If you're going to see glass and dinnerware designer Eva Zeisel's work at Balboa Park's Mingei Museum, you shouldn't skip over the smaller, less-publicized exhibit at the east end of the museum's first floor. There, through Feb. 11, you'll find a small but outstanding retrospective of work by craftsman John Dirks. It's an introduction to the career of an artist who sacrificed productivity and its attendant legacy to teach others his craft and to nudge along San Diego's mid-20th-century modernist-art scene.
The two exhibits are an interesting juxtaposition—both Zeisel and Dirks began creating in the first half of the 20th century; both have a strong foundation in sculpture and the two exhibits complement each other through each artist's embrace of modernistic simplicity. You wouldn't know it by the bio that accompanies the exhibit, but Dirks is still around, very much alive, living in the Mt. Helix home he built six decades ago. While Zeisel, at 100, is still creating, Dirks, at 93, hasn't been able to work in awhile, the result of a series of surgeries on his back and the fact that the work he does is physical stuff—from painstakingly intricate woodwork to highly polished scuplture.
And, while you can find Zeisel's work for sale in the Mingei's gift shop-for sale, even, at Crate and Barrel through a line she created for the chain—not so for Dirks. All of his work that's accounted for is in private or museum collections. Some of his finest work was done in his later years, only after he'd retired from teaching and had time to really focus on his craft. And, of his work that would have had the widest reach—the elegant salad bowls and carved animals he made from rosewood, ebony, birch and mahogany on demand for upscale department stores like Gump's and Bullock's Wilshire—there's no marking to distinguish the pieces as his.
When asked why he didn't sign a lot of his pieces, Dirks is nonchalant. “I don't know; I just never thought of it,” he says.
It's a difficult concept to grasp—an artist who can send a piece out into the world without declaring it to be his creation. Granted, the bowls were made to be used, but they are works of art nonetheless.
“His ego wasn't tied to [his work],” says Keith York, a friend of Dirks'. “He's such an exceptionally humble person.”
Beginning in the 1940s and into the early '90s, in the garage studio behind the Mt. Helix home he built into the side of the mountain (his second self-built home), Dirks created furniture and fine-wood sculptures inspired by Arts and Crafts era icons like Frank Lloyd Wright and pioneering modernists from the Bauhaus school.
His work is about balance and use of space. There's a harmony to his wood sculpture that's palpable—something that's not surprising, given the sculptor's love of music. Dirks constructed many of his pieces using what's known as “the golden section”—a geometric formula that, when applied to the construction of a piece of art or a building, is supposed to have an aesthetically pleasing effect on the viewer by virtue of its proportionality.
The same unity and proportion found in his sculpture is there in the house that Dirks, with the help of two of his students, built for his family of four six decades ago on an acre of land above La Mesa that he purchased for $3,500. It's an area where, back in the '40s and '50s, artists like Dirks built their homes and created their art.
Dirks had no formal training in architecture—he learned “by osmosis,” he says. One side of the three-bedroom, two-bath home—the side that looks out on the valley floor—is almost entirely windows. It's a view Dirks still delights in even though the expanse of land down below is quite different than it was 60 years ago, when La Mesa and El Cajon were largely ranchland. A portion of the other side of the house backs up to the hill, and when you walk down the hallway, there's a large window looking into a covered terrarium containing the rocks and boulders the house was built around.
“I was hooked on the Frank Lloyd Wright concept that a home should harmonize with the landscape rather than stand separate,” Dirks explains, “so when we saw all these rocks, instead of blasting them up, we decided to use them as they are.”
Born in Fon du Lac, Mich., in 1914, Dirks moved to San Diego when he was 9. He attended Hoover High School and, in 1937, graduated with a degree in art from San Diego State University. He'd later teach at both schools: four years at Hoover and 30 years at SDSU, where he taught sculpture and founded the university's highly regarded furniture design program, the first such program in California and one of the first furniture design programs in the U.S.
Russell Baldwin, now 73, was a student of Dirks' “a long time ago,” as Baldwin puts it. “In working with John, it was like osmosis,” Baldwin says. “It was being around him.”
When Baldwin fell ill and had to be hospitalized for an extended period of time, Dirks would visit to bring by books, and the two would talk about art. “He was a person who was there,” Baldwin says. “That sounds like very little, but it's like one of my dad's sayings, ‘Always return the telephone call,' and that's what John did.”
Baldwin recalls, too, Dirks' love of music. While his students were working, Dirks would play pieces like Gustav Holst's The Planets through the hi-fi speaker system he designed and built-one of his many areas of expertise. Today we might call such a set-up surround sound. “It gave you somewhat dimensional music,” Baldwin says, while students worked in the three-dimensional world of sculpture.
In addition to teaching, Dirks took on a number of administrative roles at SDSU and with citywide arts organizations. He was director of programming for the San Diego Arts Guild, bringing to San Diego performers like experimental composer John Cage and modern-dance choreographer Merce Cunningham. He was chair of the San Diego Museum of Art's Latin American arts committee, working to introduce the city's art collectors to that genre, and he was a charter member of the Allied Craftsmen, a salon-style group who shared studio space and regularly organized exhibitions.
In talking to Dirks about these obligations that no doubt pulled him away from his own work, you get the sense that creating art was equally as important as creating the scene in which not only his work, but the work of his contemporaries, could be appreciated and understood. “Some of the times it was hot,” Dirks said of the art scene of the time, “some of the times it was dragging along. But from my point of view, there was a live wire—enough energy to flow over into all the arts through a number of people.”
