Richard Hunt

Richard Hunt headshot

Music Credit: “New Life” from the cd New Life, written and performed by Antonio Sanchez

Richard Hunt: It's been 48 years out of the 50, that I've been associated with the National Endowment, National Council on the Arts. And so I served from 1968 to 1974. It was a very exciting and exhilarating thing to be part of a group of such notable people in the arts, all the arts, and to try to think about what this federal program could do nationally to advance the cause of the arts.

Jo Reed: That is sculptor and former member of the national council on the Arts, Richard Hunt. And this is Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the national endowment for the arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

As you might know, this is the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts, and we’re reaching out to some of the many artists who have been affiliated with us throughout the years—

Enter Richard Hunt—the brilliant sculptor who served on one of the earliest National Councils on the Arts.  And just an FYI: The council serves as an advisory board to the chairman, reviewing and making recommendations for grants and initiatives.

We were lucky when Richard Hunt was appointed. He had a reputation as one the country’s leading African-American abstract sculptors…a reputation that’s only grown throughout the decades. Richard Hunt has never stopped experimenting and pushing the boundaries of metal—He’s said “In some works it is my intention to develop the kind of forms Nature might create if only heat and steel were available to her.”  Marrying the industrial to the natural, his steel, aluminum, and bronze pieces often convey the further paradox of both solidity and movement. And somehow, Richard Hunt manages to create abstract pieces of sculpture that relate directly to African American history—like Jacob’s Ladder or I’ve been to the Mountain.

Richard Hunt been thinking about art and its relationship to public space for his entire career, in practice as well as theory.  An early proponent of working with found objects, Hunt has received many, many awards and prizes.  It’s been said that Richard Hunt has completed more public sculptures than any other artist in the country.  He certainly has made his mark on his hometown of Chicago—with more than 30 pieces of his work on view in libraries, universities, community centers, plazas, and parks.

Richard Hunt was born in 1935 on the south side of Chicago and he credits his mother for making sure that the arts were part of his life.

Richard Hunt:  Growing up in Chicago, I was fortunate to have a mother who had a great interest in the arts, primarily the performing arts, my sister and I were taken to concerts, recital at a early age, and without any prompting I just liked to draw, you know—

Jo Reed:  And you had a good arts education at your public school as well, didn’t you?

Richard Hunt:  Yeah, I would say so. At that point in time, both grammar school and high school, arts programs were more a part of the general kind of education- reading, writing, arithmetic, and music and art, and in high school I was what they call an art major so instead of taking the year of art and year of music I took a year of art, and then another year of art as an art major, but by that time I had started to attend what was called the Junior School at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on Saturdays and in the summers. And that gave me a lot more access both to instruction and familiarity with the works at hand in the museum of the art institute.

Jo Reed:  Was being an artist, as a career, was that something that was even in your lexicon?

Richard Hunt:  I would say no-- I didn’t say, “I’m going to be an artist,” let alone a sculptor when I grew up. It was just something one liked to do, enjoyed, and over time there was a certain amount of positive reinforcement from family, from art teachers. When it came time to go to college, I had three areas of interest: history, biological science and art, sculpture in particular. I got a scholarship to the School of the Art Institute, to the college, and that helped me decide that maybe this was the possibility of a career.

Jo Reed:  But you got your degree in arts education.

Richard Hunt:  That’s correct. Well, hedging a little bit.

Jo Reed:  Well, your plan B.

Richard Hunt:  <laughs> Right.

Jo Reed:  Well, being an artist it’s not an easy life. You’re an amazingly talented artist, and I’d like to begin by you talking about how you moved into sculpture.

Richard Hunt:  Well, again going back to high school, so I was about a sophomore in high school at the time and I took this class and there was a wonderful teacher who took great interest in her students generally and I thought in me in particular because we got on and I was very much encouraged by her, a woman named Nellie Bar who was very important in directing me toward a career in sculpture. I mean I liked once I started working three dimensionally to actually make things that took their form in space rather than as an illusion on paper or canvas, and like I say I had a lot of encouragement to move in this direction and a lot of pleasure in having done that.

Jo Reed:  And how did you move into working with metal?

Richard Hunt:  Well, again an important point in this career development was seeing really in one case a number of pieces in an exhibition that came to the art institute while I was a sophomore in college there and it was a survey of sculpture of the twentieth century up until then, this was about 1954 or ’55, and it traced the history of modern movements in sculpture and I saw work of Picasso, Julio Gonzalez, David Smith, people who had a pioneering role in developing direct metal, that is to say welded fabricated sculpture, as an art form. And that interested me even more than the modeling that I’d taken to earlier on.

Jo Reed:  I want to interrupt just for a second because when you talk about working directly with metal, tell me what you mean by that.

