WIP-MY WORK / MY LIFE
Contemporary Artists of South Carolina
“People have described Acorn’s work as ‘organic’ primarily because he has been able to capture the feeling of vitality that is the nature of living things. But regardless of labels or descriptions, the sculptural extensions which express his awareness of change and time have earned for him national recognition as one to the South’s most promising contemporary sculptors.
“If he’s lucky, it’s Saturday and he can do some welding in the basement workshop of the Clemson University Architectural Department classroom building, or some casting at a recently constructed foundry in the backyard of his home in Pendleton. If it’s a weekday, Acorn considers himself still lucky for he will be working with his Clemson students in the same basement workshop, moving about the debris of bronze, steel, aluminum, wood, Styrofoam, and fiberglass to guide, but not direct, the efforts of South Carolina’s first real generation of sculptors.
“In his own work, and through the work of his students, Acorn feels a deep sense of compatibility with the times. The steel, aluminum, styrofoam and fiberglass represent the materials of a new century that began before the numbers themselves have had time to change. ‘If we are to become more aware of the existence, this understanding must encompass the materials of the 20th century,’ he said. In this respect, Acorn feels that the sculptor has the advantage over other artists in that his forms can better express the nature of existence. For Acorn, ‘contemporary sculpture should be in the distinct art form of the turn of the century.’
‘There is a completely new outlook toward man,’ he stated. ‘Here in the South we are looking closely at ourselves. Today’s emphasis is on the why, and there is no great difference between scientific inquiry and art. Both are involved with the same questioning. No one is looking for easy answers anymore. We have finally recognized that in solving one problems, two additional ones will arise.’
“It is an old view of the artist as Everyman that Acorn asks to be reconsidered. Traditional answers are now no-answers. The questions have, in fact, become more important than the answers; and the name of things, of life, of existence, of energy, of underlying structures, of interiors as they are manifested in exteriors are the questions.
“It is then, for Acorn, the role of today’s sculpture not to presume to answer, but to question, to stimulate, or suggest. And the role for man, the viewer, is not to merely look . . . but to participate. In this way, John Acorn seeks an opportunity for Everyman to better understand himself and other men, an opportunity which can be fulfilled only in the creation of something from one’s own experience, or from the participation with the artist in his own questioning. ‘Our public schools should require . . . or rather allow . . . organized art experiences for every student. It is a means toward the discovery of self.’”
—Jack A. Morris, Jr., from “Contemporary Artists of South Carolina,” 1970
Additional information is available in the article titled, “John Acorn Contemporary Artists of South Carolina.”
Note: An entire gallery of further works in the Series, “Works in Metal,” may be accessed on the Series Page.
Death Seduces, Politics Overwhelm in New Exhibition
“You’ve got to know current events in South Carolina to appreciate the directness of John Acorn’s work. Like ‘Kill the Muslims, Screw the Buddhists.’ The oversized wooden sculpture is one in a series that uses the camouflage suit as a provocative motif to explore issues of race, religion and ethnicity.
“The references in Acorn’s work, featured in a new exhibition at the Greenville County Museum of Art, are contemporary and particular to this region. The suit in ‘Kill the Muslims, Screw the Buddhists’ is decorated with a complex patchwork of red, white and blue. The images in the patchwork—cute, colorful little hearts—reek of parochial bias.
“The piece, of course, is an artistic comment on remarks blurted out by a state educational official, Henry Jordan, during a 1997 debate on the legality of displaying the Ten Commandments at public schools. The title of the piece is emblazoned across the chest of the figure, but the deceptively patriotic pattern camouflages it so that the viewer has to look twice to find it.
“‘John Acorn: Past Time 1999’ is a solo exhibition of assemblages and sculptures by the recently retired Clemson art professor. Two distinct bodies of work from the past ten years make up the exhibition. One is ‘Camouflage Man.’ The other is ‘Reflections on the Twentieth Century,’ a series of painted metal assemblages.
