News Column

John Kearney, who sculpted with car chrome, dies

August 11, 2014

By Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune



Aug. 11--There is wonder in the work of sculptor John Kearney, and that wonder -- in the form of large-scale metal sculptures that dot the Chicago area -- gives joy to any who pass by the Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, Scare Crow and Dorothy and Toto in Oz Park; the gorilla climbing up a wall in Uptown; three deer at the Aon Building; and creatures at the Museum of Science and Industry and the Lincoln Park Zoo.

His work is in museums across the world and was collected by luminaries including Studs Terkel, Brigitte Bardot, Johnny Carson, Norman Mailer and Kirk Douglas.

Mr. Kearney, known as Jack, was also an influential teacher and mentor for generations of artists, and he was greatly admired for creating one-of-a-kind sculptures used as awards since 1980 by the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence.

"(They) have a lot of power," one of the organization's founders, Patricia Koldyke, told the Tribune in 1994. "(Jack) doesn't do it for the recognition in his field; he does it because he cares about the cause."

Mr. Kearney, 89, died Sunday, Aug. 10, at the Admiral, a continuing care retirement community on the North Side where he had been a resident for the past year.

"They said it was heart failure," said his wife, Lynn. "That's hard to believe. Jack's heart was so big you might think it indestructible."

Mr. Kearney was born in Omaha, Neb., and as a child traveled the country with his father, who sold building supplies to architects. He later said he had wanted to be an artist since the third grade, but his formal education was delayed until after he served four years in the South Pacific with the Navy during World War II.

He enrolled in the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., on the GI Bill and later won a Fulbright scholarship to study in Italy.

He began to make a living painting and silver- and goldsmithing (he made a pair of cuff links for Duke Ellington) but was drawn increasingly to sculpture. In Chicago in 1949, he and other local artists founded the Contemporary Art Workshop, a highly regarded nonprofit Chicago institution that provided affordable studio and exhibition spaces for emerging artists.

Mr. Kearney worked, taught and lectured at the workshop until its closing in 2009.

At that time, former Tribune art critic Alan Artner wrote that this "one-of-a-kind operation ... has lasted longer than nearly every other art institution in town. Its combination of exhibitions, studios and classes makes it truly irreplaceable. ... No other Chicago venue has done more for young artists. No other place in the United States has served the interests of a local art community as consistently and selflessly."

Mr. Kearney ran the place with his wife, whom he met when she began taking classes there in 1951. "We both loved artists," she said. "And what a 60-year joy it was to give young ones a chance."

Mr. Kearney's most famous work began as what he always called a "happy accident."

His wife and two children, Jill and Dan, spent summers at an art colony in Provincetown, Mass. One day in the 1950s, Mr. Kearney brought a pile of auto bumpers from a local garbage dump. Tossing them on the ground in his studio, he saw in the pile of metal a ballerina's shape and created just such a sculpture. His course was set. Car bumpers were to become his medium.

There was nothing gentle about his metal sculptures, most of them in the shape on animals. Though smooth to the touch, the animals were far too sturdy and hard to really be considered playful. They were, though, parts of the American dream -- bumpers from the cars of the 1950s and 1960s -- and as such, gave off a palpable energy.

The rubberized bumpers on newer cars were unsuitable, and in the mid-1980s American Way magazine writer A.L. Brungardt observed that "Kearney's art form will go the way of the Tyrannosaurus rex, one of the few animals he has yet to create."

Well, he did create a T. rex in the 1990s. A 19-foot-tall, 2-ton dinosaur, the largest sculpture he ever made, was part of what was planned to be one of the most ambitious projects ever attempted on the local art scene: five large metal beasts for the grounds of a suburban company.

Those dinosaurs now "live" comfortably in Texas. But the end, Mr. Kearney knew, was near. He told a reporter in the late 1990s, "I don't know whether I'm going to run out of bumpers or steam first."

His later years were spent mostly working on smaller pieces in bronze, and those, too, found their way into many public and private collections. His North Side home filled with all manner of awards and prizes.

Gregarious and garrulous in person, Mr. Kearney until recent years could be found, as he had for decades, at the annual Old Town Art Fair, surrounded by his chrome menagerie and a pack of admirers, and indulging neighborhood kids who pleaded successfully with him to be allowed to climb atop his "animals."

"Jack was a real true Irishman," his wife said. "He so enjoyed his work and his life. Every day was a happy day for him."

In addition to his wife and two children, Mr. Kearney is survived by five granddaughters.

A memorial service is being planned.

rkogan@tribune.com

___

(c)2014 Chicago Tribune

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Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)


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