By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Don't look for John Hartley on one of Jerry Springer's "Are You My Baby's Daddy?" segments. He doesn't yet have any actual children; his paternal tendencies wouldn't show up on a DNA test. The prolific but relatively un-shown painter is best known as the brains, vision, and sweat-investor behind Gallery 414, Fort Worth's only cooperative art gallery. But it is Hartley who spawns the art venue's progeny--new, local art talents hand-picked with his acute attention to detail and exacting standards. It is Hartley's Eeyore-like, worrywart tendencies that keep the gallery's reputation as an innovator intact, and his hands-on, conscientious installation skills that provide selected artists the very best showcase for their work. Hartley advises, cajoles, supports, suggests, and constructively criticizes the artists he tags for exhibition; he launched Rob Caslin, Erik Skjolsvik, Steven Price, Steve Watson, and other artists who have gone on to achieve critical and commercial success. With all the dedication of a foster father, Hartley seems mainly content to put all his energy into nurturing others, providing a home for his foundling artists in the little house-turned-art-gallery at 414 Templeton St.
But the proud papa lately has revealed something akin to a mid-life crisis, although it's a little early. Hartley turns 43 next March, and he's not the type to dive headlong into a red sports car or a slap-and-tickle with a 20-year-old. Instead, he's come out of the closet this season to expose a clandestine passion of another sort, and it shows on the gallery's exhibition calendar. Hartley's still into bringing up babies--fledgling artists who are young and untried, or established artists who are breaking out of mid-career malaise, or artists of any age and level of experience who can't get a decent break in the hierarchy of Dallas-Fort Worth commercial galleries. But he's giving the nod this year to three-dimensional works by some of the local sculptors he's either discovered lately or revisited after years of filling his gallery with more painters and printmakers than casters and carvers.
"My heart lies in sculpture," 414's painter-proprietor says. "I really do relate to it more than to painting. When I was at TCU, I got sucked into the sculpture department by Harry Geffert." Hartley says he put his own paintings aside this summer and began casting in concrete in his back yard in Fort Worth's eclectic Fairmount neighborhood, home to iconoclasts and outcasts of the city's ultra-conservative population--gays, artists, writers, and students at nearby Texas Christian University. Hartley was a visiting artist for the university this year, lecturing in the sculpture department and prowling through graduate students' studios for potential gallery fodder.
Like Geffert, who was a legend on the local art scene well before the Dallas Visual Art Center gave him its "Legend Award" in 1998, Hartley has sidestepped his own need to work in favor of supporting other artists. At his Green Mountain Studio near Crowley in rural Tarrant County, Geffert, who retired after 27 years of teaching to concentrate on making art and building a foundry, can cast anything--paper, human hair, tree branches--into bronze effigies. A master technician, Geffert is making art again, having worked for nearly a decade casting the visions of other artists, like Dallas' Frances Bagley, into real, solid forms. "Harry was a great teacher," Hartley says, "and he offered so much more information than the painting department did. I had always worked with tools, so that experience, plus a fascination with materials and methodology, sucked me in."
The latest to pass John Hartley's paternity test is John Frost, a 26-year-old just out of TCU's incubator of a graduate program in sculpture, whose Essential Structures solo exhibition opened December 2. Hartley says seeing Frost's student work rekindled some long-lost ardor. "John was using heavy materials that are kind of macho, but they represent soft feelings," Hartley says. "The pillow and the curtain are mammoth in scale and weight, but they still appear soft." Frost cast a pillow in Hydro-cal, a gray-white, plaster-like medium, for "Weight of a Tear," and placed it beneath a steel rod suspended from the ceiling, impaling the pillow's surface with a realistic indentation. In "Wall Curtain," the sculptor crafted 18 wavy, horizontal segments and mounted them to fill one gallery wall. Faint impressions of fabric, in fiber, color, and pattern, cover the white surface of cast Hydro-cal, adding to the curtain illusion. The artist embeds steel rods, or fabricated steel frame shapes, into molds of Hydro-cal and Hydro-stone, exposes them to water or humidity, and lets the resulting rust creep in natural patterns into the white medium.
Hartley may have given Frost's career a big boost, but Frost's real parents are the lifelong inspiration for his work, and an influential foundation. His father's nine-year ordeal with Parkinson's disease affects the artist daily. He and his wife, Natalie, a medical student at UT Southwestern in Dallas, provide emotional support for the family and access to the most current medical information. Frost's close ties to his family's experience motivated his themes of comfort, everyday objects, and things that are taken for granted. "My dad went through two surgeries last year that we hoped would really help," Frost says. But the benefits were marginal, and his father remains on medications whose side effects are difficult to tolerate. Frost's mother is an interior designer and seamstress. Remnants from her custom-made draperies gave him both concept and materials for his art. For "It Once Was," a series of castings of one-foot-square blocks lined up along the floor, Frost finessed the surfaces with rust, bleeding into the white material to form an outline of the folds of a curtain as it would touch the floor.
Four of Frost's sculptures in the 414 show feature a steel chair crafted like a minimalist skeleton with rods the size of drinking straws. Hanging among the sculptures are monoprints the artist made of different perspectives of the chair's simple framework. They could be studies for his 3D work, but he says they are not. "The chairs got me started on this body of work, though," Frost says. There was a broken chair in his studio, and initially, he simply liked its form. "Then it came to mean more to me," he says, mentioning his father's illness again. "This chair became an icon of physical comfort and the subjectivity of that. A lot of times, it takes not having comfort, experiencing pain, before you can realize what comfort is." Frost stops in front of "Maintain a Balance," a three-legged version of his basic chair form with a stubby block of Hydro-cal forming a gimpy fourth leg. "Because of my father, I have thoughts and ideas along these lines. I think of normal, everyday things in a different context," he says. "I think about it a lot."
John Hartley sees a lot of art and meets a lot of artists in his quest to keep Gallery 414 true to its mission--fostering a credible space for showing art without commercial or political pressures. He believes Frost's deep, personal reflections on home and family relationships set his work apart. It's the heart of the work that Hartley senses as he chooses among the dozens of artists interested in having a 414 show. "Every town needs at least one cooperative, artist-run, nonprofit space," he says. And maybe every co-op needs a dad.