“A second piece that hones in on a South Carolina controversy is ‘Three Flags and Four Letter Words in Columbia’ (1999). Words such as ‘beat,’ ‘whip’ and ‘rule’ are hammered into the six-foot copper resting on the floor of the gallery. High above the dome, a new version of the three flags waves out stiffly from the steel flagpole. Hidden within the flags is another suit: one half black and white, and the other red, white, and blue.
“The chain-encrusted steel ball hanging from the black and white side of the suit may be conceptual overkill. Acorn’s meaning here is fairly clear. These two pieces veer onto the edge of being too didactic, of being so tied to one particular event in one particular location that they’re indecipherable to those not familiar with local politics and issues.
“The sculptures that are less issue-specific are really far more interesting. Acorn’s painted assemblages have a strange, horrible beauty to them. The imagery is inspired by a photograph of the stacked heads of dead Japanese soldiers that he was shown as a small child. The image stayed with him. Now, it appears in composition, where leering skulls move in a macabre dance that masks the brutality of the image behind their beautiful surfaces. Each piece is roughly the same size, about 3-feet by 4-feet. Vertically oriented, they fill three walls of the gallery functioning almost like stations of the cross.
“‘Wallpaper’ (1992) is patterned with subtly colored skulls and crosses, each cut from metal, polished and nailed onto the wooden support. What at first appears to be a beautifully intricate organic pattern interjected between the gruesome rows reveals itself to be twisted barbed wire.
“Death becomes seductively beautiful—and beauty, dangerously morbid—in these assemblages. This is an impressive body of work that can visually seduce viewers into considering some heavy content.”
—Mary Bentz Gilkerson, “The State,” Columbia, South Carolina, 21 February 1993
Note: An entire gallery of further works in the Series “Reflections on the 20th Century” may be accessed on the Series Page.
A Tall Act to Follow
“Go one step into artist John Acorn’s studio, and various seven-foot tall headless wooden figures tower over the average visitor, hanging from hooks or sheathed under tarps. Another sculpture lies finished on a table, covered carefully with about 3,000 plastic flies. The artist who created this gallery of larger-than-life human figures stands in his Pendleton studio, adding clamps to yet another sculpture in his series known as ‘Camouflage Man.’ Recently retired after 36 years on the faculty of Clemson University, Mr. Acorn has contributed more than just pieces to the art scene in South Carolina. Mr. Acorn spends much of each day surrounded by the pieces he creates, but he counts the people he has influenced as the most important facet of his long career. ‘It’s the relationship you have with the students, the faculty,’ he said. ‘That human sort of connection is what I enjoy the most.’ . . . Clemson art professor Sam Wang, long-time friend and colleague of Mr. Acorn, nominated him for the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award. He said he finds the Camouflage Man series impressive. ‘It has really transformed into something and taken on a significance beyond what he wanted to do,’ said Mr. Wang. Before his current run of towering creatures, Mr. Acorn delved for a few years into a series entitled ‘Reflections on the Twentieth Century.’ These painted metal-over-wood pieces focus on childhood memories from World War Two. ‘I’ll work the idea until it decides it won’ work any longer,’ he said of his penchant for seizing an idea and creating numerous works from it.”
—Jennifer Manske Fenske, from “The Anderson Independent Mail,” Anderson, South Carolina, 3 May 1998
Note: An entire gallery of further works in the Series, “Camouflage Men,” may be accessed on the Series Page.
Sculptor John Acorn Uses Everyday Materials, Which He Shapes with Hands and Mind
“An army of headless giants and pocket-sized Lilliputians has invaded sculptor John Acorn’s rambling, chilly, Pendleton studio. They lean against the walls, cover table tops, hang from the rafters—assertive in their bulkiness and at the ready for a move to Clemson University’s Lee Gallery.
“A large exhibition of Acorn’s recent works, titled ‘Collateral Damage, Revolving Chambers, Misguided Missiles, Unknown Men, Stained Window, Fifty Pistols, Fish Heads and More . . . . ,’ will be on view Jan. 7 through Feb. 1. The affable former head of the art department at Clemson climbs the steps to the upper floor of the studio he built and enlarged through the 36 years he was teaching and shaping art at Clemson. ‘I’m a teacher artist,’ he says with conviction. ‘I enjoy the interaction between the generations. I’m not an artist who happens to teach.’
