OCEANSIDE — "Art isn't a luxury. It's absolutely essential to our mental and physical well-being," sculptor John Dunn said. "If we're not exposed to some form of it early enough in childhood we suffer a kind of brain damage--the mental connections aren't made."
It is a foggy Wednesday evening in an area of Cleveland Street that is a higgledy-piggledy tangle of rusting warehouses and automobile body shops. Inside his 1,600-square-foot studio, which was once a fish cannery, Dunn is sculpting a 4 1/2-foot model of Skyline Arch, a natural formation in Arches National Park, near Moab, Utah.
"Geologist John Hoffman commissioned it for a clay animation film about the slow rate of change in these ancient sandstone arches," Dunn said. His voice is deep. His English accent has a cultured resonance. The original Skyline Arch, he said, changed more quickly than most when a large chunk fell out in 1940.
"When people think of clay animation, they usually think of Gumby. Or cartoons. Not educational films. It's a whole new area for a sculptor," Dunn said.
Eyes Watch Silently
It is chilly inside the studio. Holes loom high in the wooden walls. (Relics of hoses from the fish packing days.) Under a layer of drying clay, Dunn's long-fingered hands look blue with cold. All around him, from corners and walls and pedestals, dozens of sculptured eyes in sculptured faces watch silently as he sprays Skyline Arch with water to keep the clay soft.
"I've no complaints about my life," he said. "Independence! That's the most vital thing to have." At 59, his beard is silvery. His right thumb--"my clay-punching thumb"--has a pronounced backward curve. He looks amused when it is suggested that his life style--he works at least 14 hours a day in this drafty place, where the trains pass so closely they rattle the walls--seems Spartan for someone with a classical education at Scotland's Edinburgh College of Art. Someone whose pottery is collected internationally (Queen Elizabeth has some on the royal yacht Britannia.)
"My only problem is occasional frustration at not having enough money to put all my ideas into practice. I'm an experimenter," he said, waving at the shelves of chemicals he uses to make glazes for his pottery. He has 200 glazes, all of them originals. One rich brown one was created from lava rocks from Vesuvius. Another contains gold ore from a gold mine he once owned in Colorado.
"All the excitement for me," he said, "lies in the process of creation."
In order to have the freedom to experiment, Dunn says, he mingles his own projects with commissioned work. That ranges from one of the largest ceramic murals in the United States (60 feet by 40 feet of unglazed stoneware tiles at the University of Notre Dame) to the papier-mache elephant's head that hangs over the bar at Kypling's Restaurant in Encinitas.
"San Diego County is a place with opportunities for all kinds of artists," he said. "And it's going to get even better. So many businesses are moving here from Back East."
Most of his commissions come from architects. Sometimes things are slow; sometimes they are hectic.
"I remember one wild month in 1982," he said, chuckling. "I was finishing a 15-foot ceramic mural of Torrey pine trees for the Torrey Pines Bank in Fallbrook. At the same time I was sculpting two larger-than-life-size Mayan Indian figures for a restaurant in Anchorage, Alaska. Everything had to be ready on opening day. When the truck arrived to take the Indian figures to the airport, I was still frantically painting in their eyes as the men carried them across the yard to the truck."
Dunn was born in Liverpool, England. "My father was in the Royal Navy so he was gone a lot," he remembers. "When he was home, he used to take me around art galleries. I was about 6 when I decided to become an artist myself."
Quit School at 12
It took him a while, however, to become a professional one. He left school at 12--"hated the structure of it"--and spent a Dickensian year running around the city delivering bundles of clothes for a man who, he says, "resembled Fagin in Oliver Twist."
By 16 he was working in a garage and studying at night at the Liverpool College of Art. (The same school where, a generation later, John Lennon met Paul McCartney.)
Dunn's past included three years as a commando in the British army and six months in a carnival riding the "wall of death" on the handlebars of a motorcycle by the time he won a biscuit-manufacturer's scholarship to Edinburgh College of Art. He was 23 then, and married.
"Soon after I arrived at the school, they held a contest," he said. "When I scanned the list of what contestants had to produce--tea pots, plate designs, lithograph plate borders--I thought 'My God! In only three days!' "
Busy Three Days