Lifesize sculptures by John Henry Waddell seem to dance amid the urban desert outside Herberger Theater Center, where they resonate with new meaning now that the artist has died. For much of the 20th century, the American artist created figurative works and paintings that reflect his love for both the desert sky and the human form.
Waddell died at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, November 27, with his wife and fellow artist, Ruth Holland Waddell, and other family members by his side. They were gathered at the Waddell Studio and Sculpture Garden in the Verde Valley, where Waddell created not only monumental sculptures but also paintings that showed his decades-long dance with the desert.
“He loved the vast Arizona sky and colors,” Amy Waddell says of her father. “They’ve drawn so many artists to Arizona.” Ruth Waddell recalls John’s early watercolors filled with desert hues, but he’s best known to many for his human figures, which dot the metro Phoenix landscape.
There’s the sculpture of a young woman seated on a chair, which sits inside the gallery at Burton Barr Central Library, and one of a mother holding her son, which stands surrounded by foliage at Scottsdale Civic Center. But those are just two of over 150 sculptures created during the artist’s career, which spanned from the 1930s until his death.
“He has created more sculptures than Rodin,” says Amy Waddell. Waddell is a filmmaker based in Paris, who returned to Arizona several months ago as her father’s health was failing. She’s referencing Auguste Rodin, the 19th-century French artist who many consider the father of modern sculpture.
Waddell made Dance, which comprises 12 dancing figures, between 1970 and 1974. He started with a single figure, for which Ruth was his model and muse. It’s the last piece in the group that he finished, she says. “I’m on my toes with my back arched back and my arms open to the side,” she says.
Not all of the people he sculpted for Dance were actually dancers. Waddell spent more than 500 hours creating each one, according to Ruth. “Each piece is meant to be able to stand on its own as a single sculpture,” according to Waddell’s artist statement for the work, which also conveys their collective homage to the value of mankind working together.
"John loved dance, and he loved to dance,” says Ruth Waddell. “He appreciated the strength and grace of dancers' bodies.” Waddell’s sculptures are unclothed, but the artist never called them nudes. His fascination with the human body was rooted in his love for human beings, she says. “He wanted to capture the wholeness of them.”
Waddell was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1921. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he met Ruth. They moved to Arizona after meeting Harry Wood at an arts education conference in California in 1956. At the time, Wood headed the department of art at ASU, which was still called Arizona State College. “Wood invited him to stop here on his way home,” Ruth recalls.
That’s when Waddell began his dance with the Arizona desert.
They ended up moving to Tempe, so Waddell could head the college's arts education department. Later, they relocated to the Verde Valley, where Waddell drew inspiration from the wide-open skies. For decades, he continued making sculptures and exhibited his work, both in and beyond Arizona.
The last sculpture he created is a 40-foot relief called Rising. “It’s a eulogy to those who lost their lives on 9/11,” says Amy Waddell. “My father was very socially aware. We hope the sculpture can find its way to the United Nations or the Obama library so it can spark conversations."
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One particularly powerful work depicts four African-American girls killed in a racially motivated church bombing in 1963. The Waddells returned from a trip to Mexico the day it happened, during the height of the civil rights movement. Soon, Waddell began work on the piece, which imagines the girls as the women they might have become. Today, you can see two castings of the work in vastly different settings.
One stands in a garden at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Paradise Valley, and the other stands surrounded by four dark walls of an interior courtyard at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center just south of downtown Phoenix. Light streams in through the windows, illuminating the figures amid the darkness.
Ruth Waddell is certain her husband’s legacy will endure for many years to come. “Bronze is expected to last over a million years," she says, recounting a fire that proved its resilience. “Our son’s house burned to the ground in a fire in Santa Rosa two years ago,” she recalls. “But some of John’s small sculptures remained.”
Still, it’s the works that fill their studio that beckon to her now, including those that capture the Arizona landscape. “John expressed his love for the desert through his paintings of Southwestern skies,” she says. “He was a master of courage and spontaneity.” Whether sculpting or painting, Waddell's works reveal his beautiful dance with the desert.