“Acorn, 70, has earned high praise for the contemporary vocabulary with which he speaks to the times we live in. A number of his massive outdoor and indoor works may be seen around Greenville. Most recently, in the newly built Fine Arts Center’s atrium, his enormous wooden sculpture captures the visitors’ eyes.
“He says he likes for his works’ titles to have reflective meaning. His jarring-to-the-mind ‘Collateral Damage’ is a perfect example. To demonstrate what’s on his mind, he built ten drawer-sized square coffins and crammed them full of broken china figurines. The work is a ghastly reminder of what happens when bombs and missiles hit civilian targets. The artist’s message is deliberate and authentic.
“Acorn, showing his more cheerful side, adds that in order to build authentic-looking coffins with the required brass handles, he ‘wiped out all of Anderson’s Home Depots and Lowes of their curtain rods.’ The key feature of the exhibition, though, is Acorn’s giant, wooden figures titled ‘Unknown Men.’ He started making them three or four years ago, inspired by a dream. Their simple, energetic forms are covered with roofing tar. They are fully dressed in pants and two shirts—a T-shirt and an over-shirt—and exude great strength, fortified as they are with embedded chunks of burlap, pieces of wood, and pine cones. The latter are flattened like roadkill, he says.
“Acorn, dwarfed by his creations, says pine cones are his favorite objects artistically. But also add to that list of favorites the old, weathered newsprint that his small ‘camouflage men’ wear. The ‘camouflage men’ images are a recurring theme of the sculptor. The drive to create the ‘men’ came from seeing a newspaper ad for hunting suits. ‘When I first saw it [the ad)], it was two and a half inches tall, and I was amazed by the power of the presence of this camouflage suit,’ he says.
“In geometric flatness, the ‘camouflage men’ seem to march to and fro in an ‘illusionary’ space, bathed in shellac, stuck to three huge wood panels. There’s almost a Cubist note to these silhouettes titled ‘Misguided Missiles.’ While the title represents 20th and 21st century technology, says Acorn, his original source for the works comes from another time. They are reminders of the way slaves were made to lie at the bottom of the ships that carried them to the New World. ‘I remember seeing these images long ago and being engrossed and amazed by the fact we did this to human beings,’ he says.
“Always the teacher, Acorn, peering at the figures, explains that it’s been decades since he shopped for supplies in an art store. ‘I get almost everything I need at the hardware store. I like to wander around and discover stuff.’ The true thrill of the hunt, of course, comes from finding materials to transform into something completely different. The thrill presented itself for the first time in shop class in elementary school, says Acorn. That’s where he first learned ‘to cut, shape, and paint a piece of wood to make it into something else.’
“And while decades have come and gone, ‘that joy and sensation of being able to take your hands and your mind and to make it something else,’ has never diminished for Acorn.”
—Ann Hicks, “The Greenville News,” Greenville, South Carolina, 2007
Note: An entire gallery of further works in the Series, “Camouflage Men,” may be accessed on the Series Page.
Sculptor Nails His Art; Acorn gets a bang from creating ‘trailer nail’ pieces
“The wow moment comes the minute you step into the anterior of Hampton III Gallery in Taylors. Just beyond, in the main exhibit space, large wall panels constructed from wood, trailer nails and paint transfix the viewer. It’s those trailer nails that are the kickers—hundreds and thousands of them—shining like newly minted silver coins. Neck-deep in the 8-foot by 3-foot dark panels, they outline various subjects.
“It’s a powerful visual experience and a revelation of how veteran sculptor John Acorn transforms found objects, in this case the nails, along with sea shell fragments, a pelican feather, sea turtle ribs, pine cones, and sweet gum ball ‘road-kills,’ into pictorial lines and surfaces. These eye-popping pieces represent the Clemson artist’s latest achievement in the last three years. Titled ‘Trailer Art + Phases of the Moon,’ the exhibition is on view through Aug. 9.
