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Interview with Chicago sculptor Richard Hunt

Richard Hunt’s studio is a whirlwind of creativity. Entering the massive building on Lill Street, one sees light, shadows, books, cardboard and metal ready to transform into something transcendent. The artistic work continues, and an artist like Hunt is always in the process between paintings and mockups of his earlier metal work.

Visitors can’t help but notice Hunt’s books on his office shelves (books focusing on art history and African-American art) and his 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award. International Sculpture Center (“Sculpture Oscars”). Behind the work floor is a covered attic space that Hunt used as his living space until a few years ago. In front of the study area is a statement from the Bexar County Commissioners’ Court of Texas stating Hunt’s involvement in integrating the San Antonio Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960 (he is reportedly one of seven to do so peacefully and voluntarily).

A native of Englewood, Hunt made his mark on the world, as illustrated in the 2022 book “Richard Hunt” by LeRonn Brooks, Jordan Carter, Adrienne Childs, Jon Ott and John Yau. The nearly 400-page volume illustrates Hunt’s trajectory as an artistic force. He began taking formal art classes at the Art Institute Junior School and eventually became one of our greatest living artists; He produced orders for the Obama Presidential Center (“Bookbird”) and created the “Light of Truth Ida B. Wells National Memorial.” A 15-foot stainless steel piece that will be located in Bronzeville and now adjacent to the Emmett Till/Mamie Till-Mobley historic home.

Hunt has 16 honorary degrees, nine of which are from Illinois institutions, and can now add one more award to his 70-year career: the Chicago Public Library Foundation Art Award, an honor that celebrates the power and influence of Chicago’s arts community. .

“Richard Hunt has a magnificent sculpture called ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ at the Carter G. Woodson District Library,” said Rica Estrada-Bouso of the Chicago Public Library Foundation. Marketing Director. “It’s an amazing focal point of the library. “We recently added an arts award to our award recipients, expanding from literature, giving civic awards and arts awards. Frankly, one of the most prominent people we have is Richard Hunt, who has sculptures around the world and is the largest contributor to public art in America.”

Hunt’s contribution to public art in the United States consists of more than 150 public sculpture commissions. With names like “Chi-Town Totem”, “Sculpture Enlightenment”, “We Will” and “Refreshing”, a tourist can learn about Hunt simply by walking around Chicagoland. “Swing Low” greets you when you enter the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a gift from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

Hunt, according to Ott, has worked throughout his life on freedom, emancipation, escape, and ascension. Ott says Hunt is a voracious bibliophile who collects and reads books. He also reads about five or six newspapers every day.

“And his inspiration is primarily classical music. He was a lifelong fan of Baroque music, as well as jazz, and named some of his pieces after jazz movements,” Ott said. “Richard is the most academic and modern artist of his time. There is no one more academic than Richard Hunt. The man is much more than a sculptor. As a self-taught artist, he has one foot in Western art history and one foot in African art.”

Ott said, “Richard did a piece called ‘The Crossing’ on the Underground Railroad in 1992 at the University of Kentucky Art Museum. And that’s just a few blocks from the underground railroad stop in Lexington, Kentucky,” he said. “If you look at Richard’s monuments, you’ll see that they were made during his lifetime, but from the pieces he made you can trace the entire history of the African diaspora… Name one aspect of Afro-American history, and he made a monument. about it in your life.”

Detail of the work in the studio of sculptor Richard Hunt.

Hunt’s knack for bronze, brass, stainless steel, scrap metal and corten steel is so monumental that a book of the same name, “Richard Hunt: Monumental,” was published this year. The hardcover book features the intense expression of Hunt’s face.

When asked about her face, Hunt says: “Well, it was one of those days.”

87-year-old Hunt’s hands are a work of art. Although the world is built on branding, Hunt is humble.

As Hunt points out in his monograph, “Artists have a unique opportunity to look and work to the future…to make a difference. We have a mission to create new ideas and visions for the future and I am happy to be a part of it.”

