"Art isn't a luxury. It's absolutely essential to our mental and physical well-being," sculptor John Dunn said. "If we're not exposed to some form of it early enough in childhood we suffer a kind of brain damage--the mental connections aren't made."
It is a foggy Wednesday evening in an area of Cleveland Street that is a higgledy-piggledy tangle of rusting warehouses and automobile body shops. Inside his 1,600-square-foot studio, which was once a fish cannery, Dunn is sculpting a 4 1/2-foot model of Skyline Arch, a natural formation in Arches National Park, near Moab, Utah.
"Geologist John Hoffman commissioned it for a clay animation film about the slow rate of change in these ancient sandstone arches," Dunn said. His voice is deep. His English accent has a cultured resonance. The original Skyline Arch, he said, changed more quickly than most when a large chunk fell out in 1940.
"When people think of clay animation, they usually think of Gumby. Or cartoons. Not educational films. It's a whole new area for a sculptor," Dunn said.
Eyes Watch Silently
It is chilly inside the studio. Holes loom high in the wooden walls. (Relics of hoses from the fish packing days.) Under a layer of drying clay, Dunn's long-fingered hands look blue with cold. All around him, from corners and walls and pedestals, dozens of sculptured eyes in sculptured faces watch silently as he sprays Skyline Arch with water to keep the clay soft.
"I've no complaints about my life," he said. "Independence! That's the most vital thing to have." At 59, his beard is silvery. His right thumb--"my clay-punching thumb"--has a pronounced backward curve. He looks amused when it is suggested that his life style--he works at least 14 hours a day in this drafty place, where the trains pass so closely they rattle the walls--seems Spartan for someone with a classical education at Scotland's Edinburgh College of Art. Someone whose pottery is collected internationally (Queen Elizabeth has some on the royal yacht Britannia.)
"My only problem is occasional frustration at not having enough money to put all my ideas into practice. I'm an experimenter," he said, waving at the shelves of chemicals he uses to make glazes for his pottery. He has 200 glazes, all of them originals. One rich brown one was created from lava rocks from Vesuvius. Another contains gold ore from a gold mine he once owned in Colorado.
"All the excitement for me," he said, "lies in the process of creation."
In order to have the freedom to experiment, Dunn says, he mingles his own projects with commissioned work. That ranges from one of the largest ceramic murals in the United States (60 feet by 40 feet of unglazed stoneware tiles at the University of Notre Dame) to the papier-mache elephant's head that hangs over the bar at Kypling's Restaurant in Encinitas.
"San Diego County is a place with opportunities for all kinds of artists," he said. "And it's going to get even better. So many businesses are moving here from Back East."
Most of his commissions come from architects. Sometimes things are slow; sometimes they are hectic.
"I remember one wild month in 1982," he said, chuckling. "I was finishing a 15-foot ceramic mural of Torrey pine trees for the Torrey Pines Bank in Fallbrook. At the same time I was sculpting two larger-than-life-size Mayan Indian figures for a restaurant in Anchorage, Alaska. Everything had to be ready on opening day. When the truck arrived to take the Indian figures to the airport, I was still frantically painting in their eyes as the men carried them across the yard to the truck."
Dunn was born in Liverpool, England. "My father was in the Royal Navy so he was gone a lot," he remembers. "When he was home, he used to take me around art galleries. I was about 6 when I decided to become an artist myself."
Quit School at 12
It took him a while, however, to become a professional one. He left school at 12--"hated the structure of it"--and spent a Dickensian year running around the city delivering bundles of clothes for a man who, he says, "resembled Fagin in Oliver Twist."
By 16 he was working in a garage and studying at night at the Liverpool College of Art. (The same school where, a generation later, John Lennon met Paul McCartney.)
Dunn's past included three years as a commando in the British army and six months in a carnival riding the "wall of death" on the handlebars of a motorcycle by the time he won a biscuit-manufacturer's scholarship to Edinburgh College of Art. He was 23 then, and married.
