Anyone out there remember John Henry, one of the 19th century Big Men (along with Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill) of American folk legend? He was the railroad worker who beat a steam hammer in a steel-driving contest, an event perhaps based in fact but built up to mythic proportions over time.
It's pure coincidence that we have another metal man named John Henry among us today, a sculptor whose work is on view in its usual monumental proportions in MacDill Park in downtown Tampa and in smaller versions at the Tampa Museum of Art.
I link the two men not to diminish the earlier John Henry, who is a symbol of working class heroism, but to deflate the misconception of the artist as elitist. Most artists are laborers. Making art is usually a physical process.
John Henry the artist is really into the physical process, creating metal sculptures using steel columns larger than most construction-site pilings. Often painted in bright colors, they are arranged in gravity-defying stacks and piles, often looking as if they had been landed by a violent wind. They are not at one with the landscapes they inhabit. They do not blend in. They ask us to look at space in a more involved way.
The sculpture in MacDill Park, which rises 33 feet and spans 75 feet at ground level, is the best example of Henry's work here. Three steel columns are balanced at angles, forming an apex. Its engineering is admirable, but there is much more to it.
Walk around and under it and see how each angle frames multiple views. The shadows it casts are an ephemeral, ever-changing counterpoint to the object's mass. The fire-engine red is meant for more than exhibitionism. The grassy plot on which the sculpture sits is bland, with little landscaping, beside the heavily trafficked Ashley Drive. It's a space easily ignored. The sculpture calls attention to it, makes it more than it was, provides an invitation to explore.
Many of Henry's smaller sculptures in the museum's galleries are models for large-scale works, some of which will probably never be made (not uncommon for monumental sculptures). Photographs of completed on-site sculptures line the walls along with conceptual drawings. In the center of the galleries are finished smaller-scale sculptures. Some shoot up as vertical projectiles, others are more angular.
An interesting detail is that Henry uses hinges to create the angles rather than joining the columns in a neater way by welding them and using paint to hide the seams. Though everything is solid and unmovable, those joints suggest the possibility of motion, that at any moment, those sticks could start swinging like beams from a crane.
The technique gets back to my earlier point about art as work. These sculptures celebrate their industrial origins. Fabricating them certainly requires heavy machinery. But John Henry created them. Creation is labor, whether you're working your brain or your biceps.
This exhibition is part of a statewide initiative, the Peninsula Project. Six other monumentally sized sculptures are on display in public sites in Sarasota, Orlando, Naples, Boca Raton, Miami and Tallahassee.
"Each sculpture is part of a continuous sentence, all referencing one another,'' Henry says of them. "In many regards, it may be seen to be all one work."
Realistically and unfortunately, most of us will not see them, and photographs of all the other installations are not displayed at the Tampa Museum. Better just to appreciate what's here on its individual terms.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.