Columns share an author’s personal perspective and are often based on facts in the newspaper’s reporting.
It’s not necessary to see an art exhibit with the actual artist whose work is on display. But, when it’s a sculpture artist of singular gifts and profound achievement, it sure makes for a memorable afternoon.
On Sunday, Oct. 27, John Magnan was kind enough to bring this writer to the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River in order to view his current show now up there, “Thor’s Hammer: Social Commentary Using Marvel Comics Imagery”
That was the prelude to a conversation back in New Bedford with the artist, which covered a journey through the past several decades and led all the way to his origin story — but we won’t go so far back.
That’s also not necessary. Because John Magnan’s reputation rests squarely on the stunning craftsmanship, personal vision and thoroughly realized ideas in his sculpture that bring his work to life today.
So, we’ll quickly note that John Magnan had a whole other life and career in a whole other place before becoming an artist from Southcoast. Suffice to say, the diligence, work ethic and world view which constituted his life roughly before 40 years of age stood him well after he crossed that milestone.
We’ll begin then on Centre Street in New Bedford, where he once had a studio before consolidating his life in nearby Mattapoisett. Back then, Magnan was a fixture on this storied street in a space which opened its green doors right onto the stone-paved street.
That where the “Sunday Morning” CBS show found him for a profile which catapulted him to fame. Yes, his journey into the artistic life was a fast one. After turning his prodigious mind to the task, he quickly won acclaim for beautiful and compelling sculpture in a variety of material, but chiefly wood, devoted to the challenges that confront the human body, mind, and spirit.
Back during the Centre Street days, he was a force in the local arts scene — when it was creating the groundwork for the future we’re enjoying now. He’s pleased to share that the acronym AHA!, so well-known to us now as AHA! New Bedford, was coined by him — and this brand of Art, History and Architecture as proved durable over two decades.
But of course, it’s the artwork he’s most enthusiastic to discuss — with good reason.
John Magnan has created some of the most beautiful public art you’ll find in the greater New Bedford area, in addition to a prodigious amount of other pieces for exhibitions and commissions.
Four pieces “in the public domain” certainly do deserve an origin story.
Two pieces for the Buzzards Bay Coalition include both his personal favorite and one he believes is an outstanding example of placemaking at its best.
“Abundance,” the hand-carved school of fish “swimming” above the conference table in the Coalition’s building represents the type of work he strives for with his art. That would be visually representing the mission statement of an organization through sculpture.
“It’s all about them,” he says of his clients. And, with this piece in particular, “it’s all about life.” As in, the healthy life of the bay. He says it’s favorite piece. It’s easy to see why; it’s stunning.
A similar idea regarding a healthy life underpins his famous “Habitat” series of metal sculptures, a representation of eelgrass, which distinguish the front of the Coalition’s building. In nature, eelgrass functions as an ecological canary in the coal mine; it, too, visualizes the core mission of the Buzzards Bay Coalition.
And, something else.
“It’s the essence of placemaking,” he says. “A bunch of people with a vested interest to make something happen working together.” For “Habitat,” he stretched himself into metalwork — partnering with Horacio’s in the city — and worked with the Coalition, the architect Kathryn Duff, and others to realize this particular vision.
At St. Luke’s hospital, the sculpture “Hope, a mobile of sails” seeks to calm and inspire, while “Inner Strength” at the Southcoast Centers for Cancer Care does the same inward out.
By now, you can probably get a sense of a common theme — an acknowledgement of the dignity and resiliency of life itself. In fact, it informs all his work.
Renowned for his craftsmanship and technical mastery in sculpture using wood, metal or stone, the strongest element in this artist’s toolbox, however, may be none of the above. Rather, it is the strength of the ideas that shape the work into novel forms which takes your breath away.
His act of creation involves expressing the myths and legends we all wish for own lives in 3-D form.
In his catalog, there’s probably no better sense of that than his epic pieces for Eli Lilly and Company, “Hero’s Journey Art.”
The art project was created to honor clinical trial participants and the health care community for their contributions to clinical research. First shown in Austin, TX and Indianapolis, IN, all three sculptures are being permanently displayed in Winston-Salem, NC.
When Eli Lilly was searching for an artist to express their vision, they came across work by John Magnan on display in Philadelphia. Later, he was told a scout simply said, “This is the guy” when he saw that work.
He was right. Magnan’s work for “Hero’s Journey Art” is the power of myth as purely embodied by people transformed by art. For the project, folks all over facing health challenges were invited to contribute a “brick” that was then incorporated into a stunning whole.
Watching the work come together — as you can do in a series of videos at herosjourneyart.com — you can’t help but feel that it represents a new summit of achievement for the artist. It is work that distills a career’s worth of skill and passion into elegance. And, it not only captures the essence of the mission, but something beautiful about the human spirit.
From humans to superheroes with “Thor’s Hammer” isn’t much of a leap. Because the show up now (through Nove. 16) at Narrows Center for the Arts really doesn’t concern itself with godly beings except as a device through which to, once again, illuminate the human condition. Work in the show is very much a piece with all his work.
The exhibit statement notes that the show, “follows in the Marvel tradition of using fantasy imagery to comment on the human condition and examine some of today’s social challenges. The art of this exhibit questions whether the fabric of democracy can survive the pull and tug of the disparate struggles confronting us today.”
It came together quickly — considering the amazing level of technical mastery of material that is a hallmark of Magnan’s art. It may have been possible to achieve so much in a short time because, like so much of his work he says, preparation involved evenings of intense conversations with his wife, Annie Jonas, before execution. Not only does he consider her a partner in the art, but an invaluable resource for the segment of the show called “She’s Not Alone.”
Two young visual artists he is a sort of mentor to, André Olivier and Sarah Swible were invited by him to display pieces in “Thor’s Hammer,” too. Taken altogether, it reflects his expansive embrace of people in the process as much as keeping his studio doors open on Centre Street in New Bedford once did.
“Thor’s Hammer” comes with a quote well-known to fans of the superhero: “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.” Thor in mythology is a god.
But, the longer you talk to John Magnan the more you witness something rise up from within him and gradually spread over and illuminate the features of his face. And that something is the true marvel.
As he speaks you see the idea’s part and the humanity shine through. It’s then you realize who John Magnan really is at heart. Not a superhero but something even more meaningful.
An artist worthy of the hammer, dedicated to pushing beyond the outrage of life to arrive at its capacity for hope and exquisite potential for grace.
Steven Froias is a writer and editor who lives in New Bedford, MA. He can be reached at email@example.com.