John Coleman, CA Southwest Art March 2000

Beyond Realism: Through symbolism, John Coleman reaches out to the viewer

Published online courtesy Southwest Art magazine, March 2000

By Lynn Pyne

Left: John Coleman, CA, The Rainmaker, Bronze Edition of 9, 10.5  Right: John Coleman, CA, Tais Trade II, Bronze Edition of 35, 21"

Left: John Coleman, CA, The Rainmaker, Bronze Edition of 9, 10.5. 

Right: John Coleman, CA, Tais Trade II, Bronze Edition of 35, 21"

A bulldozer plows the earth outside John Coleman's studio in Prescott, AZ. Inside, Coleman is so intent on studying his life-size clay model for The Rainmaker that he doesn't seem to notice the noise. The 10 ½ -foot-tall sculpture depicts an ancient Anasazi medicine man shooting an arrow into the clouds during a rain ceremony. The athletic figure is so realistic that even the veins of the arm gripping the bow stand out with strain. Smoke provides a dramatic contrast by enveloping the figure in an ethereal, abstract form. Flowing skyward, tendrils of smoke curl around the body, catching the loincloth, the shoulder-length hair, and finally, the arrow that has already been shot into the wind.

In The Rainmaker, as in other works, Coleman depicts a traditional theme. Yet he gives it fresh appeal by incorporating the unexpected. "The archer is a cliche, but it occurred to me that this would be a good opportunity to integrate smoke," Coleman says, describing how he got the idea while reading about historic western painter George Catlin's experiences with the Mandan Indians. "In this rainmaking ceremony," he says, "smoke is considered to be the breath of the Great Spirit and is used as a vehicle to carry the arrow, which represents the prayer for rain. So, in this piece, the smoke creates a nice abstract foil for the realistic traditional figure. Also, it's an archer, but with a little twist because he's let go of the arrow."

John Coleman, CA

John Coleman, CA

Diagrams of the human skeletal and muscular systems hang in Coleman's studio, attesting to the importance of anatomical accuracy in his work. Coleman reads anatomy books for entertainment the way many people read novels. In addition, he often brings live models into his studio to glean certain lifelike details. For The Rainmaker, he observed how the navel elongated when the models' torso was twisted and the way the model bent his thumb. "I took castings of his hands because they were so important I didn't want to miss anything," the artist says, crossing the room to retrieve one casting from a workbench. Running his finger over the white plaster thumb, he says, "Look at the way his thumb was hyper-extended - I never would have thought to do that without using the model."

Coleman devotes the same meticulous attention to other details, such as historical authenticity and bronze craftsmanship. With the help of two full-time employees, he handles most of the bronze-casting process in his studio - everything except the foundry's pouring of the metal - maintain quality control.

Through his art, Coleman seeks to communicate ideas on multiple levels, starting with the specific stories of people and their rituals and then, on a deeper level, using the stories as metaphors for more universal concepts. The Rainmaker, for instance, is about man's desire to control his environment through a spiritual wish or physical action.

"Art, to me, literally puts a physical face on a spiritual idea," Coleman says. "We use a metaphor as a way of talking about an idea that you can't hold in your hands. It's an attempt to communicate to someone through an experience they can relate to emotionally. I don't belong to any particular religious denomination, but I'm very interested - say, analytical - about what the human experience is all about. Who am I? What am I? Why am I? Philosophically, I think anybody who's gotten beyond the basic need to survive gets to a point where you have to ask these questions."

John Coleman, CA, Stella by Starlight, Bronze Edition of 35, 26

John Coleman, CA, Stella by Starlight, Bronze Edition 26 of 35

Using symbolism such as smoke, which has spiritual meanings in many cultures and religions, gives Coleman an opportunity to explore his own spiritual ideas and then communicate them in visual terms. It's the reason most of his subjects are Native Americans. "This is my way of exploring my own circumstances, my humanity, my spirituality," he says. "Native Americans have a built-in repertoire of visual symbols that a sculptor can use. If I were in Europe, I would be using the traditional mythology and symbols of the Greeks and Romans, the Arthurian legends, Shakespearean stories. But in America, you're going to do American mythology and symbols."

Coleman's tendency to communicate visually began in his youth in Manhattan Beach, CA, where he passed through school barely learning to read or write. Now 50, he recognizes that his academic problems stemmed from dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder. "Ironically, though, the very thing that kept me from spelling in visual imagery," he says. "And my natural ability to draw was greatly enhanced by the fact that I sat in the back of the room and drew pictures all day."

He loaded up on art classes and worked part-time as an illustrator doing pencil portraits of celebrities for a newspaper column. "Art was my way of expressing myself," he recalls. "People use that phrase a lot, but literally, art was the only way I was able to communicate; and if there was anything valid about who I was, that was it. I was a rebel, too - when you're set aside, you build a shell around yourself and say you don't care."

He excelled in art, winning a summer scholarship to the Art Center for Design in Los Angeles. Then his boss, the newspaper columnist, used his influence to help Coleman land a position usually reserved for the Art Center's higher-achieving students. "I was not at that level, and I realized that opportunity was based on who you knew and not on your merit," he says. "My romantic notion of what it was to be an artist really collapsed."

An idealist, Coleman quit art, got married, and started a construction business. During the next 25 years, he did land-development and historic preservation projects, from mobile home parks to hotels. He cherished the dream of someday returning to art - but on his own terms, without compromising. "To me, certain things are sacred," he says. "I always felt that if anything would be definitive in my life, it would be my artistic ability. The concept of using art as a hobby was too painful to me - you don't dabble in something like that."

At 44, with a friend urging him not to let his dream slip away, Coleman decided the time had come. His children were grown, and he was financially secure enough to take a new direction without being hindered by financial concerns.

By starting his art career in midlife, Coleman has more to say through his art; he reaps the benefits of maturity and experience. This is evident in his sculpture Creation Passing, which depicts a blissfully weary Apache girl during her ceremonial rite of passage into womanhood. The girl received the blessing of the corn pollen from her people, as if by the hands of the creator.

Creation Passing is one of Coleman's earlier works, in which he employed highly detailed polychrome beading on the girl's ceremonial costume. At the time, he used patina and paint to give sculpture the painterly qualities of light and atmosphere. The polychrome look attracted instant attention to his work, but it also meant that he was taken less seriously by some.

As Coleman's work has evolved, textural surface qualities have become more important, and he is more willing to let the material and the process of creation show. Instead of flashy color, Coleman now incorporates basic design elements, shapes, symbols, body language, and other visual tools to give his sculpture action, movement, and emotion. These tools act like musical notes in a composition, and Coleman hopes that the resulting melody speaks to the viewer.

"To me, it's the most joyful, most euphoric feeling when you're getting across an idea, but it's also the most devastating feeling when things are not developing well," Coleman says. "But I believe that passion is real important. I am putting this out there into the world, and I want people to feel that what I am creating has integrity at least as far as I'm concerned, and that I've given everything to it."