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John Safer

John Safer
John Safer
Born John Safer
(1922-09-06) September 6, 1922
Washington, D.C., U.S.A.
Alma mater George Washington University
Harvard Law School
Occupation sculptor, entrepreneur
Spouse(s) Susanne Arvay (m. 1950–78)
Joy Scott Safer (m. 1983)

Janine Whitney
Tom Safer
Kathryn Scott

Mark Scott (step)
John Safer

John Safer (born September 6, 1922) is an American sculptor. Safer's varied career spans work in theater lighting, television, real estate, politics and banking.

Safer is best known for his monumental sculptures, but he has also created many smaller works. These include award sculptures for organizations such as the Georgetown University Lombardi Cancer Center, the World Peace Foundation, and the Shakespeare Guild.

Safer's works stand in museums, galleries and embassies throughout the world. In 1972 and in 1989 the U.S. Department of State sent a group of Safer sculptures abroad to be exhibited as examples of America's finest art.


  • Sculpture 1
  • Early life 2
  • Businessman 3
  • Sculptor 4
  • Civic 5
  • Sports 6
  • Honours 7
  • Gallery 8
    • Monumental works 8.1
    • Other works 8.2
  • Bibliography 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11



Safer's earliest sculptures in the 1950s and 1960s were small works of Lucite. Over time he also began to work in bronze and stainless steel. The pieces became larger and in 1979 his first public commission, Judgment, a multi-ton patinated bronze, was installed at Harvard Law School in Cambridge,Massachusetts.[1]

This was the first in a long string of public installations.

As the commissions grew in number they grew in size as well. Interplay, created in 1987, is 18 feet (5.5 m) high. Leading Edge, created in 1989, is 20 feet (6.1 m) high. His hallmark work, Ascent, which stands at the entrance of the Smithsonian Institution's Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport in Virginia, is 75 feet (23 m) high.

"Through his work, John has tried to capture the essence … and reduce the subject to the pure line in space that Aristotle believed to be the basis of sculpture."[1]

Early life


John Safer was born and raised in social activist, suffragette and intellectual. John learned to read and write by the age of four. At this time his mother entered him into first grade at the Maret French School.

Cube on Cube

Safer continued as a precocious student. Fluent in French, he entered high school at the age of eleven and graduated when he was fourteen. He was pressured by his mother to enroll at Harvard University. Safer, uncomfortable at the thought of being a fourteen year old college student, deliberately failed the Harvard entrance exam by handing in blank pages. [2]

Safer instead attended Woodward Prep School. There he discovered his love for and ability in athletics. This theme would greatly influence his art and his life. Until then, his age and size had prevented him from participating in sports and left him with the sense that he was a misfit.

At the age of sixteen, Safer entered economics. He became an assistant to Professor Edward Acheson –– brother of the United States Secretary of State Dean Acheson –– who became a mentor. At the beginning of World War II, Safer enlisted in the United States Air Force to become a flying cadet.

Safer became a first lieutenant and served in India, Burma and China. When the war ended in 1945 he opted for an additional year in the Air Force hoping to fulfill a dream of seeing Europe's great works of art while he was stationed there. His new assignment allowed him to visit the Parthenon, the Tate, and the Louvre. While in Rome, he learned that he was suddenly to be transferred to Athens. Unwilling to leave Italy without visiting the Accademia in Florence, Safer "borrowed" a jeep to make the drive to see Michelangelo's David. The Accademia was closed but he convinced the caretaker to let him in. The two hours Safer spent alone with the masterpiece resulted in a seminal experience, but it was Michelangelo's other sculptures in the Gallery, The Prisoners, which gave Safer an insight that was to impact his entire life and transform his artistic career.

Dancer and the Dance

The Prisoners are heroic figures rising from rough hewn stone. The upper portion of the figures are finished while the lower part remains uncarved. As Safer studied The Prisoners he realized the power of the abstract –– a realization that gave direction to his future work.


After Safer graduated from Harvard Law School in 1949 his fascination with the emerging technology and promise of television prompted him to take a job as a handyman at WXEL in Cleveland, Ohio. He quickly rose to the position of program director. During this time his innovations led the new independent station to "beat the ratings of all the network affiliates."[3]

In 1953 Safer's father became terminally ill and he returned to Washington, D.C. to take over his father's affairs. Although Safer successfully parlayed these into a major real estate development business he did not find his commercial life a rewarding one.

