The Landscape of John Risley

From the Photo Journal of Rob LeBlanc, one of his students, his colleague and friend John Frazer and family friend Sybil Paton.

Walking through the hallways of the Science Center one finds a most imposing structure at the end of the corridor. Several feet away from the Chemistry Department Office stands a dark intricate mechanism, backlit by the rising sun.  On closer inspection the form becomes a complex sculpture. The nameplate proclaims: "Someone is Watching." The artist is John Risley..
John Risley's work has been a part of Wesleyan University for many years. Indeed, when John retired he provided a wonderful gift to the University by inviting all departments of the school to choose sculptures from his enormous body of work to grace the hallways and lounges of their departments. One can therefore find elements of John Risley from one end of the campus to the other, each sculpture now part of the tradition of those departments .

"Someone is Watching," rests comfortably at the east wall window of the Chemistry Department. Through its intricate structure  the sculpture seems to imply a relationship to complex formulas and the very nature of chemical bonding of elements within nature.

Detail: Someone Is Watching

Detail: Someone is Watching


At the Science Tower, next door to the Chemistry Department, in the Mathematics Department Lounge stands another of John's sculptures. It looks out on the westerm rim of the campus and its structure too hints at the intricate mysteries of scientific formulas, this time within the realm of mathematics.

Detail: Math Dept. Sculpture

Physics Dept. Sculpture

Detail: Physics Dept. Sculpture

Several floors below the Math Department, in the Physics Lounge, is another of John's "children," part of a growing family of "art structures" that reflect a realization and understanding of the inner beauty of the sciences. Professor Jack McIntosh of the Physics Department says that the piece should be titled: "Sunrise."

"Spiral Lattice Simulation" a sculpture by Daniel Gomez Ibanez, student of the Physics Department.

(Daniel's father was a graduate of Wesleyan and his grandfather was Jose Gomez Ibanez who was chairman of the Wesleyan Chemistry Department during the 1960's  and a colleague of John Risley.)

Sculpture at Wesleyan Main Theatre
John Frazer, a longtime colleague and friend of John Risley writes in his monograph, "John Risley, Visual Connections" . . . "Clearly John Risley invents his flights of fancy for his own amusement and delight, but he also creates, and with equal intensity, for an audience, whether it be the possessor of a tiny carved object or the crowd that passes in a public space. More than most artists in our narcissistic age, Risley creates for the use and pleasure of others, whether it be a simple utilitarian instrument or a monumental wall piece . . . "..

Sculpture at Wesleyan Music Department
Concerning the quality in which John's work is related to the art of the Middle ages, John Frazer continues: "This is the manner in which visual information is organized and presented, notably in the frequent use of a continuous and sequentially arranged narrative. It is easy to compare Risley's figurative work to such a monument of the Middle Ages as the Bayeaux tapestry with its narrative recounting of the Norman conquest. Time is central to the way we view these works, as it is in twentieth-century arts such as the comic strip and the motion picture . . . ".

Whimsey at the University Campus Center
John Frazer: "We approach a Risley piece in a very active way. We circle, we explore, we probe, we poke. With our eyes and often with our bodies we rove in spaceand time around over and through the work. Because of his impeccable sense of design, Risley's pieces always read as whole, yet inside their unifying envelope there is almost always a compelling linear progression. We find in Risley's work a powerful organizing principle which can best be expressed as an interplay of linkage and module, a chain and beads. We follow a trajectory that leads from event to event. This progression is always logical but not necessarily rational, and seldom predictable. The result is a wonderful quality of surprise, a sense of discovering things as if being seen for the very first time . . . "

More whimsy from the center garden at Middletown's Russell Library
John Frazer: "The element of surprise works so well in Risley's art precisely because there is always this interplay, perhaps even binary interdependence, between the unpredictable modular event and the cadence of the organizing linkage. The logic, seen most clearly in the drawings, is the logic of a tribal poet inventing a linked, potentially omnidirectional, narrative that is meant to keep the auditors listening carefully: 'and so the knight blew his horn and all the notes flew around and hit the ground and turned into' . . .  and then and then . . .  and then. Nothing seems pre-ordained in this playful pen and ink cosmos but nothing seems random either.  . . ".