“Standing in the middle of the gallery, the jovial Acorn says his latest inspiration sprang from a staircase he made for the Anderson County Arts Center’s Arts Warehouse. He was asked to sculpt a new artwork for the building under renovation. Rather than contributing a ‘camouflage man,’ or another of his iconic images, he decided to build something useful as well as artistic, he says. The building architect, Chis Tedesco, a former student of Acorn’s in Clemson University’s School of Architecture, gave him the idea. She mentioned a need for a staircase to connect the first and second floors. Soon, Acorn was off on his mission.
“He took on the construction ‘as a challenging artwork.’ It was a simple steel structure whose landings and stairs were to be covered with kids’ artwork, collected mostly from parents in the community. He enlarged the pieces, outlined the drawings with dots, and fastened the art to the stairs and landings with trailer nails. He then covered it with a see-through surface protector—‘so you would walk on the art as you took the steps,’ he says.
“The project not only taught him how to construct staircases; it also led him to further explorations of what to do with his hundreds of leftover trailer nails. ‘I thought to myself, Why don’t I use those nails to create my own images using the same technique and similar material?’ Acorn says. At this point in the interview, Acorn leaves, goes to his car, and retrieves one of those trailer nails. It’s light, small and silvery, but in multitudes, it takes on the enormity of being the heart of the artist’s statement.
“On yet another trip to the car, Acorn retrieves more samples. These are sea shell fragments and part of a turtle—‘like our ribs near the tail,’ he says, and holds it against its much larger image in the large wall piece. To transform his fossils into painterly images, Acorn did a large drawing of each item, then dotted the outer lines of each drawing using a marker. Next, with punch and hammer, he made little marks at each dot, into which he drilled a hole for each nail. Then, he says, ‘I banged it in.’ It must have taken hundreds of thousands of ‘bangs.’ Acorn says, ‘I call this process obsessive-compulsive disorder.’
“Did he have a eureka moment with the first arresting piece? ‘No,’ he says with a laugh. ‘Nothing like that. I just enjoyed banging in nails.’ For Acorn, it’s always about the process of creation, made even more exciting by the hundreds of found objects he squirrels away in his cavernous studio. These nails, used in the 1960s to attach the wooden studs behind the skin of trailers, are some those objects. This particular nail is no longer manufactured because it doesn’t fit today’s nail guns. So, Acorn had to special-order his from the manufacturer in Alabama. What he finds intriguing, he says, is how transforming something as pedestrian as trailer nails can become an artistic achievement in and of itself.
“Upon viewing his latest work, his sister, Anne, said to him, ‘John, I believe you’re finally making something people might actually want.’ His reply: ‘Man, I’m for sure heading in the wrong direction.’ That’s Acorn. His sculptural images are self-sufficient without being hampered by conventional appeal. Repeatedly told the ‘Trailer Nail Art’ show is simply beautiful, Acorn is quick to dispel the notion that this was his intent. ‘I don’t know how it happened,’ he says.”
—Ann Hicks, “The Greenville News,” Greenville South Carolina, 2008
Note: An entire gallery of further works in the Series, “Trailer Nail ??,” may be accessed on the Series Page.
Stream of Consciousness
“The contents of John Acorn’s new exhibit, ‘Collateral Damage,’ read like props from a Martin Scorsese film. Twenty headless bodies. Fifty pistols. The six chambers of a revolver.
“Even though most of the art in ‘Collateral Damage’ is topical, Acorn swears he’s not obsessed with depicting violence. It’s just our nature as human beings. At times we like to pretend we’re something else, but we’re basically warriors,’ Acorn said. ‘This interests me. I don’t do it to provoke or send a message.
“‘Collateral Damage’ opens Monday at Clemson University’s Lee Gallery. It’s turf Acorn knows well. He worked in the Clemson art department for 36 years, chairing the department for the final 20 before retiring in June 1997.