Richard Hunt:  Well, I mean traditionally, going back to the Bronze Age, a lot of sculpture in metal had been cast, that is to say metal melted, poured into molds and cooled and become bronze or silver sculpture, but in the early twentieth century with the development of welding techniques, which were first based on industrial use, sculptors began to use it to construct, fabricate things that were-- sheets, rods, various metal forms were altered and welded or soldered together to make sculpture.

Jo Reed:   When you began doing sculpture your work was more figurative and then you moved into more abstract shapes. Can you talk about that transition?

Richard Hunt:  Yeah. The transition from what you might call figurative, making portrait sculpture, sculpture of animals, sculpture of various things was part of an artist’s education at the time I was beginning. I mean there were not as there are today classes in abstraction there was this possibility, opportunity of my coming of age at a point when abstraction and various other forms of non-literal art were gaining increasing notice and importance in the field. There was not only abstraction but surrealism and a branch of that called abstract surrealism, which I found particularly interested-- interesting, and then also constructivism, which was a more geometric approach to abstracting, and that is to say taking from reality, abstracting, taking from reality to create another reality perhaps based on ideas, emotions and the like.

Jo Reed:  Well, your work often shows this relationship between a natural, organic material and fabricated steel. You seem to be playing with both these things, with the organic material in the way you shape things and then there’s the steel that you fashioned in these shapes. Can you just talk about that relationship and how you came to it?

Richard Hunt:  Well, I have this interest, both in technologically derived methods of producing things and like I mentioned earlier being interested in biological science, but I’m interested in, well, the natural world and how things take shape there from cell division to various other kinds of growth and expansion. And so part of my creative process is involved I guess some of the time with linking the idea of construction in a mechanical way and organic growth and sort of having a product, these sculptures or other things that I do, that represent and meld the interest in both worlds.

Jo Reed:  There’s a lot of movement in your work.

Richard Hunt:  Yes. Movement of course is an aspect of being alive and vital so the idea of suggesting movement seemed appropriate to me. I never have wanted to make art that really moves, that is to say mobiles or, or kinetic things, yeah, but things that have a presence that suggests that they might move. Another thing about things that are three dimensional is that they do in a way move as one eye moves over them or one bodily moves around it. The relationship of parts changes and suggests things that are different from what one would see at a different angle of perception.

Jo Reed:  You were quite young when you had your first solo show at the Charles Allen Gallery in New York and it was about that same time that the Museum of Modern Art bought one of your pieces, making you the first African American sculptor in their collection.

Richard Hunt: That’s not true that I was the first African American sculptor in the collection. Later on I was the first African American sculptor to have a one-man show, that was in 1971, but in 1956 when the Museum of Modern Art purchased a sculpture of mine, a welded steel sculpture called Arachne, derived from the Greek myth. I mean it’s not that there were a lot of African American sculptures in the collection but for instance there was a sculptor, Edmondson, there might have been a couple of others. 

Jo Reed:  Well, you’re young, you’re in your early twenties and both of these really terrific things are happening for you. What was your thinking at that moment?

Richard Hunt:  Well, I was thinking that was the way they were supposed to happen. I mean what I mean is <laughs> somebody calls you up and say they want to buy a piece of sculpture, well, fine. Then other people would say, “Well, gee, I’m 40 and nobody from the Museum of Modern Art bought anything of mine” but, well, you start to make comparisons and you see it.

Jo Reed:  It must have been a heady moment.

Richard Hunt:  <laughs> Yeah.

Jo Reed:  How do you develop your pieces? Do you sketch? Do you make molds? Do you make models?

Richard Hunt:  Well, I have several approaches and it depends on the nature of the particular work, its scale, whether it’s commissioned or not I mean-- but generally there’s some idea developed, sometimes just a mental image, other times a sketch, sometimes-- at least as my studio practice developed to the point that the studio is sort of an environment that is full of possibilities as well as just a place to work-- that is to say I have a lot of material that I’ve either collected or started to work on and whatnot. And so at any given point there’s something I might start to put together with something else and it becomes over time a sculpture. Another thing about the way I work, this welded fabricated medium that is-- it’s both additive and subtractive, at least it has that potential, whereas modeling you put material together, build up with clay or wax or plaster, and with carving you take away, you chip away stone or wood, but the flexibility of welded, fabricated work is that you can do some of both-- the potential strength of the metals means that you can put things together and extend them into space that you wouldn’t do otherwise. So in all of this for what I would call my self-directed studio work it’s very improvisatory, spontaneous. When I do work that’s commissioned for some public place or for some particular purpose I take a more considered approach- drawing; making models. So there are two approaches and they merge at times.

Jo Reed:  Can we talk about a commissioned piece that you created in 1967, your first public sculpture called Play and the significance about that... first your first public sculpture.