Detail from Russell Library Sculpture

Another Detail from Russell Library Sculpture

The Grey Ghost: 1984 at the Wesleyan Art Department

John Frazer: "John Risley is concerned with the spontaneous and the expressive, but never at the expense of discipline and elegant craftsmanship. His work invites us to be surprised by the twists and turns of a charmed world that is partly observed and mostly imagined. He is a prolific, playful creator who contains his spontaneous flights of fancy and intuitive transmogrifications within a firm, self-imposed canon of organization and composition, a mannerly artist who nevertheless displays not a trace of didacticism. His work has a constant sense of intellect and emotion in balance, a leavening humor that keeps both the pompous and the boorish at bay, and a mature respect for the intelligence of the viewer. "

Detail: Grey Ghost

Detail of The Grey Ghost

Since I'd only only talked with John a few times since his retirement I wanted to view his "collection" of art all together in the environment of his home. Some time back, at the garden party of Kachen Coley, I had a brief conversation with John. I introduced him to my friend Michaeleen Kimmey. She and John found some comfortable lawn chairs and enjoyed a long conversation about John's art and the work of other artists..
On a rainy Spring afternoon I drove out to the Risley home. It was four oclock and raining cats and dogs but I finished up my current chore at the University and drove out to the Risley's place. There was a sign at the side of the road to "park on the street and walk up the driveway to the house." So, holding my umbrella up to ward off the rain I sloshed across the grass. I'd never been to John's home and so it was a surprise to walk up the wide pathway, past the imaginative sign to the Risley place and find an enchanting hideway in the woods.

I'd known John as both my teacher when I took a Graduate Liberal Studies course with him, and as a teaching colleague at Wesleyan. His wife Mary was a teacher of art too but I was never fortunate enough to catch any of her courses.  Both individuals I'd known for years but had never developed a close friendship with either of them. Our social paths seldom crossed except perhaps at Wesleyan functions or at the home of friends like Sybil Paton or the garden extravaganzas of Kachen Coley. I admired both John and Mary as wonderful, caring people and for their art - both the art of their lives and the art in their lives.

John's work has always inspired me from the moment I first saw one of his sculptures. His sense of design and repetition of pattern and understanding of the relationship of parts to the whole is an inspiration.

About a year ago Sybil Paton and I had decided to do an interview of John and Mary from the viewpoint of John's sculptures, but at that time, independently, both my mother and Sybil's developed serious problems related to their age and this took priority in both of our lives. So the project was put on the "back burner."

So it was a shock to both us and to the Wesleyan community several months later when Mary passed away and shortly thereafter John moved into  a Middletown retirement community.

I parked my car and left the driveway, cut across a field of grass and went to the house itself, which was partially hidden in the woods down a short pathway. There, at the front entrance was a welcoming sculpture. To me this sculpture, its wonderful shapes and colors, represents the style of art I most admire in John's work.
The living room was full of sculptures and toys that John has made over the years. I met, for the first time, John's son Jack and his daughter Kathryn and spoke with each of them about how I'd come to know John and Mary. This was mostly through friend Sybil Paton but also through the classes I'd taken with John. I told Kathy and Jack of the "John Risley Project" Sybil and I were working on and they suggested that it would be a fine idea and that John would certainly welcome a visit by us at his "new" home. I promised that we certainly would do that and soon.

I asked Jack and Kathryn for permission to photograph those sculptures in and around the living room and both of them were agreeable. So I began to explore this little world created by John Risley. The sculptures were now being sold so that John and Mary's friends might have the opportunity to put some of his work in their homes.
There was a variety of pieces sitting on floors or tables that I began looking for angles to shoot and continued to compile images of many of the works in the room.  Those figures at the window became fantasy characters silhouetted against the soft rain background with the woods in the background.
As I looked through the window, into the yard, I could see that the rain on the window had distorted the garden sculptures adding further dimensions and mystery to their individual personalities..
One piece, a red city, encircled by a train fascinated me. I learned that the train set was Jack's as a small boy.
John's board pieces remind me of those ancient Chinese soldiers found buried for centuries beneath the earth.

