An intimate biography of sculptor John Henry Waddell aired over the summer on KAET, Channel 8, and it got me to thinking about his enormous and perhaps overlooked contributions to public art in Arizona.
How many times have you walked by “Dance” outside the Herberger Theater and taken its presence for granted? Or have you seen his work at another public space perhaps, but not lingered long enough to read his name on the plaque and admire his trademark sinuous, nude figures?
I plead guilty, so I set out to capture photographically a few of his sculptures around Phoenix, and you can see them below.
Along with that, by way of small reparation for my lack of Waddell knowledge, here are nine things to appreciate about the 91-year-old artist:
1. For a time in the early 1960s, he ran the art education program at Arizona State College, later to become ASU.
2. “Dance,” on view since 1974 at the Phoenix Civic Plaza and later moved to an equally visible location at the Herberger, helped establish the growing city’s commitment to public art. The work consists of 11 life-sized figures in graceful poses and one figure playing a flute.
3. He is internationally known for his piece “That Which Might Have Been: Birmingham 1963,” which was a labor of love and a tribute to the four innocent black girls who died in a Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing.
4. If the idealized figures in his work remind you of Greek sculpture, that is partly because he studied ancient art traditions while living in Greece.
5. He overcame the adversity of losing all his works in a 1984 fire at his rural Arizona studio. A smaller studio went up within 10 months, and Waddell resumed his work.
6. He also endured the misfortune of having his work stolen from the sculpture garden that overlooks his home. The sculptures ended up as scrap metal, but Waddell and his wife, Ruth, defied the thieves and recast the sculptures.
7. In the last few years he completed “Rising,” an ethereal wall relief of several standing and floating nude figures being gazed upon by a seated woman.
8. Apprentices from all over the world studied with Waddell at his Cornville studio.
9. In addition to his bronzes, Waddell created paintings and drawings.
Catch the Channel 8 special when it repeats, or carve out a bit of time to admire one of his public art pieces in town.