“Acorn gets most of the inspiration for his work via news media. He casually sifts through newspapers, magazines (‘Newsweek,’ ‘TIME’) and cable news channels. Acorn’s not actively searching for his next idea: it’s just to keep his antennae up.
“Subjects can arise from humble origins. Many of the large-scale works in ‘Collateral Damage’ contain reproductions of what looks like a human body, with the hands and feet severed. The figure is actually the reproduction of a camouflage suit. Acorn found the original image in a print ad for a hardware store—not exactly a sexy source.
“‘What you’re compelled to do, you’re compelled to do. It’s like what you eat or something else,’ Acorn said. ‘I’ve been making art for half a century and I’m at the point where that kind of reasoning is almost secondary. I come up with an idea and I’m not concerned whether or not I can sell it. I make work I want to see. The I make something else.’
“In ‘Unknown Men,’ the decapitated shape has been enlarged to life size. After the figure is cut into plywood, Acorn adorns the forms with donated jeans, shirts and t-shirts, attached with glue. Next, Guatemalan burlap rope is wrapped around each body. (Acorn likes the natural texture of the cord).”
—Matt Wake, Daily Journal and Messenger, Seneca, SC (January 2008)
Note: An entire gallery of further works in the Series, “Camouflage Men,” may be accessed on the Series Page. For a video detailing the work in this series, access “Collateral Damage, Revolving Chambers, Misguided Missiles, Unknown Men, Stained Windows, Fifty Pistols, Fish Heads and More.” Gallery Talk, Lee Hall Gallery, Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina, 31 January 2008? (TIM – add video link to Collateral Damage introduced by Markel Fleming.)
Under Fire: John Acorn Delves into the American Obsession with Firearms
“John Acorn is fascinated by America’s fascination with firearms, and the numbers don’t lie. For every ten American citizens, there are just over nine privately-owned firearms. A surprising revelation, perhaps because most gun owners do not brandish their weapons publicly, or perhaps because firearms are so closely linked with our national psyche. Acorn gives new visibility to the pervasiveness of American gun culture. Hundreds of wooden, pistol-shaped cutouts are interwoven with All-American icons: Sunday school angels, handmade quilts, the letter ‘P’ as it would appear in an alphabet book. They are symbols of a nurturing, wholesome life, inextricably bound and supported by deadly instruments. Yet, this juxtaposition is not jarring. Acorn blends these elements seamlessly, until his assemblages are almost kitsch in their innocuousness. Ubiquitous, but for the most part invisible—American gun culture in a nutshell.”
—Andrew Huang, Town Magazine, Greenville, South Carolina, August 2013
Note: An entire gallery of further works in the Series, “Project Pistols,” may be accessed on the Series Page.
Artist Captures the South
“Trailers, camouflage, guns and the Confederate Flag all speak to one part of the South, which John Acorn delights in exploiting. It would be difficult to find anyone fore attune to the dichotomies of Southern culture than Acorn, who has spent his professional life living, teaching, observing and painting the world around him.
“Acorn arrived in South Carolina in 1961 as a Clemson University faculty member and has been a major force in furthering the arts in the state ever since. He retired in 1997 after 21 years as chairman of Clemson’s art department, and in 1998 received the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award, South Carolina’s most prestigious honor, given to an individual artist for commitment to developing the arts in the state.
“Although Acorn has been in the South for many years, he still has an objective view, something that those of us who are born here can never quite acquire. Sometimes his artistic observations are caustic, but his love for things Southern is always obvious.
“Bob Doster, one of the owners of Glance Gallery, said that Acorn was his professors and it was only when he was organizing the show that he realized just how much this man had influenced his life.
“’Intersection,’ one of Acorn’s high relief paintings, could be the exhibition theme. In this painting, a yellow cross-roads traffic sign sits in the center. This sign divides the piece into four images: a Confederate flag, the universal sun, Christmas pines and a simple house form, all symbols of a South poised at the crossroads. Will the region abandon its stereotypes and adapt to a new diver identify? The question goes unanswered.
“This show is large and settles into several loose categories. There are the high relief, repeated forms, the small residential size figurines and the life-size bodies that float off the wall. There are also prints juxtaposed with their original plates.
