This past February, Dave Hampton was walking down a street in Palm Springs when an item in a store window caught his eye. It was a carved, highly polished wood sculpture of a buffalo-like creature with two dramatic, oversized horns. The fact that the artist was unknown—the piece wasn't signed—tipped off Hampton. “I thought, Damn this looks like one of those animals that John did.”
It's uncanny that Hampton, an art collector and historian who focuses on San Diego's modern-art scene, came across a piece of art by one of the guys—John Dirks—whose history Hampton and other modern-art aficionados have been trying to piece together. Dirks died from heart failure on Christmas Day at the age of 94.
“I went in and bought the thing,” Hampton said. “I just took a chance.”
He brought it over to Dirks' self-designed and -built Mt. Helix home. “He just got this great big smile,” Hampton recalled. Dirks had, on a shelf, the smaller version of the creature, an ibex.
Dirks got CityBeat's attention in January 2007, when the Mingei Museum in Balboa Park exhibited a retrospective of his work—from the carved, stylized animals he sold in limited quantities through Gump's department store in San Francisco to the more experimental, geometrically intricate pieces he worked on before health problems forced him to give up his craft.
In 1948, Dirks started teaching furniture design at San Diego State University and set the foundation for the university's now highly regarded program. But Hampton and others, like Keith York, founder of the website Modern San Diego, credit Dirks as a key driving force behind San Diego's vibrant mid-20th-centry arts scene who gave up time he could have spent in his studio to organize exhibits and promote the work of other San Diego artists, many of whom went on to gain national recognition.
As far as Hampton knows, Dirks was the last surviving member of the Allied Arts Council, a collective of artists, writers, poets and choreographers who got together regularly in the 1940s to host events and keep attention on the local arts-and-culture scene.
“John was really the last of a generation,” Hampton said. “It's one of the things most tragic about his passing.”