When sculptor and poet John Crew met me at his Wenatchee home for an interview, he was sporting a tie-dyed T-shirt. Along with his distinguished-looking white beard, I imagined he was an aging hippie who had done well in life, but John quickly clarified that point.
“I graduated from high school in Chelan in 1958,” he said. “I’ll be 71 this year. I remember back in the ’60s someone yelling at me and calling me a hippie. I didn’t even know what a hippie was; I thought they were telling me I had a big butt.”
Affable and educated, John has been the director of the Robert Graves Gallery, situated in Sexton Hall at Wenatchee Valley College, “for about five years,” he said. “I don’t keep track of dates.”
And thus the timbre of our interview was set. John is easygoing and comfortable to be around. He doesn’t stress over details.
John’s career as a sculptor didn’t begin in childhood.
“I became an artist because I was too lazy to work and too scared to steal,” he said jokingly.
“As a kid, I collected artifacts around Lake Chelan because I loved their beauty, but I eventually sold them for gas money to take out girls. The advice my parents gave me was to do what made me happy and stay out of jail.”
The ongoing war in Vietnam kept John on the rolls of Central Washington University and the University of Oregon, where he earned a master’s degree in sculpture.
“I drifted into sculpture because I was disillusioned with philosophy. I had ideas I wanted to share and expound on, but in philosophy, all we talked about were the ideas of others,” he said.
Then he found pottery, “where the individual reigned supreme,” he said. “I could express anything I wanted. Pottery was an entry for me into the creative arena.”
Today, John creates sculpture with recycled material, which can include anything from beaver sticks to discarded Christmas trees. “And I collect kitsch,” he said. His kitsch collection adorns his garage studio like well-placed pieces of art. From visiting his studio, it is easy to see where his artistic mind finds creative motivation.
He believes many people confuse beauty with art.
“The best art expresses a message,” he said.
“Good visual art can be grotesque, even upsetting, but the real beauty is in the creativity and the truth and honesty portrayed. Art must have something to say.
“It may be hard to look at, for instance, representations of the Holocaust, and the message is so powerful that it makes you turn away, but it’s great art.”
John said he has never sought financial success with his work. “I do, however, appreciate the respect of my peers,” he said. “Locally, I enjoy the work of Larry Schmidt from Cashmere. Overall, I would have to say the sculpture of Claes Oldenburg of Sweden has been my favorite.”
And does he believe there is art inherent in poetry?
“Maybe even more so,” he said. “That’s the nature of words: like good art, it conveys a message.”
“The local art scene in Wenatchee is relatively healthy from a creative perspective,” he said, “but is limited by the market here.”
From visiting the home of John and his partner, local artist Suzanne Harper, I have to agree. The house is filled with carefully placed works of art, a gallery in itself, each piece conveying a message and each with a story of its own.
Yes, the art scene is alive and healthy in Wenatchee, and perhaps best supported by those who love it most: in this case, the artists themselves.
Autumn Doucet, 53, tutors students in English composition at Wenatchee Valley College.