Richard Hunt:  Yes. Well, I was very fortunate in that this commission, Play, was commissioned by an architect,Walter Netsch, who had first become a collector of my work even while I was still a student at the art institute but exhibiting in Chicago at a gallery. Anyway, Walter Netsch came to me-- he was at work on a hospital-- a state hospital and it just happened to be the first building project in the state that used a percent for art program, and knowing my work and being interested in it, he approached me about doing a commission to go out in an open space that was surrounded by various pavilions that were part of this hospital. So it was interesting on several levels, someone who had had a personal interest in my private work taking it public so to speak and later on in various ways I was involved in the promotion of public art and the idea of art in public places.

Jo Reed:  In a city like Chicago that is rich in public sculpture, it’s very easy to find yours. You have many, many works in your hometown of Chicago.

Richard Hunt:  Well, that’s true and I’m happy and proud of that and the fact that the city has a tradition going way back and then kind of postwar-- post World War II a resurgence of interest beginning with the Picasso sculpture in the Daley Plaza and various other pieces, a real history of that sort of thing. So it’s kind of natural in a way for somebody interested in making sculpture to find his way into the public places where sculpture is presented.

Jo Reed:  What are some of the considerations that you have when you’re creating a public piece of art?

Richard Hunt:  Certainly making something that has the potential of being more or less permanent is a factor. Then, for me, creating something that has a definite sense of belonging in a particular place is important.

Jo Reed:  You've said that history was something that really interested you a great deal, and in some ways, your sculpture can reference history though it still remains abstract, and I'm thinking of Jacob's Ladder, which is in the Carter Woodson Library in Chicago.

Richard Hunt:  Yes. The Carter Woodson Library, of course, is named for Carter G. Woodson, who was an African-American historian and who was responsible for first bringing attention to African-American history by having what was then called Negro History Week. Now it's, of course, like a month-long celebration. But there's this library, a regional library in Chicago, named for him, and there was a space, an atrium, that seemed to cry out for a piece that would hang from this 30-foot high glassed over atrium. As a matter of fact, the space is 30 feet high, 30 feet wide, 30 feet deep, so a cube of space, so to speak. Anyway, in discussions with the architect and the library committee, the idea of a piece that would hang in the space seemed appropriate. And so in thinking about something that would hang in the space and it being so dedicated to African-American life and history, the sculpture I call Jacob's Ladder, references the Negro spiritual, "We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder", and there's a phrase, "Climbing Jacob's Ladder", that talks about in the African-American community, climbing out of ignorance into knowledge and that sort of thing. So it has a resonance, both, artistically, structurally within the space and within the intended use of the space.

Jo Reed:  And you're working on a piece of sculpture that's your homage to Romare Bearden. It's for the city of Charlotte, and it's called Spiral Odyssey.

Richard Hunt:  Yes. The Spiral Odyssey, again, takes its title and some of its form and meaning from the life and activities of Romare Bearden, who was a friend and an influential artist to me and to other people-- many other people. And, of course, this Romare Bearden Park, where the sculpture will reside, is created as part of a downtown redevelopment and expansion in Charlotte. But it was the ward in which, 104 years ago, Romare Bearden was born. He was interested in classical literature, as am I, and he did two or maybe three series of works based on The Odyssey, so that's one thing. And then, he was active with some other African-American artists in starting a group that wanted to encourage and spread interest and understanding of abstraction in art among African-Americans, and that group was called "Spiral". So this sculpture, which spirals upward and has some sort of boat shapes in it, is a reflection of that.

Jo Reed:  You mentioned that it's in the Romare Bearden Park in Charlotte, and it's part of a redevelopment and revitalization of that neighborhood in Charlotte, and art has frequently been used, public art particularly, as a way to add to a revitalization process. When that happens, when your art is involved with that, do you feel a particular responsibility? Or how do you approach that? Because it's not just seeing what's there. It's also envisioning a future.

Richard Hunt:  Well, yes. I find that approaching art as-- you know, beyond personal expression, I mean, just like architecture is a place for people to live or work or worship or whatever. But at the same time, you know, the architect expresses something of himself; something of his time. An architect considers a whole lot of things that are part of the building codes in whatever city it is and all that, and the same with sculpture. I mean, that is to say not to that extent. But to create things that are memorable to see, to congregate around, to be part of making a place more identifiable, those are things that add to the potential of an artist's work, or certainly a sculptor's work.

Jo Reed:  Tell me about your studio.

Richard Hunt:  Well, my studio is an adaptive reuse of an industrial building, a building that was built as an electrical substation house and generated at one point in time. It was vacated and the only thing left in it, thank goodness, was a crane, an overhead bridge crane, that I can use then to move sculpture around and about and out the door. And it was in a part of town that in the early '70s was a little bit derelict and now it's become, as many places artists have taken up as places to live and work, much more gentrified. So that I'm the only non-conforming place in an otherwise-- a neighborhood that's otherwise become a place of loft condominiums and luxury townhomes. But anyway, I'm still there and the space is still a space that's a wonderful space to make sculpture in.

