In life and death the noble rider: JOHN OUTTERBRIDGE

March 12, 1933 – December 23, 2020

Photo: © Peter Kirby

John Outterbridge. The sower moved away from earth while the seeds he has planted keep cycling through the seasons well beyond racial and cultural differences. Mostly among artists who probably don’t even know his name or tentatively grasp the secret of the ancient art John Outterbridge shared with all his friends as a normal way of living: the art of storytelling. His sculptures are his hands recombining simple remains of used materials, or traditional rituals mysteriously repeated and contained in pieces of fabric, glass, leather, metal, and his hands were remaking a new life for them not because they were coming from dumpsters, or they were found at the corner of a sidewalk — damn the mythology of artists as scavengers of garbage —  but because they were consumed and altered by unknown lives, broken stories without a leash. 

Photo: © Peter Kirby

I remember him shaking in a big smile without stopping to inquire about the person in front of him with no words, looking into her eyes. It was like being shot by his dark interrogative pupils: who are you? From which stories are you coming from? See? I wear African hats and colored shirts, what are you bringing to me which is not only words? Can I trust you? John had the same fierce, commanding request of authenticity I found meeting Maori tribal members. You can’t lie — the direct physical communication speaks before words. Once the threshold is passed, and earned, a river of stories can flow for hours. 

John and Peter

Lunch with John. A pervasive smell of sweet potatoes soup had filled every corner of his studio-house. It had already boiled four hours — John told my husband Peter — he loved to cook and feel the vegetable and the human bodies merge into unique organic transformations. Interior sculptures, for sure. Never would he have competed with the succulent plants’ creativity: he proudly took care of his grandfather’s cacti, trying to maintain the family husbandry. 

Never was his art separate from the feeling that things and people could be lost and broken down forever if someone wasn’t caring for them, giving them a personal, surprising place in their lives.

Photo: © Ulysses Jenkins

Skeletons of broken cars were a passion for him. He could spend years rebuilding and restoring them. On the evening of an opening downtown he picked me up in West LA with another friend who was already in the car. The blue little Volkswagen was not complete. I sat behind John on a piece of cardboard, there were no back seats, and I had the most exciting drive to Downtown: there was not car on the freeway whose driver wasn’t bugging their eyes at the arrival of the little shiny monster that was us. 

Art was for John an offering to life asking for clemency, hoping for inclusiveness. Universe isn’t an audience, doesn’t listen, cares even less. If it wasn’t for humans, lady earth wouldn’t have a face, the many faces she shows to the sky who still cries tears and storms over their eternal separation.

Photo: © Peter Kirby
Photo: © Peter Kirby

In this blog there is another post about John Outterbridge, from 2016: