Corrections & Clarifications: A previous version of this article was unclear about John Henry Waddell’s bronze sculpture “That Which Might Have Been.” It was first installed at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, where it remains. A second casting is on display at the George Washington Carver Museum.
Born on Valentine’s Day in 1921, sculptor John Henry Waddell put love at the center of his art for more than half a century.
Love for his wife, partner and muse, Ruth Holland Waddell. Love of the human figure and for the individual people whose physicality he captured in bronze. And, yes, the kind of universal love that some might dismiss as naïve or sentimental.
The Arizona artist, whose life-size nudes can be seen dancing outside the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix, died Nov. 27 at age 98 in his Verde Valley home, where the couple had lived and worked since 1971.
“His work transcended the negative,” said his daughter, filmmaker Amy Waddell, quoting her mother, Ruth, who worked in close partnership with her husband and is an artist herself.
“As he started to fade out as a prolific artist, she started to portray him in her work and did a whole series about their marriage,” Amy Waddell said. “So he became a muse to Ruth. I think they ‘mused’ each other the whole time.”
In addition to “Dance of Life,” the collective title for the bronze statues first installed at the Phoenix Convention Center in 1974, Waddell’s public artworks include “That Which Might Have Been,” a memorial for four black girls murdered in the 1963 Baptist church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. It was first installed at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix. A second casting is on display at the George Washington Carver Museum in Phoenix.
It depicts four women — representing the girls, had they been able to grow up — facing in the four cardinal directions.
“The role of each person who sees it is to finish the piece their own way,” Waddell told The Arizona Republic when the sculpture was finished in 1997.
He also has created public art in Chicago, Napa Valley and Flushing Meadows, New York, with a tennis sculpture titled “Apogee and Momentum.”
Born in Des Moines, Iowa, Waddell started teaching art to adults before he was one, at just 16. After serving in the U.S. Army, he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he met Ruth. She would be a frequent model for his statues and paintings, which celebrated the nude figure.
After working for a couple of years in Greece, Waddell moved to metro Phoenix, where he taught art at Arizona State University until retiring at age 40 to pursue his own art full time.
He continued to serve as a mentor to apprentices, including photographer Michel Sarda and sculptor Clark Reidy. In 1971 the Waddells and their young daughter settled in the Verde Valley, where they maintained an active social life with friends who were often his models as well.
“There were musicians and sculptors and models, and people who were kind of in between two places in their own lives,” she said. “They had a very rich life. They allowed themselves the freedom to experience other people’s lives, so they just thrived. And they were completely with each other until the last moment.”
After his Verde Valley studio burned down in 1984, she added, “He rebuilt a new studio within 10 months, and that speaks to his spirit of perseverance. And that theme is in his work.”
In 2007, eight large bronzes were stolen and melted for scrap metal. The Waddells decided to open up their life savings to recast the statues, a grouping titled “Generations.”
And in 2016, his daughter said, they hosted a 95th birthday party where Waddell unveiled his final work, a bas relief titled “Rising.”
“As my mother says, he worked until he couldn’t work anymore,” she said. “That last piece was another 10-year journey. After that, he stopped making sculpture, and it wasn’t a big drama. He was at peace. If you go to the ranch where he lived, you’re surrounded by his sculpture and paintings.”
Waddell is survived by his wife, Ruth Holland Waddell; daughter Amy Waddell; sons Sean, Seamus and Seanchan Owen and Lindsey and William Waddell; and seven grandchildren.
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