In 1974 Safer entered the world of banking, becoming Chairman of the Executive Committee of Financial General Bankshares, and in 1981 the Chairman of the Board of DC National Bank which later became part of Bank of America.

In 1999 Safer became Chairman of the Board of Materia, Inc. Materia specializes in Olefin metathesis, and is noted for its Nobel Prize–winning Green chemistry.


John Safer inspects Cube on Cube

Safer never formally studied art. His first forays into sculpture were experiments with plastic swizzle sticks. In 1957 he made his first creations, and he continued to experiment, eventually beginning to carve Lucite. In 1969 Safer had his first show in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the Michael Berger Gallery. Several shows in private galleries followed with a major exhibition at the Pyramid Gallery in Washington, D.C. [4]

Single Scull

In 1971 the renowned art collector and U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, Walter Annenberg, invited Safer to have an exhibition at the American Embassy in London.

In 1972 President Gerald Ford presented Safer's Limits of Infinity to King Juan Carlos of Spain as a gift of state. This in turn led to several major events in Safer's sculptural career. As a result of a news report of President Ford's gift, the Dean of Harvard Law School sought to acquire a Safer sculpture for the school. This culminated in 1979 with the installation of Judgment, a monumental bronze work which was presented to Harvard Law School as a gift of Safer's class of 1949. This was Safer's first monumental public work.

John Safer and Kathryn Scott work on Quest

John McArthur, the Dean of Harvard Business School visited the palace at Zarzuela where King Juan Carlos had installed Limits of Infinity. Moved by the sculpture, Dean McArthur returned to America and commissioned Safer's 20-foot-high (6.1 m) Search for Harvard Business School. The patinated bronze was installed on the Business School grounds in 1984 adjacent to the spot where Safer's daughter, Janine, received her MBA five days later.

John Safer and Kathryn Scott orient Quest at Foundry

In 1985 Safer was invited to exhibit sculpture in the Pioneers of Flight Hall at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum, in Washington, D.C. He has the distinction of being the only artist to have ever had an exhibition in the central gallery of the most visited museum in the world.[5]

In 1989 the U.S. Department of State again sent Safer sculptures to Europe. As of 2008, the Department has exhibited Safer sculpture in London, Paris, Beijing, Dublin, Bern, Lisbon, Brussels, Bucharest, Belgrade, Nassau, Washington, and New Deli. Both public and private exhibitions of Safer sculpture can be seen in venues throughout the world.

Quest at Johns Hopkins
LLoyd Fox of the Baltimore Sun photographs Kathryn Scott and John Safer at the Johns Hopkins unveiling of Quest
John Safer works on Chandelle

Safer continues to create sculpture. He works with his stepdaughter Kathryn Scott, to whom he taught his trade and offered his mantle.[2] In 2007, they began work on a monumental sculpture, Quest, for the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute. The 35-foot-high (11 m) stainless steel fabricated sculpture and state of the art research center, the Robert H. and Clarice Smith Building,[3] was dedicated two years later, on October 16, 2009, 80 years to the day after the pioneering institute’s first building made its debut. Safer, a patient, donated the multi-ton sculpture as a gift of appreciation.[4] It is one of the largest gifts of art that Johns Hopkins has received. In December 2011, Scott and Safer began work on a model for a monumental sculpture for the Marine Aviation Memorial.

Chandelle receives an inspection

Safer explains the motivation behind his sculpture:

"At its best, sculpture can give a glimpse of the relationship between that which lies within us and that which does not. I strive to make works that will elevate the human spirit. What I see and try to capture is the movement of beauty. I try to freeze a line of motion that expresses strength, power, or grace. I try to grasp and make permanent something that is


"What I aspire to, as an artist, is contained in the philosophy of the Golden Age of Greece: Truth is beauty; nothing in excess; know thyself. The essential thought behind the creation of my Sculpture is humanity. My goal is to increase the awareness of the beauty of life for myself and for others."

"I read once that Mozart could conceptualize a whole symphony in an instantaneous flash. Then he would have the laborious task of committing it to paper. This struck a chord, Mozartian I hope, in me. That's the way I create most of my sculpture. I get a kind of instantaneous flash, a look, a total concept, and then I have to give it substance, make it occupy space."[7]

Safer credits his wife, Joy, with giving him "a new perspective on the world … which lifted my sculpture to a level I had not previously attained."


Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum Board of Directors
The Scripps Research Institute Board of Directors
The Shakespeare Guild Board of Directors
Washington Gallery of Modern Art Founder and Director
Washington Tennis Center Founder
Eugene and Agnes Meyer Foundation Treasurer
U.S. Department of State Inspector
Eugene McCarthy for President National Campaign Director


Safer and Doug Porter play to defend their 2007 Championship in the Lyford Cay Four-Ball Invitational Tournament[5]
Twenty foot putt seals Shootout win for Safer and Jack Frazee (2012)

Safer’s interest in sports has provided the inspiration behind many of his sculptures. Dancer and the Dance, Serve, Before the Wind, and Line of Flight are works that capture a line of athletic motion.[6]

As a youngster, Safer was ahead of, and therefore smaller than his classmates in school, so it was later that he discovered his own athletic prowess.[7] Safer has awards in marksmanship, baseball and bowling. Safer, now ninety, still plays competitive golf. In November 2012, Safer and his partner Jack Frazee won the Lyford Cay Shootout. Later that week, Safer and his team won the “B” flight in the Lyford Cay Four-Ball Invitational tournament, a tournament they won in 2007, when Safer was 85.


Safer has been awarded two honorary degrees:

  • John Safer
  • A Who'sWho in America Publication
  • Materia
  • National Air and Space Museum Trophy
  • The Guinness Book of World Records, a record for the World's largest Clock called Timepiece designed by John Safer

External links

  1. ^
  2. ^ For his contribution to Georgetown University's Lombardi Cancer Center, John Safer receives the Margaret Hodges Leadership award at the 2007 Lombardi Gala in Washington DC on YouTube.
  3. ^
  4. ^,0,4269188.story Sharing vision his doctors saved. Safer donates sculpture for new Hopkins building
  5. ^
  6. ^ Boyne, Walter. Art in Flight. Hudson Hills P, 1991.
  7. ^ Getlein, Frank. John Safer. 1983.
  8. ^
  9. ^ John Safer, GW Commencement 2009 on YouTube
  10. ^


  • John Safer. The United States Embassy, 1 Grosvenor Square, London, England. A One Man Exhitition Under the Sponsorship of the Ambassador of the United States of America and Mrs. Walter H. Annenberg, October 6–22, 1971 [and] Valley House Gallery.: The United States Embassy, 1 Grosvenor Square ...By John Safer, Valley House Gallery, United States Embassy Great Britain, Embassy Great Britain, Valley House Gallery, United States Published by Valley House Gallery, 1971
  • Refractions By John Safer, Pyramid Galleries, Pyramid Galleries Ltd, Westmoreland County Museum of Art, Westmoreland County Museum of Art Published by Westmoreland County Museum, 1970

Published by The Galleries, 1975

  • John Safer: [exhibition] April 3–26, 1975, Findlay Galleries. By John Safer, N.Y. David Findlay Galleries New York

Contributor David Finn Published by Hudson Hills Press, 1992 Original from the University of Michigan Digitized Nov 13, 2007 ISBN 1-55595-063-9, ISBN 978-1-55595-063-7

  • Art in Flight: The Sculpture of John Safer By Walter J. Boyne, John Safer, David Finn Photographs by David Finn

Digitized Nov 13, 2007 ISBN 0-89674-008-0, ISBN 978-0-89674-008-2

  • Guinness Book of World Records, 1990 By Donald McFarlan, Norris Dewar McWhirter, David A. Boeh Contributor David A. Boeh Published by Guinness Superlatives, 1989 ISBN 0-8069-5790-5, ISBN 978-0-8069-5790-6 - Largest Clock called,Timepiece designed by John Safer
  • John Safer By Frank Getlein, John Safer Published by J.J. Binns, 1982 Original from the University of Michigan


Other works

Monumental works


"There is one other basic principle that guides my work, my business career, and my life in general, and that is balance. I believe that the Aristotelian golden mean is as good a guiding philosophy for life as you can find. In business, I adhere to it continually, trying to balance the necessity for a successful business always to move forward with the caveat that too much motion can be counterproductive or unnecessarily dangerous. In art, the human spirit is gratified by balance, by a tonic note. And so I try to express a sense of balance and completeness in my work." [10]

Safer explains the motivation behind his career:

, to the graduating class of 2009. National Mall from the [9] and Jeanne L. Narum, Safer delivered a commencement speech,Rahm Emanuel Along with [8]

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