“Acorn is a sculptor by training and everything he does is with a three-dimensional eye. His wall pieces are in high relief with cutouts of forms repeated many times. For example, abstract trailer forms painted white, line up against black trees. In another composition, he sets those same trailer cut-outs against backdrops of camouflage patters and arranges them vertically on a wood support.
“As you move through the space, the wall objects get larger and larger. Glance Gallery is in an old restaurant equipment facility with cement floors and very high ceilings, so there is room to show these big pieces; smaller galleries in more traditional spaces just could not handle all this work.
“Acorn is fascinated with signs and symbols and ‘Quilt, Pluses and Minuses’ is a composition of row after row of the minus and plus marks, alternating across a huge field. In another one, ‘Quilt: On Earth, Above Earth,’ stick figures, the words ‘No Access,’ guns and rabbits alternate and share a common surface.
“Just when you think you have a handle on Acorn’s artistic comments, he presents a completely new idea. In ‘Unknown Men,’ three life-size anonymous bundles wrapped in rope are attached to a heavy support across an entire wall. They resemble bound figures, arranged so the feet of one are parallel to the shoulders of another.
“Covered in old clothes and then fixed with tar and mineral spirits, their presence is haunting. Who are they? Do they represent slaves crammed together in the hull of ships? Are they the anonymous dead from many wars? They demand our attention, yet the artist offers no answers.
“And then there are the small-scale figures dotted about the entire gallery. They are also part of Acorn’s comments on the South but are a totally different kind of art object. In the 1990s Acorn began a series of free-standing, 8-foot-tall sculptures sparked by an advertisement for a camouflage hunting suit. Over the decade he made many figures of this size and covered them with all kinds of materials.
“These miniature free-standing figures are an off-shoot of those life-size images. Made of wood about 18 inches tall, the headless figures stand like painted manikins covered with all sorts of found materials, pieces of metal, red washers and even delicately painted scenes from nature. They are whimsical and satirical; they are ‘good ol’ boys’ and environmentalists. They are the best and the worst of the South.
“Acorn has a lot to say and his art is a strong medium for his message.”
—Blue Greenberg, “Herald-Sun,” Durham, North Carolina, 2005
Note: An entire gallery of further works in the Series, “Camouflage Man,” “Project Pistols,” and “Trailer Nails” may be accessed on the Series Page.
Armed and Extremely Creative: The Iconic Imagery of John Acorn
“The two-story studio behind the red and yellow late 1800s house in which John Acorn and his wife, Peg, have lived for 46 years is unassuming. It looks like a garage or small warehouse that would easily go unnoticed while driving down Duke Street. But Acorn is outside, leading me in, and I am immediately taken aback by the distinction between the tidy historic streets of Pendleton, South Carolina, and the inside of Acorn’s studio.
“To the right of the wide entrance stand larger-than-life sculptures from Acorn’s ‘Camouflage Man,’ a series of oversized, three-dimensional ‘big guy’ human forms, approximately seven feet tall. Some are covered with flowered fabrics, others with jagged patterns or large Xs. Up front, there’s a big guy wearing Advantage camouflage, a design that incorporates the leaves from a tree. In the belly of this man, there’s a baby’s cradle. And in the cradle, a baby doll, also wearing camouflage. This camo-baby in the camo-man stands adjacent to a charm bracelet large enough that King Kong might have been able to wear it as a belt. From the bracelet hang charms made of wooden pistols. One has to pause to take it all in.
“Acorn begins giving a tour of the works and their inspiration. He’s affable, humorous, and the kind of man who seems generous with his time—a teacher at heart.
“Unprompted while watching me take it all in, he says he wouldn’t want to have to choose his favorite work. If, however, he had to grab just one on the way out in a fire, this would be it: Daddy’s Baby, the camouflaged man at the front of the group of Camouflage Men.
