Contributed by Kelin Baldridge, Project Archivist for the John Rhoden papers
John Rhoden’s studio at 23 Cranberry Street is his most iconic workspace. He worked there almost exclusively for over four decades. The studio space permits and even demands large, physical, and active sculpting. It was filled with tools, planning sketches and models, sculptures in progress, and sometimes even heavy equipment such as scaffolding. It gives a sense of how John worked and the environment he was comfortable in.
However, the John Rhoden papers show that John was adaptable and had many different work spaces during his early career. He did not always have the capacity for the monumental sculptures of his later years. Images in the archives show that John was able to work with and flourish in whatever space he could obtain.
Below is a look at John’s different sculpting studios, as represented in the archives. We will first start with his home-base workshop at 23 Cranberry Street in Brooklyn, N.Y. to get a sense of his personally-curated space, and then get a view of the many places he worked in over the earlier years.
23 Cranberry Street (1960-2001)
23 Cranberry Street in Brooklyn, N.Y. served as Rhoden’s home and studio from 1960 through John’s passing in 2001 and Richenda’s passing in 2016 (with the exception of their stint in Indonesia from 1961-1963). The space was unique in that it was formally a mechanic’s garage equipped with a freight elevator. The home was spacious enough to create large scale sculptures, store works of art, and all the necessary sculpting tools and supplies.
In the images below, one gets a sense of John’s preferred work space. There’s an element of chaos. It feels more like a construction site than the stereotypical artist’s studio.
In this studio is where John was able to really expand the scale of his artworks. His monumental sculpture commissions, such as Mitochondria for the Metropolitan Hospital (lower left) and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (lower right), were all conceived in this space.
Early Spaces (1938-1959)
The archives do not reveal much about John’s early sculpting studios. John’s earliest work was carried out as a student in various schools, most notably Columbia University. It appears that his association with universities and faculty mentors provided him access to larger spaces and a wider variety of tools than would otherwise be possible, as evidenced by the photograph to the right. His first real studio in New York City was shared with Richmond Barthé in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan in 1938.
Italian Work Spaces (1951-1954)
John’s studio at the American Academy in Rome more closely reflected what one might assume an artists’ workspace would look like: blank, open, bright spaces. These studios were sparsely decorated with white walls and little clutter. In this space, John did not create monumental works of art, as evidenced by the modest size and absence of heavy-duty tools and equipment. Coincidentally, immediately following this period we see John’s only documented phase of gallery representation, where he sold modestly-sized pieces to private collectors.
Work Spaces Abroad with the U.S. State Department (1955-1959)
John did not have a formal workshop while on his international tour with the United States Department of State, but that didn’t stop him from creating. In fact, during this period John was able to experiment and learn local techniques, broadening his sculpting knowledge and skills. Many images from this time period show John visiting artist communities to learn and perform demonstrations.
We do not have evidence of any of the sculpture that he created during this time, but it is interesting to note that, wherever he was, John always seemed willing to get his hands dirty, both to teach and to learn.
Above, John is crouched on the ground working on a wood carving with basic tools and materials in Kenya. Given the clothing and setting, this seems to have been an impromptu demonstration.
Philadelphia Work Space (1956-1957)
An outlier in John’s workspaces arose from his sculpture commission for the Philadelphia Sheraton Hotel. Due to the nature of the project, John had to do his work directly in the hotel’s construction site. The space and tools provided by this experience led to one of the first examples of John’s large-scale sculpture, Zodiacal Curved Wall.
Indonesia Work Space (1961-1963)
John spent several years in Indonesia, during which time he occupied one of his two long-term international studios (the other was in Rome). It seems John mostly worked on a patio outside of a home in Bandung.
He was there on a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to set up a bronze foundry at the Bandung Institute of Technology. However, due to conflict in Indonesia that arose around the time of his arrival in 1961, John was unable to access any of his sculpting materials. As a result, he had concentrated time to experiment and work with what was available to him – wood. During this time, John made some of his largest and, in my opinion, most captivating wood sculpture.
I hope this serves as an interesting introduction to John’s work spaces over the years and as an example of one of the many ways an archive can be used to gain a better understanding of its subject!
This project, Rediscovering John W. Rhoden: Processing, Cataloging, Rehousing, and Digitizing the John W. Rhoden papers, is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency.
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Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at: www.neh.gov.