The man behind the curtain
Meet the creator of Chicago's
most Oz-some sculptures
Wearing a dark green apron, John Kearney shuffles over to the nearly 8-foot sculpture of The Wizard of Oz's Scarecrow and carefully brushes his hand over the unfinished bronze, reflective with patches of oil-like rainbow circles.
Kearney is the man behind the Tin Man sculpture (see page 13) that greets visitors at the northeastern end of Oz Park, as well as his counterpart, the Cowardly Lion on the southeast end. The 80-year-old artist is putting the finishing touches on the Scarecrow in his studio down the street at the Contemporary Art Workshop, which he founded in 1949. The Scarecrow will be united with his Wizard of Oz pals at a June 3 unveiling. Kearney has received prestigious awards, such as the Fulbright to study in Rome.
While his Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion are cast in bronze (a more expensive and involved method), Kearney is best known for his "bumper sculptures"—welded from automobile bumpers—which have been shown around the world and are sprinkled throughout Chicago and abroad. An elephant stands in Lincoln Park; two giraffes guard Elaine Place off of Roscoe Avenue in Boystown; three deer are planted on the terrace of the Amoco building downtown; and a goat frolics in Hyde Park.
Time Out Chicago: How did you start working with metal?
John Kearney: Well, when I was in the Navy in World War II, I was a pilot of an amphibious landing craft, and a deep-sea diver—I would go underwater and weld holes made from torpedoes and the such. I did a lot of drawings while I was in the Navy—mainly pictures that helped make me a better diver—which helped get me into art school [at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan] where I studied sculpture, painting, and silver and goldsmithing. That's where I really began a career in sculpture—with stone, clay and metal—but not bronze until later.
TOC: When did you start working with bumpers?
JK: My first bumper sculpture was in Provincetown, Massachusetts, about 40 years ago. At that time, many sculptors would go to the town dump—where the trash used to be burned, which you can't do anymore. But when they did, the only thing left over would be metal, and it would be pretty clean. We could see the gray smoke, and when it was almost white, we knew [the metal] would be cool enough. So I went one day with my van and [the leftover trash] happened to be a bunch of bumpers and I thought, "Eh, bumpers—well, it's metal." When I got back to my studio, I threw them on the lawn and they accidentally took the form of a ballet dancer. And that was my first.
TOC: How did the Wizard of Oz sculptures happen?
JK: Well, there was an elderly lady about 40 years ago who came to me—Oz Park had just been built—and she liked my bumper sculptures and said, "Could you do all the figures from The Wizard of Oz out of automobile bumpers?" I gave her a price and she went to the park, but she passed away before they okayed it four years later, and that was the end of it. But [30 years later], someone found some old documents and commissioned me to do the first one, the Tin Man [in 1995]. To do that one out of chrome made sense—because it's the Tin Man. But I realized that the bronze color worked better for the other characters, like the fur of the Lion [installed in 2001] and the Scarecrow.
TOC: What are you finishing up with the Scarecrow?
JK: We cast all the 22 pieces in Cape Cod, where [my wife, Lynn, and I] have a bronze foundry, and shipped them back here and my workers spent four or five months welding them together. But it's the detailing that takes the time now, like the straw detail on his gloves, and the rope. It needs a lot of polish—and coloring, which we use patinas [copper sulfates that cause a chemical reaction to create color] to do. You get it real hot, almost cherry-red, and you have different patinas that you apply to get different colors. His hat will be kind of blue-black.
TOC: And Dorothy and Toto are on the way?
JK: Yes, this summer—even though we haven't gotten any money for it yet—we're going to do all the molds. That takes a lot of work, but it's not the expensive part. I did a lot of studying and I found a pair of shoes just like rounded slip-ons she had on and a dress that falls to knee-length, which we'll use to shape our wax pieces.
TOC: How are the wax pieces part of the process?
JK: Well, first you make your shape out of wax, and after you're done molding it, you dip it into a ceramic material, and let it dry. Then you burn the wax out of holes, and it's hollow. Then we turn the molds upside down and pour melted bronze in, and it cools down, getting into all the details. Then hammer away extra ceramic and work on the bronze.
TOC: You're best known for your sculptures of animals, but a lot of people seem to wonder most about the giraffes.
JK: [Sculpting animals] came naturally. I grew up in Albuquerque, taking the goats out before school and watching the turkeys. The Amoco commission came because I did some deer sculptures for Gov. Rockefeller in West Virginia after he saw a show of mine in New York; he was one of the principal owners of the building. As for the giraffes—I knew the guy who owned the block [between Roscoe and Cornelia], so he told me that he wanted six sculptures for the whole block. It was the first time anyone asked me what I wanted to do. I put the two up on either side of the street on bases—because there are cars there all the time and I didn't want the giraffes to get vandalized. He sold the block, so I didn't get to finish the rest. But after the [September 11] attack in New York, I went over there and people had created kind of a monument at the two sculptures with poetry and flowers and a fire engine, so I left a note saying how pleased I was. I like that the neighborhood decorates them for holidays. I don't mind at all.—Leah Pietrusiak
Oz Park is located at 2000 N Lincoln Ave at Armitage Ave.