Jo Reed:  Mm-hm. I want to talk a little bit about the practicality of what you do. Always...

Richard Hunt:  <laughs> Who said it was practical?

Jo Reed:  Well, that's sort of where I'm getting at. <laughs>

Richard Hunt:  <laughs>

Jo Reed:  I mean, I always feel for sculptors because it is so difficult. Financially, the commitment is so great. If you're not a successful poet, you can typically cobble together a piece of paper and a pen. For a sculptor, it is a monumental cost. It's a big investment. Even if you're working with found objects, you still need the right tools and the equipment, and then for example, with Spiral Odyssey, I just wonder how are you moving it?

Richard Hunt:  Well, of course, that's another thing. There's the creation of the work and then the logistics of getting it... first of all, out of the door. The first large sculpture I made, as a matter of fact, Play, I had a problem getting it out of the door. I didn't measure the door. <laughs> 

Jo Reed:  <laughs> Yes.

Richard Hunt:  You know, like the old story of a person building a boat in their basement. But anyway...

Jo Reed:  <laughs> Yes.

Richard Hunt:  ...over the years, you know, 125 sculptures later, I consider all that as part of the process. So there's the creation of the sculpture, the logistics of moving and installing it. But it becomes part of one's practice, over time, you know?

Jo Reed:  Yeah.

Richard Hunt: And of course, when you talk about cost, something to be considered over and above just the cost of materials and labor, I mean, you know, additionally, what it takes to get something somewhere, the foundation that's going to keep it upright in winds and storms and even earthquakes up to a certain point.

Jo Reed:  Right. Because some of your work, a lot of your work, your public work, is quite big and you do have to think about wind and how that's going to impact it.

Richard Hunt:  Yeah, and as a matter of fact, I've picked up a few things along the way, what they call "on the job training". But just like architects and various other kinds of design professionals, I consult with the proper people, like structural engineers, sometimes mechanical engineers, when I'm developing the ideas and working on larger scale pieces.

Jo Reed:  Well, let's journey back 50 years to when you sat on the National Council on the Arts for the Arts Endowment. Tell me about that. 

Richard Hunt:  Well, to be accurate, to be perfectly accurate, it's been 48 years out of the 50, that I've been associated with the National Endowment, National Council on the Arts. And so I served from 1968 to 1974. It was a very exciting and exhilarating thing to be part of a group of such notable people in the arts, all the arts, and to try to think about what this federal program could do nationally to advance the cause of the arts. It was a very meaningful thing for me and actually enlarged my view of what was possible, both for individuals and arts organizations.

Jo Reed:  You were part of that first foundational generation of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Richard Hunt:  Well, yes, along with the council members, the various staff people who were brought in and who had, again, backgrounds in both performing or academic backgrounds and all, and who thought intelligently and deeply about what in their various professions could advance training for persons who wanted to perform or make things, and then bringing the arts to a broader and broader audience.

Jo Reed:  Can you talk a little bit about the significance of the NEA on the vitality of the culture of this country?

Richard Hunt:  Looking back, it's interesting to think about, well first of all, the enthusiasm and the expansion of programs. A matter of fact, one important program, as far as I was concerned, was called Expansion Arts, instituted during the time I was a member, which sought to bring people who were community based. That is to say not major arts organizations, but organizations which were nascent and trying to grow within specific communities, ethnic communities, and communities that were otherwise disadvantaged and had less access to various art forms, and that certainly made a difference. And the difference that could be made by supporting exemplary programs that could then be replicated from one community, one region, to another. 

Jo Reed:  Let me ask you, back to you personally, what's next? What are you working on now?

Richard Hunt:  Well, I'm working on several things. You know, we talked about the Bearden project.

Jo Reed:  Mm-hm.

Richard Hunt:  Closer to the home of the National Endowment, I'm going to be doing a sculpture for the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which I'll hope to finish at some point next year, about a year from now. I'm working on pieces for the University of Iowa, and just some sculptures I want to make. Things that I go in there and just start putting pieces of metal together.

Jo Reed:  Well, Richard Hunt, I want to thank you for coming into the studio, for everything that you've done. 

Richard Hunt:  Well, thank you. It was a pleasure to have a chance to talk, to reminisce, to look both backwards and forwards.

Jo Reed: That was sculptor Richard Hunt—he served on the National Council of the Arts from 1968 to 1974. You can find out if there's a Richard Hunt sculpture in your hometown or you can just check out his work at

You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAarts on Twitter.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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Richard Hunt talks about creating large pieces of abstract art for public spaces and reflects on his time on the National Council of the Arts.