Johnstown was an interesting place to be a journalist in 1989.
For the prior 10 years, we’d been reporting a seemingly unending series of dreary news stories largely brought on by the collapse of heavy industry within the Alleghenies. The 1889 Johnstown Flood Centennial Commemoration pushed aside much of the dark news for a year or so.
Congressman Jack Murtha, then at the peak of his power in a Congress that still feasted on pork, brought in millions of dollars for the commemoration of one of the worst natural disasters in the nation’s history and the triumph of a town that had bounced back from near-obliteration.
Since I was the “heritage beat” reporter for the local newspaper, I extensively covered the Flood Centennial, its projects, special programs, public events and festivals.
One of the projects was a curious one: A nationally renowned abstract sculptor, who created art works from steel on a sizeable scale, was commissioned to come to Johnstown and create a series of pieces that somehow captured Johnstown’s steel heritage.
This artist had liberal use of Bethlehem’s steel mills here and could use mill products, equipment, even mill workers – when they were off the clock. He produced 10 sculptures, including a massive piece titled “Steel Float” that sits on the hillside beside the Johnstown Inclined Plane and had to be set in place by helicopter (arranged, of course, by the staff of Jack Murtha).
Now heritage was my news beat – not fine art. Abstract art in particular was something I neither understood nor appreciated. Yet, there was something different about James Wolfe and his art.
The polar opposite of an aloof, abstruse artist, Wolfe was approachable and displayed no hint of self-absorption. While some artists work overtime to explain the meaning of their creations, Wolfe just wanted to know what his art meant to the patron.
Upon being told by a woman that one piece, featuring a curved vertical plate that suggested a top hat, reminded her of Fred Astaire, Wolfe began referring to the piece as “Fred and Ginger.”
What defines James Wolfe’s art is “movement.” That I could see for myself, finding my eye moving along each element, much like a roller-coaster moves along its rails.
Others obviously appreciate Wolfe’s art, too. Artworks of his are on display in 18 public collections including ones at Exeter Academy, Harvard University, Michigan State University, and Syracuse University; the Hirshhorn Gallery, Washington, D.C.; and Museums of Fine Arts in Boston and Houston.
The steel sculptor has been back to Johnstown twice since 1989, once in 2011 and a second time just weeks ago. The second time I had the opportunity to reconnect with him. While I doubt that he remembered me, he readily shook my hand with a firm grasp and said, “I’m Jim.”
Now in his mid-70s, Wolfe still creates art from steel with movement as his muse. Despite a distinguished career as a professional artist that spans 50 years, he remembers his time here vividly.
“Nothing compares” to his work in Johnstown, he said, still marveling at being able to use the resources of a steel mill. What Wolfe remembers most fondly, though, were the relationships he had with steelworkers here.
“You could talk to them a lot easier than you could talk to art critics,” Wolfe recalled. Some of the steelworkers even visited him years later in New York, where he was living at the time.
For decades, James Wolfe’s sculptures sat neglected and largely ignored along a hillside trail across the Stonycreek River from downtown Johnstown. But thanks to the efforts of a woman named Leah Spangler, the sculptures have been removed from the hillside, restored, and now will be relocated to what’s being called Johnstown’s Iron to Arts Corridor.
Perhaps, someday, Johnstowners will come to appreciate the art of James Wolfe as much as he appreciates Johnstown.