B.F.A. alumnus John Ahearn encourages students to challenge themselves at the Art Alumni Career Forum

October 17, 2007

What happens when an artist stops doing studio work to "get out there" and find things to care about? At the Art Alumni Career Forum on October 12, which drew students, faculty, and staff from the art department, John Ahearn (B.F.A. '73) talked about the process of self-discovery that led him to the art form he calls "repetitive life casting" -- which he has become well known for, both in the United States and internationally. 

For many years John Ahearn (born Binghamton, New York, 1951) lived and worked in the South Bronx of New York, where he created the majority of his castings in collaboration with artist Rigoberto Torres. Ahearn was a founding member of Collaborative Projects, Inc., and co-organizer of the Times Square Show, 1980. Ahearn and Torres have worked together on many projects since the early 1980s, including murals in the South Bronx and an exhibition at the Bronx Museum - Portraits from the Bronx: Life Casts from 1979 to Present. Work they did in the 1990s includes the East 100th Street Sculpture Project, a GSA commission in Baltimore, and a public project in Caguas, Puerto Rico: an outdoor mural of sixteen athletes. A survey of Ahearn and Torres's work, South Bronx Hall of Fame, was organized by the Contemporary Arts Center, Houston, and traveled to museums in Europe and the United States.

In 2001 Ahearn produced Pan Chaio, a body of work named for the section of Greater Taipei, Taiwan, that he had recently lived and worked in for nearly a year.

Inhotim, a new Ahearn and Torres sculpture installation, opened last May at Alexander and Bonin in New York. The work grew out of a two-year experience in Brazil during which the artists created two sculpture murals at Inhotim Centro de Arte Contemporânea.

The work in the exhibition and the murals in Brazil reflect the artists' encounters with three groups of people: the inhabitants of Brumadinho, members of an Afro-Catholic community, and the residents of Inhotim. Whether collaborative or individual, Ahearn's projects have always involved the development of relationships with community group members whose access to fine art and museum culture has often been limited.

Ahearn credits his student experience at Cornell as one of the most important in his career. He began as a history major, but he started keeping a sketchbook that ultimately took over his interest. A life-drawing class in the art department spurred that interest. Although he did not consider himself to be an artist in the formal sense, he was fascinated and inspired by the world around him, and the department faculty offered him the right amount of encouragement to keep exploring.

During his lecture, as Ahearn talked about his journey as an artist, he acknowledged an eclectic body of influences. Some of his biggest were the religious statues at the Catholic school he attended, a father who spent his career delivering babies, and the Post-Impressionist landscape paintings he came into contact with at Cornell.

Ahearn also showed two videos of his casting process in the community of the South Bronx and a slide show featuring a variety of his work. He concluded his presentation by answering questions from the audience about how he got his start, how he works and collaborates, and what kinds of feedback he has received.

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