Acclaimed Baltimore artist John D. Ferguson, whose “monumental” sculptures can be found at the Hirshhorn Museum, BWI Marshall Airport and Towson University and in many private collections, died Sept. 16 of complications after surgery at MedStar Harbor Hospital, which overlooks the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River where he spent many days sailing his boat.
The Catonsville resident was 81.
“His artist eye was in everything he did. His life was art and his family,” said Jennifer C. Jackson, who was Mr. Ferguson’s lawyer as well as a collector and friend of nearly three decades.
“He was a lovable curmudgeon who was always willing to talk about any topic he was interested in. At shows, people would go crazy for his work,” Ms. Jackson said. “He was also an avid sailor who loved nothing more than being on the water.”
David C. Lund, and his wife, Ellen Lund, the former registrar at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, were also collectors of Mr. Ferguson’s sculptures.
“His sculptures were always 6, 8 or 10 feet tall, and they were just monumental,” said Mr. Lund, a Washingtonian. “I used to say, ‘Fergie, I don’t think you know how to do anything that is less than monumental.’”
John Dunn Ferguson, son of William Ferguson, a United Airlines corporate officer, and his wife, Evelyon Ferguson, a homemaker, was born in Kingston, New York, and moved with his family to Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, where he “found his love for the works of architect Frank Lloyd Wright and writer Ernest Hemingway, who had lived in Oak Park,” said his wife of 14 years, the former Terry Davidheiser, who retired from C.S. Metal Service Inc., where she had been a salesperson.
After graduating from Fenwick High School, where he had played varsity football, Mr. Ferguson earned a bachelor’s degree in 1961 at Holy Cross University in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he developed an interest in painting.
He served in the Army for two years until being discharged in 1963, and after studying briefly at the Boston Museum School, enrolled at the Chicago Art Institute, where he studied until 1966, when he entered the University of Illinois Chicago, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1966 in fine arts.
Mr. Ferguson honed his interest and skills as a sculptor after moving to Baltimore to do further studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Rinehart School of Sculpture, from which he graduated in 1971 with a master’s degree in fine arts.
Of his massive metal sculptures, Mr. Ferguson explained in a 2007 interview with the Catonsville Times that he was “the condominium courtyard guy,” which resulted in a reliable revenue stream.
For years, Mr. Ferguson worked in a studio in the Clipper Mill Industrial Park in Woodberry, where once steam locomotives were erected, and for the past 22 years, at the Cork Factory in Station North.
“Over the years my work has moved gradually in the direction of elegance and simplicity,” Mr. Ferguson wrote in his artist statement. “Heavy, bulbous forms have been replaced by dancing, winglike forms. The welding process and respect for the qualities of the materials are interrelated and affect the final piece. Recently, I have moved from cold roll steel to silicon bronze and a whole new day has dawned.
“Most of the sculptures that are pictured in my portfolio are made from steel, silicon bronze, and to Cor-Ten steel; shaped to create these beautiful and unique pieces of art. As you can see, my sculptures range in size anywhere from 12 inches to 30 feet or larger.”
Through the years, his work found its way into such major public and private collections such as the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, in the first-class lounge at BWI Marshall Airport, Towson University, Goucher College, the Academy Art Museum in Easton, and at various Rouse Co. properties in the Baltimore metropolitan area.
“The pinnacle of his career was his one-man show at the Phillips Collection in Washington,” his wife, Ms. Miller Ferguson, said.
“To be surrounded by John Ferguson’s life-affirming painted steel sculptures is to find yourself in a world of connotation,” wrote the late Sun art critic John Dorsey in a 1997 exhibition review. “These works showing at Galerie Francoise, are abstract in the sense that they don’t directly represent anything, but they keep bringing to mind images of the human being in motion. While they don’t actually go anywhere, they’re all about movement. They swoop, and slither, squiggle and leap, dip and thrust.”
Mr. Dorsey observed that looking at them made “yourself more conscious of your own body and its possibilities. And they encourage optimism, for they exude strength and affirmation; there’s nothing negative, depressing or anxiety-ridden about them.”
Ms. Jackson received her first piece of Mr. Ferguson’s art, a bas-relief, when she was made a partner in her law firm, which hangs over her desk.
“I went on to collect three or four other pieces which are bronzes and hang on the wall,” she said. “Fergie’s real art was his large bronzes that were taller than a person and were made out of three pieces of metal that came together. Negative space was more important than positive space and they defied gravity the way they stood up.”
Ms. Jackson said he did not sign most of his work.
“And there were no titles either because he didn’t want to tell you what to think. It’s about what you think, and if you were in on the joke, you knew it was a Ferguson,” she said. “And he painted them in a 1998 Corvette Red, which was also known as Ferguson Red. Sometimes he’d pay to have a massive sculpture dipped in this paint. He really had an eye for color.”
The Lunds’ vast art collection includes several of Mr. Ferguson’s pieces.
“We first met Fergie 20 years ago at the Henri Art Gallery in Washington where he was showing his sculptures on the sidewalk, which were spot-welded to a small plate in the sidewalk,” Mr. Lund recalled. “He used to say that we had the ‘nicest small art museum that no one will ever see.’”
He said that Mr. Ferguson’s “art sensibility” agreed with him and his wife.
“When we saw bad art we’d say, ‘That’s not a Fergie,’ and we skipped the standard phrase that it was ‘interesting’ which is really an insult,” Mr. Lund said.
The two friends also shared a passion for sailing.
“He could be cranky like any artist, but was very contemplative. The last ocean race we were on we were coming back into Annapolis, and he had grabbed the last Budweiser and was leaning against the mast. I never saw anyone look more angelic,” Mr. Lund said. “He was watching the curves of the sail, which was a curve with a twist. He later sculpted them into his pieces. He didn’t miss anything.”
Ms. Jackson also said he was an excellent artist and drawer.
“His pencil drawings of the human form were amazing, and he liked naked women. Scotch-Irish ones,” she said with a laugh.
Due to failing health, Mr. Ferguson retired in 2018.
He enjoyed endlessly discussing art, sports and politics, listening to jazz while sipping a pint of beer, his wife said. He also was an adventuresome traveler to such favorite destinations as the Caribbean, Florida, Canada, Seattle, California and Hawaii.
Services for Mr. Ferguson were held Thursday at Baltimore National Cemetery.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by four daughters, Jean Oswald of Northeast Baltimore, Rebecca Ferguson of Mount Washington, Sarah Ferguson of London and Evelyon Ferguson of New York City; and four grandchildren. Two earlier marriages ended in divorce.