When sculptor John Chamberlain died last December, the art world lost a giant. But as Robert Plunket writes in "Master and Commander" in this issue, many of those who knew John during the years he lived and worked in Sarasota (1980-1995) lost something more personal: a friend and lifelong inspiration.
I met John in 1992, when I did a story about his house. Rising from a tropical jungle in the heart of downtown, the house was magical, a treetop sanctuary with a big wraparound deck where cats would drowse in the sun-dappled shade of palms, bamboo and mango trees. The walls and ceilings inside were made of cypress logs that had fallen from river barges and glowed with hues developed during a century underwater. The airy interior was filled with an astonishing assemblage of art and tabletop collections of John’s trinkets, toys and memorabilia, from postcards and family pictures to a wad of crushed foil that he told me—with a leer—had been modeled from an intimate part of a female friend’s body.
Engaging and original as the house was, the owner was, of course, the star attraction, a big, restless man who was leonine and sensual at 65. He was surprisingly generous with his time and attention, allowing the earnest editor who didn’t know anything about art to follow him around with a little reporter’s notebook and ask all sorts of questions. I’d never met anyone who talked the way John did, an almost incomprehensible stream of consciousness full of jumps, allusions and double meanings. I was intimidated and exhilarated by trying to keep up, but over the course of several visits I did learn something about the house—and about him.
"A lot of things in my life have to do with not having a house," he told me. "This is probably the first house I’ve had that was me." He’d grown up in "awful" houses, he said. "My first comfortable place was a pear tree. I would climb out of my window and stay in that tree." As a child who bounced back and forth between divorced parents, he "always felt like an outsider" and he spent most of his time on the streets. But even as a kid, he had good taste: "I only wanted things that were just right. A bike I painted bright blue. A radio. I had to cheat and steal to get that radio! My father was a saloonkeeper and kept a little cigar box in an out-of-the-way place. It was full of rubber money—money customers paid for rubbers. And it was my bank."
For a while he worked as a hairdresser, then started taking afternoon art lessons from a teacher who encouraged him. One day, in one of her books, he came across a tiny, smudged reproduction of a Pissarro. "I got it!" he told me, grabbing my arm. "I can’t tell you what that is, but when you get it, you get it. Like when I went to the Art Institute of Chicago and discovered the sculpture room. I did a triple take. ‘Holy shit!’ I said. ‘This is the room for me!’"
There can be something intimate about the interview process—all that listening and opening up, and John and I ended up going out for dinner after I wrote the story. I suppose it was a date, although I doubt he would ever have used such a conventional word. But no sparks flew, and it soon became painfully clear we had little in common. As a celebrity stuck in what had turned out to be a dull evening, he could have acted dismissive or disdainful, or erupted in some of his famous bad-boy antics. But he didn’t. He was a model of old-fashioned courtesy and kindness, gamely struggling to keep the conversation going and walking me to my door.
Uncomfortable as that night was, I now appreciate it for allowing me a personal glimpse into this larger-than-life legend’s character; to hear from those in Sarasota who truly knew him, click here.
This article appears in the June 2012 issue of Sarasota Magazine.