The Allied Craftsmen was one of the more influential arts groups in San Diego during the '50s and '60s. Its members, all skilled craftspeople, turned the notion of traditional folk arts on its head, producing work that was modern and progressive. The group's members comprised the best of what San Diego had to offer in sculpture, jewelry making, ceramics, textiles and woodworking. Though highly regarded at the time, the names of a lot of these artists, like Dirks', are likely unfamiliar to many San Diegans: Marj Loring, Eve Gulick, Barney Reid, Ellamarie and Jackson Woolley.
The charter group of eight grew to two dozen or more at times, and though they called themselves the Allied Craftsmen, females outnumbered the males by about 2-to-1. The group regularly exhibited work at the San Diego Museum of Art, then known as the San Diego Fine Arts Gallery, until 1980, when, as Allied Craftsmen member Phyllis Wallen put it in her account of the group's history, “We met our nemesis in Steven Brezzo,” who took over as director of the Museum of Art in the late '70s and shifted the museum's focus away from local arts to larger, traveling exhibits.
“We gradually lost many of our devoted followers and patrons,” Wallen wrote. “Publicity became non-existent and we lost members.”
Of the eight founding members of the Allied Craftsmen, Dirks is the only one still alive. Now 93, his health isn't great—he had to recently cancel a talk at the Mingei because of a nagging cold. His smooth, handsome face belies his age, though, and he still has an artist's eye—during an interview, he stops the conversation to direct everyone's attention to a flock of birds as they alight from a nearby Aleppo pine tree and curve past Dirks' picture window. Nature figures prominently in his work, and it was from nature that he got his inspiration, something that seems almost at odds with modern art's lean toward the inorganic and impersonal. Dirks had an ability to bring life to his pieces in the subtlest of ways, evident in the beguiling “Elegant Terns,” in which two of the gull-like birds appear engaged in lively chatter. It's an effect the viewer might attribute to the birds' posture, but if you look closely, the grain of the wood Dirks selected for the piece has an animating effect as well. It's details like these that underscore Dirks' talent.
Getting Dirks to talk about his work isn't easy. When you're into your 10th decade, there's a lot of history to forget. Complicating any attempts to piece together Dirks' life is the fact that there's not much written on him outside of newspaper articles he's kept in his personal archive. He doesn't opine about San Diego's support, or lack of, for artists—then or now. He would rather offer up anecdotes about the artists and architects who had an impact on him, like painter and fellow SDSU professor Edward Gee Jackson and architect Bob Mosher who, among other projects, was a design consultant on the Coronado Bridge and drew up the master plan for John Muir College at UC San Diego. Artists like Jackson and Mosher were Dirks' frequent companions on camping trips down to Baja, from where they'd return with ideas for new work.
A couple of years ago, Dirks was rediscovered, in a sense, by a group of young modern-art collectors and scholars who've since spent time with him, learning a much as they can about the scupltor, his work and his circle.
One of Dirks' fans is Keith York, whose day job is director of television programming and production at KPBS. York also runs the website Modern San Diego (www.modernsandiego.com), where he documents San Diego's surprisingly rich modernist past. The site is an archive of photos of art and architecture and as much biographical information as York and other local modern-art appreciators been able to pull together about the people behind the work. Time's not on their side, though-a lot of the people York's tried to track down are dead. They knew Dirks as one of the Allied Craftsmen; they just didn't know where he was or if he was still alive.
A couple of years ago, a friend of York's was visiting a home in Mt. Helix, not too far away from where Dirks lives. “And he heard that an old sculptor lived [nearby],” York recalled, “so he drove by and knocked on the door and got John's phone number and then we set up an appointment to come back and four or five of us descended on the house one evening and learned about John.”
They've since become good friends; York now owns three of Dirks' pieces, including a picnic table Dirks built for his home's outdoor terrace in the 1970s. York and his fiancée Jessica Hanson use the piece as their dining table.
York stops by to check in on Dirks, who relies on an in-home caretaker to help him get around. York's also spent time trying to track down some of the sculptor's work, like “Visual Communication,” a piece Dirks created on commission for KFSD studios (now KGTV Channel 10). The 4-foot-by-six-foot collage, made from cooling fins and varicolored wire that comprises TV and radio equipment, is missing. As far as York's been able to find out, a TV-station employee took the piece home, not realizing its significance.
York says that when they first met, Dirks would talk about wanting an exhibit at the Mingei—Martha Longenecker, one of the Allied Craftsmen (though not part of the charter group) had an exhibit there last summer. While two of his pieces are part of the San Diego Historical Society's permanent collection, Dirks' last major exhibit was in 1981 at the San Diego Museum of Art. It took awhile to round up pieces from private collections for the Mingei display—and Dirks had to relinquish a lot of the pieces that filled the main room of his single-story house-but the Mingei exhibit finally opened in November.
Dave Hampton, an art collector and friend of Dirks, is thrilled that the exhibit introduces the sculptor's work to an audience who might not have otherwise known about him.
“John has led a life that has touched so many people,” Hampton noted, “and he has shared so much creativity, beauty and zest for living with San Diego that the amazing thing is that he is so unknown.”
John Dirks, Sculptor—A Retrospective is on display at the Mingei Museum in Balboa Park through Feb. 11, 2007. www.mingei.org.