10 February 1996:
Jon teaches Kelly Borsheim
how to make a mold of a
small sculpture. Photo
by Rosalyn Huffman
28 February 1995:
Jon teaches with student
Sandie BonSell and her
portrait of Jon.
Photo by Kelly Borsheim
23 May 2001
Tribute to Jon Formo
Sculptor, Teacher, Beloved Friend
The following article appeared in the May 1999 issue of The Third Dimension, the newsletter
of the Texas Society of Sculptors.
Thank you, Jon
I was struggling with the problem of how to end the arm on a torso piece I was sculpting in one of Jon Formoís figurative sculpture classes at the Elisabet Ney Sculpture Conservatory in Austin, Texas. It was 1995. Jon left the room for a minute and when he returned, he walked over to me and escorted me back to the far side of the room from where he had come.
He said, "Do you see the flow of the piece you have created?"
"Yes. Itís up and diagonal."
"Does the arm enhance this flow?"
I immediately walked over to my piece and sliced off the part of the arm that was going down. Itís no irony that this sculpture teacher has the word "form" in his name.
Jon Warren Formo, beloved teacher and friend to many, died at his home in Dripping Springs, Texas, on Friday, April 23, 1999, after a lengthy illness. Jon is survived by his wife (and TSOS member) Suzanne Bullock, also a sculptor and teacher, as well as a multitude of siblings, children, grandchildren, other family, friends and former students. Born in Minneapolis on June 8, 1923, Jon served in the US Navy during World War II. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Minneapolis Institute of Art and continued his studies in Italy and Iowa. Jon received his Master of Fine Arts from the Rochester Institute of Technology. In 1952, Jon began a lengthy teaching careerómostly in South Carolinaówhich ended only after his illness forced him to give up his teaching position at the Ney.
Jon was an accomplished sculptor who loved to work in all media, especially glass and clay. He saw the beauty in everyone and in everything. In one class, he sparked our imaginations by throwing a piece of clay across the floor to see what kind of shapes and textures emerged. As a teacher, he guided his students without making choices for them, letting the spirit of the individual shine through.
I met Jon just as I was starting my life as a sculptor, and just as he was about to finish his teaching career. We shared a bond as Norwegians from the Minnesota Twin Cities and I adored him. I remember that the first assignment he ever gave me was to sculpt a small figureówithout a model. I shyly raised my hand and said, "Excuse me, I donít know how to sculpt something I canít see." He said, "Try it anyway." And he left the room. Sometimes it takes a lifetime to learn not to limit yourself. Jon was always there to remind us to try new things. My sculpture was not good, but it was better than I expected it to be.
Shirley Kivell, director at the Ney, offers: "Thereís not enough space in the newsletter to say all of the good things we feel about Jon. We lost a good friend and one of the best teachers in the world. He forgot more about sculpture than any of us will ever know. One of his former students called me to say she was sorry she could not attend Jonís service. She had been out of art for many years and in an academic situation that did not foster creativity and Jon gave her back her love of art, for which she is extremely grateful.
Even though Jonís illness eventually caused him to give up teaching, his regular Tuesday class kept on meeting because they knew that Jon needed to be there with his students and they wanted to give him something back."
From Bob Brooking: "Jon was always full of encouragement. Go, go, go. Try, try, try. The most touching thing Jon did for me happened after I told him Iíd been trying in vain to locate a copy of Sculpture Inside and Out by Malvina Hoffman. Jon brought me the book with the inscription, ĎBob, may the inspiration of Malvina continue to feed your needs. Joní" [By the way, Iíve heard numerous sculptors talk about the wonders of this 1939 out-of-print book.]
Colleen Mehner remembers: "Jon Formo was a fine and good teacher. It was from Jon I took my first sculpting class in 1993. One day in class, after I had been attending classes for maybe four or five weeks, I was working intently on a clay sculpture, when Jon walked over to where I was standing and said, ĎCan you work ten more minutes and then stop?í How astute he was. He gave me a few minutes to disengage from the piece, while yet acknowledging that the work had merit. Jon loved teaching and loved being with the students as they expressed themselves and experienced their artóa fact that was clear to me in that first class and in all the classes that followed. I will miss Jon and the teacher he was."
Bobby Pearl relates: "I think it was 1989 when I was taking Jonís classes. He asked me to take over for him when he had to leave for a term and I eventually became a regular faculty member at the Ney because of Jonís recommendation. It was such a high compliment because I had never thought of myself as being able to teach sculpture. He gave me a wonderful opportunity. I enjoyed being with him. I admired him. Jon changed my perception of my own ability."
From Nancy Cardozier: "What can you say about Jon Formo? Jon was one of a kind. He was a big man with a big heart, and a great talent. Like everyone who knew Jon, I'll miss him."
Another student of Jonís puts her thoughts into a letter:
I can never tell you goodbye, because I see you permanently in my own sculpture, and your voice, though softer now, is still in my ear . . .
"Exaggerate the poseóyou will almost never be wrong . . . "
"This muscle does not go up and down; instead, it goes side to side. Follow the muscle . . . "
"For the amount of definition in the torso, you must have more in the limbs."
Each time you drove in from Dripping Springs to give me critiques, or to charm my guests at a studio show, you validated me. You said my art was worthwhile when you insisted on firing the "Prophetess" (lest a careless person fire it too fast and ruin it). It didnít matter to you that you were going into the hospital the next day. You began the firing with instructions for Suzanne to finish it. It was a beautiful firing, wasnít it. Did it take 4 days? Or was it 5?
I see your own art as inspirationóan elegant Eve in someoneís private Eden, the barbed-wire woman in front of your studio, the head of a man you sculpted in 45 minutes for a class demo; is it still stuck in the soil, like a shrub, growing?
I still canít believe how much of your home and studio you and Suzanne built with your own hands. Thanks for the Mad-Hatter tour of your Dripping Springs acres in your lunar-tiller. What a joy ride. And you didnít kill us, either.
I see you, Jonóan artist, a teacher, and one of those rare people whose abundant humanity is in such excess that it spills over onto the rest of us.
I think it is those who are left behind who can speak of a personís worth, for we contain your influence. (Perhaps someday there will be some who will speak for me.) But today, Jon, I speak for you . . .
Ken Burns summed it up beautifully: "Jon was an elevator of people."
We love you, Jon, and thank you.
Sculpt*fest '99 is dedicated to Jon Formo. There will be an exhibit of Jon's sculpture next to his wife Suzanne Bullock's booth. A scholarship will be presented to a deserving student of the Elisabet Ney Sculpture Conservatory in Austin, Texas, from the Texas Society of Sculptors.
24 September 1995: L-R: Jon, Pern Smalley, and Craig from Armadillo Clay Supply in Austin, Texas, at Pern's retirement party after teaching at the Ney for almost 20 years. Photo by Kelly Borsheim