“Daddy’s Baby has a history that begins with a story similar to how ideas for his craft often come: as a series of found objects. First, he saw the baby in the cradle in a store window and wanted it all: the baby, the cradle, and more fabric like that of the baby’s camouflage. ‘I went on a hunt to make Daddy out of the same camouflage,’ he says, no hint of intended humor with the pun.
“Acorn’s inspiration from found objects is akin to a hardware store mentality, always looking for new life in everyday objects. He’s shared a lifetime with his wife who has come to know him in a way that she too has brought him objects: at a stop at a gas station in a southern part of the state, she picked up a rotten old glove off the ground and presented it to him, saying, ‘I see something I think you might like.’
“From that glove he would create a piece in which his hand is picking up the glove, in which a series of trailer nails are used to attach a shiny metal skin, the nails ‘one of the great gifts from the hardware store.’
“Shiny, imaginative, starry-like—the work seems far away from the old gas station where a glove was abandoned and dirty on the ground.”
An Inspiration from Vonnegut
“Acorn’s large sculptures appear to be metaphors, or statements, or questions. It’s obvious that Acorn’s tastes in reading are similar to his approach to art.
“He reads mostly current events these days—and there are obvious reactions to current events created in his art—but he’s also looking for the next Kurt Vonnegut, he says.
“‘I love that humor with a twist. It’s kind of like this pendant,’ he says, gesturing to a huge heart pendant comprised of wooden pistols hanging from the ceiling. ‘Try putting that around your neck.’
“Acorn describes the exhibit space he would like to find where he could fully build, extend, and hang the heart on a chain, plus exhibit all of his pistol pieces.
“Another of Acorn’s works incorporating the pistols is the Kong-sized charm bracelet that he’s been working on, an idea that came to him after searching for a gift for his granddaughter’s 10th birthday. He found her the kind of bracelet a little girl likes, a charm bracelet with beads and trinkets hanging from links. This one, which comprises a variety of sizes of large links in the chain capable of holding more than 1,000 pounds, holds charms made from pistols.
“The pistols are the same size and shape that Acorn incorporates in the other works he has of pistols, of which there are about 12 to 15 pieces in all.
“Numbers are symbolic in Acorn’s work; in one of the series of Camouflage Men, there are 13 pieces, representative of the original 13 colonies, a Vonnegut-like reference Acorn is making to the period in which our country drafted the Second Amendment.
“The wooden pistols Acorn incorporates into much of his recent work are approximately 9” by 5-3/4” and they are cut from cabinet-grade plywood by hand. They’re incorporated into wreaths of pistols, a heart of pistols, and on and on. One of the most recent additions came to him while driving home from the beach. He was behind an SUV with a commercial back window that said, ‘Guns save lives.’
“The recent trip to the beach had inspired, because the next pistol piece was about guns as life-savers—or guns as life preservers, the kind you throw out to the man overboard, or Lifesavers, the kind you pick from a shelf of candy. The pieces look like wreaths of pistols. If this work continues to develop with the candy as the theme, then he’ll create 14, the number of candies in a pack.
“Acorn says he’s not making a political statement in support for or against the right to bear arms, that they’re just tools of our culture like many other tools. ‘They’re the tools of death. Man has made them for a purpose.’
“He continues, noting that he’s interested in ‘the way our culture has made them as common as a pair of pliers.’ When I reply, ‘That’s depressing,’ he replies smartly, ‘That’s reality.’”
—Katy Bowler, “Artsee Magazine,” Greenville, South Carolina, September-October 2011
Note: An entire gallery of further works in the Series, “Camouflage Men,” and “Project Pistols,” may be accessed on the Series Page.
John Acorn: Project Pistols
“Project Pistols is the latest body of work by one of South Carolina’s premier modern and contemporary art pioneers who, after more than five decades, still creates striking, ambitious, and relevant work today. This new body of large sculpture and assemblages constructed mostly from thousands of wooden cut-out, painted pistols makes its debut at the 701 Center for Contemporary Art.
