Art spotlight: University student’s naturalistic sculptures tell stories through gestures

John Halligan
Xander Opiyo /THE REVIEW
John Halligan is a university sculptor who uses wood as his medium.

Senior Reporter

When John Halligan was a sophomore in high school, he knew he wanted to major in art because he could not see himself doing anything else with his life. Now, Halligan spends his days carving fallen logs into expressive art pieces. Halligan’s sculptures, an earthy collection of wooden hands, prove emotive and mysterious, weaving narratives that rely on the viewer’s own feelings to bring them to life.

Like most art majors, when Halligan arrived at the university, he took classes in various areas of fine art to explore his options. Although he disliked three-dimensional modeling in high school, Halligan found that he excelled in this type of visualization in college. Inspired by his discovered talent, he moved into metalwork, creating architectural sculptures through welding. He reached a turning point in his style when he crafted a metal tree.

“[The tree was] slightly open-ended enough that I started to open up and focus less on architecture and more on fluid movement,” Halligan says. His next project portrayed a metal snake supported by two wooden hands; surprisingly, the hands intrigued the artist more than the snake.

After this realization, Halligan transitioned from metal to wood.

“You don’t really know what you want do with sculpture because you’re always still learning things,” he says. “I thought, ‘What can I do with this concept?’ so I went more literal and started making actual full wood carvings that were just one solid object.”

However, the life of a sculptor is not just comprised of computer-modeling classes and artistic analysis. From wood-lice infestations to sanding injuries, Halligan has solved a variety of practical problems, too. For example, Halligan’s process of gathering materials for projects is almost entirely self-driven, whether he buys wood from Home Depot, drives to a Pennsylvania lumberyard or scavenges outside for fallen logs.

John Halligan
Xander Opiyo/THE REVIEW
Halligan’s studio is a window into his world of sculpture.

“It’s important, I think, that we do it ourselves,” Halligan says. “If you want to be a sculptor like I do, you want to go to these places yourself and make the connections about how to do it yourself.”

Once Halligan gathers his materials, he spends weeks conceptualizing his project, sketching and envisioning meaning in the piece for most of this time.

Due to the three-dimensional nature of the task, Halligan never designs his hands from a photo.

“I just mess around with my hand,” he says.

Once he begins to cut the wood down into a basic geometric shape, the actual carving of the piece takes a few days.

As Halligan became engrossed with carving hands, his pieces diverged from their formerly engineered precision to a more solid, meaningful verisimilitude. From using various species of fallen wood rather than lumber, he came to appreciate the materials themselves and stopped cutting off the uncarved parts of the wood from his finished pieces. The fact that these found logs are not thoroughly dry allows them to splinter over time, giving each piece individual character.

“I decided to leave part of the log so you see [the hand] coming from the log,” he says. “There’s a very naturalistic concept there.”

John Halligan
Xander Opiyo/THE REVIEW
Hands are a recurring motif in Halligan’s work.

Now that he has produced about 20 hands, Halligan fields a lot of questions about what the pieces mean to him.

“To me, they’re like a language, an extension of myself,” he says. “Each single gesture is always my hand, how I was feeling that day, and I’m taking all these feelings and making them work together.”

The artist says that this question misses the point, however. Instead, he urges viewers to consider what the hands mean to them.

“It is very narrative, like there was no end goal with the meaning of it,” Halligan says, speaking about his latest piece. “I like the fact that anyone can look at my hands, and they all feel meaning out of them.”

“I don’t want them to feel the same meaning but feel whatever they want to feel, which is a big deal when you want people to understand your art because it’s not about having people understand your specific personal view,” he says. “Hands are universal.”

Currently, Halligan is working toward an outdoor show for graduate and advanced undergraduate sculptors at Ag Day on April 27.

“It will be the first time I’m taking them back outside,” he says. “I’m curious to see how they re-interact with their surroundings.”

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