PENDLETON — John Acorn stands on the ground floor of his art studio in Pendleton, mid-afternoon sunlight slanting through windows to reveal dozens of abstract projects in progress: giant foil-wrapped sculptures of a hand and a fish, a ring of sliced bread made of wood.
He prepares to give a tour of his studio, the modified two-story garage beside his home filled with work from his career as a professional artist and longtime chair of Clemson University’s art department. He dips into that archive for his latest exhibition, “Trailer Nails and Fish Heads,” on display at the Brooks Center for the Performing Arts through May 1.
Denise Woodward-Detrich stands alongside Acorn as he pulls out a handful of the trailer nails that make up the exhibit. Director of Clemson University’s Lee Gallery, Woodward-Detrich was responsible for identifying Acorn’s work as a good fit for an exhibition at the Brooks Center.
“I was familiar with several bodies of work John has created,” she says, “and I felt his trailer nail pieces had not been that widely showcased in the area. The Brooks Center was a great opportunity for both the artist and patrons.”
Each piece in the exhibition is aquatically themed: canvases decked with trailer nails form portraits of sand dollars, feathers and fossils; metal fish head sculptures lurk on makeshift surfaces. The trailer nails were specially ordered in bulk by Acorn years ago, and the fish heads were created at a fabrication plant and based on his own wooden sculptures. Woodward-Detrich admires the elegant simplicity of the exhibit, but notes that it “also gives the viewer a lot to consider in regards to our relationship to nature.”
This is the third exhibition organized by Woodward-Detrich and Susan Kaplar, Brooks Center business manager and current art major.
Kaplar fell in love with Acorn’s work immediately during a tour of his studio.
“I love the ocean, shells and sea creatures and the serenity I feel when I’m there,” she says.
She had also seen similar trailer nail artwork by Acorn at the Anderson Arts Center and took it as a sign. The themes of his work, “a new life for something at the end of its life cycle,” also resonated with her.
“He saw art emerge from discarded, broken things,” Kaplar says. “That’s powerful. I hope viewers will realize that no matter where they are in their life, they can give themselves another chance to be something useful and beautiful.”
Both agree that the Brooks Center offers a huge opportunity for collaboration between the departments of art and performing arts.
“The Brooks Center provides another venue for visual arts outside the ‘whitebox’ of the Lee Gallery,” Woodward-Detrich says. “It’s an ideal partnership. Our Brooks Center exhibitions have an extended showing so patrons are able to appreciate them many times during the year.”
Kaplar says, “It bridges all areas of arts on campus by offering opportunities for interdisciplinary exercises and outreach.”
A self-proclaimed “art educator,” the Brooks Center showing offers Acorn what he constantly seeks: new audiences. His work is familiar to most, even those who have never heard his name. Acorn is responsible for hundreds of sculptures and large-scale installations that populate business and municipal buildings across the Upstate, including the Hampton III Gallery in Taylors and the Fine Arts Center of Greenville. His work has been showcased in venues as prosaic as small-town hardware stores and as prestigious as big-city museums. He also has a story for every piece and venue.
When asked where he finds inspiration, Acorn reveals he refrains from that term. “I talk more about ‘source’ of the artwork,” he says. “I’ve always told students: if you sit around waiting to be inspired to make artwork, you’re going to do a lot of sitting around. The way you make artwork is you start making it!”
Acorn’s sources are various. He does not seek them out, nor does he care where he finds them.
Sometimes the spark is an article in LIFE magazine; other times, newspapers and television.
One of his most prominent motifs is the “Camouflage Man,” which was spurred by an advertisement in the Anderson Independent Mail for a camouflage hunting suit. He shows dozens of larger-than-life Camouflage Man sculptures, lined up like an army in formation.
Nearby is one of his fish head sculptures. Acorn says the pieces in this series were inspired by Pablo Picasso’s famous painting, “Guernica.”
Spanning the entire the left side of the room is an enormous charm bracelet, which he created after giving his granddaughter a (normal-sized) charm bracelet as a gift. His sources truly have no limits.
If Acorn’s studio resembles a workshop, it is not by happenstance. His introduction to art came during his formative years in New Jersey, when he was in fifth-grade shop class. He says he essentially uses the same technology in creating his artwork now as he did in elementary school. The creative spirit of that class, in which he used a variety of hardware store materials for his creations, lit a fire for the rest of his academic career.
Acorn’s guidance counselor balked when he told him he wanted to pursue art in college. “He did his best to convince me not to be an artist,” Acorn recalls. “He got out all his books about how much money I would make.”
The counselor’s plea failed. Acorn matriculated to Montclair State University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in fine arts before receiving a Master of Fine Arts at Cranbrook Academy of Art near Detroit. During his final year of graduate school, he presented an exhibition as part of his coursework. At the same time, architect and Clemson University Dean of Architecture Harlan E. McClure was in town for a conference and happened upon it. He liked Acorn’s work and phoned him to schedule a job interview. Dressed in sweatshirt and blue jeans while loading his belongings into his 1955 station wagon, Acorn told McClure, “If you take me just like I am, I’d be pleased to talk with you.”
That suited McClure fine. After their meeting, Acorn was beyond impressed. He had already been offered a job at Buffalo State University, but chose Clemson instead. During the winter, he jokes, he is reminded of the rightness of his decision.
Acorn would join the faculty in 1961 and become chair of the department of art in 1976, a position he would hold until retirement in 1997. In 1998, he was given the prestigious Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award, which is bestowed by the South Carolina Arts Commission as “the highest honor the state gives in the arts.” He also received Clemson University’s Distinguished Emeriti Award in 2010.
As the sun begins to dip behind the trees, Acorn goes to his car and retrieves another fish head. This one, he says, was created by a talented young fabricator based on Acorn’s design, and he has decided to submit it for an exhibition as a jointly created work.
Retired for almost two decades, Acorn shows no sign of stopping. As “Trailer Nails and Fish Heads” proves, he is always striving for new ways to bring art to the people.
“Trailer Nails and Fish Heads” is free and open to the public in the lobby of the Brooks Center for the Performing Arts from 1 to 5 p.m. on weekdays and before evening performances.
by Thomas Hudgins, Brooks Center for the Performing Arts