BACKSTAGE PASS: Man of steel


BACKSTAGE PASS: Man of steel


Date: November 9, 2011
by: Heidi Kurpiela | A&E Editor



Sarasota Season of Sculpture is back on the bayfront, and in case you hadn’t noticed, the show is much less in-your-face than previous exhibitions.

There are no junkyard cars planted upright in the grass, no giant teeth, no dancing stick figures and no public displays of affection.

At the helm of this year’s selection is John Henry — a Tennessee-based sculptor with a Southern drawl, a fitting name and a reputation for creating monumental steel structures.

At an age when most men are starting to settle into retirement, Henry, 68, is busier than ever, flying in and out of cities every week to install work, attend museum events and gallery openings.

Last week he was at the International Art Fair in Canada. Prior to that, he was in northern Wyoming. And, now, this week he’s in Sarasota, kicking off the sixth Season of Sculpture.

“Under Azure Skies,” which Henry curated in 2007, features work by Verina S. Baxter, Chakaia Booker, John Clement, Isaac Duncan, Terry Karpowicz, Peter Lundberg, Albert Paley, Bret Price, Douglas Schatz and Henry.

It’s a diverse collection of 10 abstract works sculpted from steel, concrete, wood, granite and rubber. Up until now it’s been on public display in Lucerne, Switzerland.

“Aesthetically, I think maybe it’s a little more challenging than other shows in the past,” Henry says of the exhibition. “I don’t think it’s as provocative as the cars buried in the ground, or as ‘Unconditional Surrender.’”

That’s not to say that he took umbrage with any of the previous shows. A statement-making artist in his own right, Henry says he thought Dustin Shuler’s dancing cars were “pretty cool.”

Over the course of 40 years, Henry has produced some of the largest contemporary public-art sculptures in the United States.

Take, for example, his 70-foot-tall “Star Pointer,” which went up on the Sarasota bayfront during Season of Sculpture’s fourth show.

The striking geometric structure, which stayed up long after the rest of the exhibition came down, had all the elements of a typical John Henry sculpture. It was towering; it was steel; and it was red.

“There has to be a certain amount of camaraderie between the environment and the sculpture,” Henry says. “A lot of good sculptures get lost in the urban environment because of the scale of the buildings around it. It becomes an afterthought. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in sculpture that makes a strong individual statement.”

Usually this means his work ends up painted red.

“It’s not that I love red,” Henry says. “It’s just a good, strong color that sets itself apart from other things. Why do you think fire trucks have been painted red for years?”

As a kid he thought he wanted to be an architect, until he took his first art class at the University of Kentucky and realized he was more interested in the creative side of construction.

Listening to him talk about space and scale, size and color, you wonder what kind of signature buildings Henry would have designed had he not pursued a career in art.

Then again, with a name like John Henry, how could he not work with steel?

“I’ve heard that one maybe 1,000 times,” Henry says with a heavy sigh. “There are actually three famous John Henrys out there. There’s John Henry the steel-driving man, John Henry the racehorse, and John Henry the guy who makes shirts and underwear.”

Sarasota Season of Sculpture’s sixth season, “Under Azure Skies,” opens at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 11 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on the bayfront. For more information, visit

Like many non-profit organization, Sarasota Season of Sculpture has had to find creative ways to produce shows with dwindling funds.

The organization can no longer afford to pay an executive director, which means a volunteer board of directors is responsible for running this year’s exhibition.

According to board President Susan McLeod, by bringing in a show that had already been curated, the organization was able to cut its expenses by 50%.

“This is really a make-or-break show for us,” McLeod says. “It’s not the largest by any means, but it’s one of the strongest, and we were fortunate to be able to work with John Henry to make it happen in these economic times.”


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