“Project Pistols reveals the superb craftsmanship that Acorn has been known for throughout his career. The work also carries the kind of political, social, and economic commentary that, often in subtle but unmistakable fashion, has been at the heart of much of his art. In this current project, Acorn employs an artistic strategy on which much of his work is based: finding art in day-to-day subjects and experience. With Project Pistols, this strategy is taken a step further through the multiplication and transformation of one single, highly recognizable iconic object.
“The gun is both embraced and rejected in American culture. On the one hand, it symbolizes violence and death while on the other had it provides protection and security. Other uses of the gun, such as hunting and sports, are not without their own controversies. In a culture obsessed with guns—gun control, gun rights, gun shows, news stories about gun violence—Acorn’s pistols do little to advance any side of the argument, even though the ironic twists in his work suggest that at some level he may be a gun skeptic. His intent is not to be a crusader on issues of firearms. Rather, America’s love-hate relationship with guns provides Acorn with an additional subject for his ongoing investigation of human nature.
“Acorn neither celebrates nor openly critiques the gun but he does manage to objectify it by red-defining its use. The artist uses the pistol shape to create iconic objects such as a charm bracelet, a pendant, a pizza, lifesavers, a Palmetto tree, a heart, a crown, a wreath, a t-shirt, a person, a quilt, a burial mound, and a skull, among other things.
“For several individual works in the exhibition, Acorn’s inspiration is clear and the sense of irony, rather evident. Lifesavers of Pistols was inspired by a sign in the back window of an SUV proclaiming ‘Guns Save Lives.” Fun, Food, and Guns is a statement about a party thrown by a political candidate that was published in a Wilmington, NC newspaper. Pie of Pistols references a California pizza restaurant refusing service to a group of armed men.
“The irony of a quilt as a comforting and protective item with pistols embedded gives credence to the security that gun ownership affords. At the same time, it juxtaposes the feminine with the masculine, the protective with the aggressive. The skull being a symbol of death, the skull of pistols may be viewed as the consequence of a gun in the wrong hands.
“The charm bracelet—a popular piece of jewelry with ancient origins—and the alphabet book were inspirations for Charm Bracelet and P is for Pistols, respectively. The charm bracelet is characterized by little trinkets—or charms—that signify important things in the wearer’s life. Acorn’s Charm Bracelet of Pistols was inspired by a birthday present for his granddaughter, but the work might suggest that the pistol is an accessory item. The alphabet book is a popular tool to teach a child the letters of the alphabet using corresponding images to represent the letters. P is for Pistols illustrates the potential influence and impact of the gun on children as both victims and perpetrators.
“The individual works in the exhibition provide much food for thought. Whether the exhibition is viewed or appreciated for Acorn’s inventive use of the small pistol shape to create, for the most part, larger than life sculptures or for his clever yet ambiguous commentary about guns, Project Pistols is a tour de force.”
—Exhibition catalogue, 701 Center for Contemporary Art, Columbia, South Carolina, 2012
Note: An entire gallery of further works in the Series, “Project Pistols” may be accessed on the Series Page.
“If you’re looking for a sign that art flourishes on the Clemson campus, go to the Hendrix Student Center and look up.
“Suspended from the atrium ceiling is what appears to be a giant silver paper airplane, the kind you once made from folded notebook paper and flew across your dorm room as a mental break from study.
“This flight-of-fancy airplane, however, is eight feet of shiny aluminum designed by one of Clemson’s best-known artists, John Acorn, professor emeritus and former art department chair, and fabricated by Consolidated Industries of Anderson.
“You can find five more of these gleaming geometrical creations in green spaces around campus. Called ‘Friday Flyers,’ they make up the latest installation of Clemson’s Art Partnership collection, a delightful program that brings art, academics, and community together in a sense of adventure.
“In 1996, Acorn issued a challenge to the administration and academic community to integrate public art into the fabric of the Clemson campus. The resulting Art Partnership, funded by the R.C. Edwards Endowment, matches artists with students and faculty of particular academic programs to create site-specific works across campus.”
—Liz Newell, from “Clemson World,” Summer 2002
Note: An entire gallery of further works in the Series, “Commissions/Friday Flyers,” may be accessed on the Series Page.