically saying the whole earth is the Garden of Eden and were kicking ourselves out of it. It's a plea for attention to the environment. I hope my work acts on the peripheral unconscious id of culture, that something may come from it.

Gray: I sometimes wonder if art makes any difference at all in the functioning of society. It seems we continue to do the horrific things that we do despite the Rembrandts, the Da Vincis.

Waddell: I think its the nuance that does it, the subtleties of change. You don't see the onlooker now or a hundred years from now who may see something and carry it a step further. I just think I'm in the stream of figurative art, and I'm trying to carry it a little bit further in my own direction. I want to say that each one of the people in "The Celebration of Life," and all the figures I do, become an integral part of my life; I get to know them very well, and they know us very well. Another reason I've been able to keep a positive attitude is my wife, Ruth, who is absolutely understanding and aware of what I'm doing, and perhaps in some cases even more than I am, which is unusual. Many artists don't have that luck to have a wife who understands so much about art.

Gray: I happen to have an artist for a wife, so I can appreciate that.

Waddell: It's wonderful isn't it?

Gray: Art is the artist's life, it's what you feel and think; it's what you are. . .it's what we have to share with people.

Waddell: I have a friend who was a pretty good artist. His wife wouldn't let him hang his work in the living room because it offended her bridge club. That's the extreme.

Gray: The real world has entered the artist's home.

Waddell: (laughs) Yes, exactly.

Don Gray is a painter who writes. Now living in Arizona, he resided in New
York for twenty-five years at the time these essays were written in the
1970's and 80's. In addition to being an artist, critic and poet, he was a college
and university professor of studio art and art history, and a producer/ moderator of cable television programs on art. He received a B.A. degree in Art from Arizona State University and an M.A. degree in Art from the University of Iowa. He has been a supporter of significant realist art for more than 40 years. He may be reached at his website

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