A circular stairway led down into the lower recesses of the house, a basement I surmised, but somehow that part of John's world should remain a mystery, a private part of his existence, probably where he keeps the raw essence for his sculptures, but intriguing never the less . . . Later I learned from Sybil that the basement was "Mary and John's workshop, with a kiln, potter's wheel and all sorts of things for Mary."


Sybil Paton is always talking about the whimsy of John's work, and of the myriad creatures and beings that he is constantly creating and then sharing as gifts to his friends and family.
Through the softness of the mist on the windows everything seemed to be seen "as through a glass darkly" like looking into some dimly perceived scene from our childhoods, or even the childhood's of our parents or grandparents -- a landscape far away . . .
Realizing that one could spend ages exploring the sculptures in this room I decided to quit. Thanking Jack for the opportunity I moved to the door but had to stop for a last shot at the yard sculpture in the rain.

Photographic variation on a work of  John Risley's

It was later that evening when I removed the photodisks and slid the first one into the computer. I smiled, realizing that as I looked at John's work I was being taught once again by the master through his work. Pattern, repetition, shape, variation, all of the messages he'd taught in his class, those thoughts went through my mind.

I surmized that John would have appreciated the dimension or variation that "the computer" would bring to his ideas and wondered if he had the opportunity to experiment in that direction. The ability to develop symmetry of form by means of mirror imaging was exciting enough. Tentatively I tried a variation on the photo of one of his pieces. Hmmm! That was interesting, but what if I . . .
Seven hours later I "came up for air." A glance at the clock told me that it was two oclock in the morning. Okay, so there was time to make one more picture. But no, the pain in my back from sitting in one position for so long and the energy the energy that was quickly draining from my body told me that I'd had enough for one night.

Photogtraphic computer variation on a theme of John Risley's

I looked down at the work, each a photographic interpretations of John's sculptures and the question came to me, "Where does the world of the teacher end and the student begin? We are the end product of teachers teaching teachers from Time far distant to the present. There was John's work and somewhere in his life a teacher who inspired him. Here now was my interpretation of John's ideas.

That's the nature of life, I guess, and perhaps the inspiration for teachers, that something of their vision will be handed on to the future -- their legacy to generations to come.

I was anxious to be off to visit John and hopefully to share my "student's" enthusiasm by showing "the master"  my variations on his themes . . .

Thank you John for the lessons, thanks for all you taught us and have yet to teach us. Your students can offer only their thanks for your vision, and your kindness, and Mary's as well.

On a cool Thursday afternoon in late September Sybil Paton and I drove down to Main Street for a visit with John. We met him out on the porch where he was sitting in the warm late afternoon sun reading a book.  We stood there for a few moments then John invited us inside where we found a comfortable parlor.
Sybil and John immediately began to swap family reminiscences and to update each other on the activities of each others children. Sybil pulled out a pack of photographs to show off her children and grandchildren and John laughed at how much the children he'd known had changed. Looking at the photos of the younger grandchildren John was reminded of how he began his career in the arts at around the age of 9 or 10. "I guess I've had a pretty good run," he said, "being 81, I've had better than half a century to do my work.".
Later I chatted with John, explained our new project of putting labels on or near his artworks to identify the name of the piece and the artist and the monograph of photos of his work that was in progress. I promised to bring down a copy of the manuscript on our next visit. John thanked us profusely for our interest in his work and for the time we were going to spend mending, labeling and writing up the monograph.

I took photos of John and Sybil and then shared those stored images with them. John was fascinated by the "new" electronic medium and confessed that he'd not had time to begin exploring that world, the world of the computer. I suggested that his passion for shapes, patterns and repetition of form was a "natural" for this medium and I promised to bring him some examples of work that I'd done.