"Soon after I arrived at the school, they held a contest," he said. "When I scanned the list of what contestants had to produce--tea pots, plate designs, lithograph plate borders--I thought 'My God! In only three days!' "
Busy Three Days
He worked frantically for the next three days . . . "and most of the next three nights," he said. "Each student had to set up their display in the college museum. When I looked around, everybody else's work seemed to take up about half a table." His took up three tables and 20 feet of wall space.
"Finally the interviewing body--all the big art names in Edinburgh at that time--stopped in front of my table," he said. "They just stood there, shaking their heads."
"So much work in three days! And so well done!" artist Katie Horsman murmured to Dunn.
"Then, very kindly, she pointed out to me that I hadn't read the contest rules correctly. They said do this or this or that. And I'd won the whole bloody contest," he said, laughing.
His mistake worked out well, though, he said:
"The interviewing body took me out to dinner that night. It was an instant introduction to the art society of Edinburgh."
Dunn appears to be one of those people to whom lucky accidents happen often. Even the time he was fired from a teaching job at St. Mary's College of Art in South Bend, Ind., turned into a lucky break.
"The Mother Superior took exception to my exhibition of nude drawings," he said. "Actually, they were quite chaste nude drawings. UPI picked the story. 'Artist Fired by Nuns for Indecency' sort of thing. I got 200 letters of sympathy from the United States and Canada. The University of Colorado invited me over to give an illustrated talk on 'Art and Pornography' at the World Affairs Conference of 1962."
Dunn liked Colorado so much that he decided to settle there. He bought five acres, named The Maximilian Lode because it had two gold mines on it, 8,000 feet up in the Rockies. For a year, with his wife, Olive, and their two young daughters, he lived in an 18-by-18-foot tent, hauling all their water 300 yards uphill.
"First I built a kiln for pottery," Dunn recalled. "Then a workshop. Then a cabin."
He and Olive separated in 1974. "But we've stayed close friends," Dunn said. "I'm so obsessional about my work. Relationships suffer."
Obsession, he admits, can often be fun for the artist, if not for those who live with the artist. "Twice, in Colorado, I can remember having a blast by holding pot-throwing marathons. Three hundred pots in 12 hours! When the obsession to work tugs at me," he said, "I'm powerless against its force."
He was up on the mountain alone, trying to keep his kiln going in the winter of 1978, when he suffered frostbite. "I had a very good friend in Del Mar, Southern California. It seemed the right time to move there," he said.
It is now late at night in the studio on Cleveland Street. The midnight train has just rumbled past. Dunn has finished his work on Skyline Arch and has turned to another project, a bust of a woman he calls Pam. The vast room is full of the mingled smells of varnish, clay and damp wood.
Soon, he said, he'll be leaving the studio for about one week out of every month to teach pottery workshops in Plaza del Mar, a picturesque village-like resort near the Mexican town of Ensenada.
"They don't allow cars in the village, only donkey carts," he said, sounding pleased about it. The workshops, he explained, will be for all levels of students. The only prerequisite is that they enjoy art.
"The most primitive people who ever walked the earth had some form of art. Without exposure to it, a child's ability to reason in the abstract suffers," he said, echoing his earlier comments. The case of the naked janitor, he said, illustrates his point perfectly.
"When I was teaching at the English university of Durham, I had an exhibition of experimental ceramic pieces. The evening before the opening, I went down to the gallery for a last-minute check. There was a janitor there, a man I'd never seen before, wearing the red-braided uniform of the local council."
Leaning on his broom, the man said to Dunn: "Will you look at this stuff! Art! 'Oo needs it, anyway?"
Dunn remembers delivering a 45-minute lecture on the subject of just why he, the janitor, personally needed it.
"I told him that his uniform had been assigned as a form of art. So had his shoes. The weave of the cloth of even his underwear was planned. His badge and his buttons were once carved by hand before they went to a press. The floor he was standing on . . . the pillars holding the roof . . . the building itself."
If all art forms were instantly whisked from his life, Dunn explained to the man, he would find himself standing naked in a totally wild environment.
Did the janitor respond?
"Well, no, actually he was a little stunned, I think," Dunn said. "But I did feel that I'd made my point."