This is an attempt to catch lightning in a bottle with an icon. The artist explained in his statement: “It’s one thing to make portrait art, but for something like the Middle Passage or Emmett Till, you want to develop art that reflects his life, not a portrait of Emmett Till. , ideas and ideals beyond his lifetime. The following conversation with Hunt and Ott has been edited for length and clarity.

Sculptor Richard Hunt working in his studio, August 11, 2023.

Q: How do we buy a book about your life now?

Hunt: First you have to experience it. These things take time.

Q: What are your thoughts on the award you received from the Chicago Public Library?

Hunt: It’s interesting because my mother was a librarian. A very, very important thing for us was to go to the library and buy books.

Q: You did a lot of work. do you have a favourite?

Hunt: It’s hard to say ‘that’s it’ after doing so many things. I am very interested in making the Emmett Till piece. The idea of ​​making a piece to draw attention to it is important because it goes back to an earlier generation from which we both came out.

Q: How would you summarize monumental people like Ida B. Wells and Emmett Till in one piece?

Hunt: I’d say it came to mind when I was working on it.

Ott: Richard does deep, deep reading. When he was doing The Ida B. Wells, I would come to visit Richard and he had a stack of seven different books on Ida B. Wells: lynching, photographs, and history. The same goes for Emmett Till. If you were in his apartment, he had a pile of books about Emmett Till and stuff because he was working on that piece. He’s in the moment, but he has all that history in his head as his hands touch the metal.

A book about Richard came out during the pandemic. This was the first time Richard was talking about the fact that he was at an open-casket funeral. It was the same summer that Richard learned to weld. So Richard’s career began the moment Richard saw Emmett Till, who lived four blocks from his home in Woodlawn. “Heroes’ Head” (welded steel) is the head of Emmett Till – who had lost one eye, his skull was cracked, his face was smashed on one side, he did so a few months after seeing his open coffin burial in 1956. Emmett Till.

One of the things Richard said earlier was: This could have been Richard because Richard, like Emmett, had returned to Georgia to see his father’s side of the family growing up as sharecroppers. Richard said it might be me because Emmett was going to a corner store, as Richard had done so many times. Richard was a young man trying to figure out what to do, he was 19, and he saw this person mutilated, lynched, tortured and killed while sitting in front of him. If you were 19 years old and saw this face to face, wouldn’t that change you? It changed the world.

Some of his works are under review. He has done many sketches for most of his career. He is also a painter and is wonderful in two dimensions, which many sculptors cannot say. He planned his works this way, but sometimes he does what he could call more improvisational pieces like jazz and just collects the material. He takes inspiration from sculptural shapes and adds to them, he brings them together, and so he uses the term hybrid in most of his work because he hybridizes things, takes many different effects, brings them all together in the same piece. But despite all these influences, when you look at history, it’s about freedom, most of the time it’s about flight, which is getting rid of gravity, it’s freedom in the biblical sense, it’s freedom, it’s ascension. Everything changed when I saw Emmett Till’s funeral.

Question: Do you ever say ‘I’m retiring’?

Hunt: No. I love coming here every day.

Question: Do you ever take a day off?

Hunt: No, unless you have to.

Question: Anything left on your ‘to do’ list?

Hunt: I keep going, one day working on this, another day working on another piece…

Question: Do you have any advice for next artists?

Hunt: One of the hallmarks of being an artist is that you can go your own way. Some people have a different approach to what they want to produce. The statue has nothing to do with a plan in which it relates to an environment. I’m doing something for Emmett Till; it’s about putting things together and relating to the environment. It’s not just about making a beautiful sculpture.

The Chicago Public Library Foundation Awards will be hosted by Bill Kurtis on October 24. For more information: cplfoundation.org. Highlights from the awards ceremony will be posted on YouTube on November 1.

drockett@chicagotribune.com

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