I left John and Sybil to talk about those other days of "yesterday"  when they both came to Wesleyan and the circumstances wherein each family had looked at and considered the homes which they were going to buy. Then after deciding, they switched and each bought the other's first choice. John and Sybil talked about a woman  from those early years who babysat for the children of  both families, a woman who had recently passed away at age 100. As they talked, I wandered around the parlor and the hallways, looking at the photos on the walls, paintings and object d'art in the bookcase, some of which reminded me of some of John's sculptures.
There was a shiny brass case on a shelf in the bookcase and in its reflection I could make out the images of Sybil and John. Listening to their stories and watching them in the brass reflection, it  was as if I was, once again,  looking backwards through time into that distant mythology of yesterday.

John invited us to dinner but as Sybil had already made arrangements to meet with her daughter Laura and granddaughter Christy we took a raincheck on the invitation. Promising to return soon we cordially left John chatting with several of the other residents who were also preparing for dinner.

Philip Hallie friend and colleague


Homo Viator
(Man Traveler)
for John Risley

Smiles and fleeting things
We give each other,
We voyagers,
Bits of the world we give,
Not ourselves.

And so we hurry to darkness
That no medieval voyager
Travelled to
On his momentous journey
To eternity.

But we who travel only from time
To simple silence
Sometimes give
A little eternal solar system
Whose sun
Is a thing, like this thing
You see
As you read my verse
And think,
A thing like ink on paper
Or a chair,
Around such things there forever
A small planet of enduring

And so dear friend we barter
A solar system for
A solar system,
Your airy chair for a
Whirling poem.

                                                      Philip Hallie

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE (Taken verbatim from John Frazser's "John Risley Visual Connections)

    "John Risley was born in 1919 in Waterville, Maine. He attended Loomis Institute and an INS scholarship took him to Malvern College in England before enrolling in Amherst College where he received his BA in 1942. Following military service during World War II, Risley continued his art education at the Rhode Island School of Design where he was awarded a BFA in 1949 and finally at the Cranbrook Academy of Art where he earned his MFA in 1950. He ramained at Cranbrook for a year as an Instructor. It was during this time that he met his wife, Mary Kring Risley, now a renowned potter. Following their marriage, the Risleys went to Manila in the Philippines for two years as design consultants under a U.S. Government grant. In the 1960's they were again to serve as design consultants in Taiwan and in Puerto Rico. The Risleys have two children, Katherine and Jack, both now practicing artists.

    Risley joined the Wesleyan faculty as an Instructor in 1954, initially as a member of the teaching staff in the freshly inagurated Humanities Workshop. He achieved the rank of Professor in 1968. Over the years his major teaching has been done in sculpture and the fundamentals of design. During this time, John Risley has won awards and prizes too numerous to list and has acquired an extraordinary record of exhibitions of all sorts. His sculptural works, both purchased and commissioned, enhance the environent in a large number of corporate and education institutions, including IBM in New York and the Cleveland Garden Center, and even more of his pieces are in private collections. In more recent years Risley has been involved in exhibitions and festivals of visual humor and satire in many European countries including most notably Bulgaria, Italy and Holland."


Go to: Philip Hallie: Journeys into the Dark Seasons

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Dedicated to the Memory of Mary Kring Risley

Remembering Mary Kring Risley
July 4, 1926 -- January 13, 2000

Mary Kring Risley

"Nationally known potter, retired Wesleyan University adjunct Associate Professor of Art Emerita and a founder of Wesleyan Potters, Mary Kring Risley died January 13, 2000. In 1954 Mary was one of the very first teachers of the study and work group known as Wesleyan Potters, housed then on the campus of Wesleyan University. By 1967, she had inspired her students and fellow potters to take the formal step of setting up the cooperative guild we know today as Wesleyan Potters, Inc.

Relying on Mary's knowledge of other cooperative craft guilds, that small group of founding members wrote by-laws, set up committees and moved off campus, eventually purchasing their own building. Mary Risley named the Wesleyan Potters' guild members "key members." Until her death Mary Risley was an exceptional teacher, a trusted friend, and an honored "key member" of Wesleyan Potters."

*Photo of Mary and text reprinted from the Spring 2000 catalog of the Wesleyan Potters with their gracious permission.