What happens after an artist devotes two years to working on exhibitions that come to an end? For John Dreyfuss, sculptor of elegant iconic forms, it means returning to push the limits of those forms, and relearning how to work in the studio eight hours a day. For any artist, that would seem like an assignment in paradise; Dreyfuss’s studio is unlike any other.
Housed in a nearly block-long, 18th-century building on the edge of Georgetown, the vast space occupies a hillside above the Potomac River. Grand stairs lead to the 60-foot-wide underground studio, straddling heaven and earth. Light washes over Dreyfuss’s three-dimensional kingdom: Working models of larger-than-life lions command attention between towering columns. Oversized vases, statuesque implements, a massive bone form line up like colossal chess pieces, poised to move.
“The monumental scale of the studio is so perfect for what I do,” Dreyfuss reflects with gratitude and wonder. “Just to be in a space like this is such a gift, to have the ability to step back and see the work at different sizes. My work has evolved because of this luxury of space.”
In harmony with the building’s timeless classical architecture, Dreyfuss’s work distills epochs of art history. His animal forms reference images ranging from ancient Egyptian to renderings by Michelangelo and Picasso. The graceful curves of musical instruments painted on Greek vases are revived in his lyre sculptures. Stone Age tools have served along with sleek, stealthy submarines as touchstones in the artist’s 30-year quest, as he says, “to make beautiful objects in shapes that move me.”
Dreyfuss’s sculptures have become landmarks in a city of monuments. His 14-foot bronze “Solomon’s Gates” frames the entrance to the James Monroe Building on Pennsylvania Avenue. Life-size baseball players take permanent positions in his “Full Count” sculpture at the Federal Reserve building gardens on Virginia Avenue. Dreyfuss’s official Key to the Federal City of Washington, DC, created in 2002 for former Mayor Anthony Williams, led to more recent requests from Presidents Clinton and Obama for lyre and dove sculptures, to be presented as Presidential gifts.
A 22-foot-long vertebrae form remains an enduring relic from the sculptor’s exhibition at American University Museum’s Katzen Arts Center last year. Director Jack Rasmussen describes how Dreyfuss’s six white pieces transformed the austere concrete sculpture garden. “The space became charged like I’ve never seen it before, as if you were witnessing some Cycladian ritual with shapes pared down to the bare essentials,” he says, adding after a pause, “We kept waiting for the sun to set to reveal where the lost ark was buried.”
Dreyfuss received an architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1972 before attending Harvard’s Graduate School of Design to study sculpture. His architecture skills helped in restoring Halcyon House, the massive historic property where he works and lives. Dreyfuss compares this 17-year-construction odyssey—“slowly stripping away something to the armature, then slowly rebuilding from the ground up”—with the painstaking process of making sculpture.
He begins each new piece with pencil sketches followed by more formal drawings. Retreating to a cave-like niche in the grand studio, he builds an aluminum armature to support the small-scale maquette. After inserting a modeling tool into a cauldron of melted wax, he applies the wax slowly in layers as the 12-inch form takes shape.
That size is optimal for scanning and mapping onto computer equipment stretching along the studio’s mezzanine. Computer-generated images can be manipulated, rotated and viewed from any angle, as well as reduced or enlarged to any scale. One machine feeds white plastic through a heating nozzle to produce a 12-inch prototype.
“Plastic is the modern plaster,” says the sculptor, who is no longer covered in plaster dust as in his earlier studio days. “The 19th-century process of plaster masters making molds and castings has so easily adapted itself to computer modeling.” He adds, “Seeing the work in three dimensions and in a scale appropriate for the job makes refining those shapes so much easier. Most important, the hand of the artist is not lost.”
Once a final print and model are approved, information is sent by disk to a fabricator, where the piece is carved in reinforced fiberglass. It may proceed to a foundry for casting in metal—iron, stainless steel, aluminum or bronze. Dreyfuss limits editions to 12 of each sculpture.
He often leaves noncommissioned works in fiberglass with an epoxy finish. “They’re lighter in weight and suited to the outdoors, as in boats,” he points out, standing in his studio near two white abstractions, remaining like totems from the Katzen show.
Income from Halcyon House’s six apartments and public space rented for corporate and private events allows Dreyfuss rare independence to pursue his artistic direction. In addition, serendipity struck at one party, when Dreyfuss met Richard Bott of Lockheed Martin. A mutually beneficial alliance developed that became the sculptor’s bridge to computer-assisted production.
“Their engineers taught me how not to be trapped by traditional methods of making sculpture, how to use new ways to refine shapes and to make pieces quicker,” he says. “And they were happy to work on something that wasn’t a weapon.”
The partnership led Dreyfuss to his “Enigma” show at Hemphill Fine Arts last year. Munitions engineers provided technological assistance. At the same time, the relationship between artist and armaments manufacturers navigated deeper waters in the series Dreyfuss calls “submersibles.” These streamlined, flawlessly finished forms relate to the ambiguous beauty and power of military weapons. Back in his studio, the sculptor points to one of his recent wax models, the elongated body of a seal. He compares its shape to that of a submarine.
Dreyfuss muses on the next stage of his sculptural journey, perhaps returning to animal portraits, the point where he began. His first works, a polished bronze rooster and bull’s head, greet guests in the mansion’s entrance hall. “Each piece teaches you something,” the sculptor observes with characteristic deliberation. “I’m always thinking how a new piece fits into the larger body of work. Nothing is capricious.”
Tina Coplan is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
John Dreyfuss is represented by Hemphill Fine Arts at 1515 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC; 202-234-5601; www.hemphillfinearts.com.