Instrument of Peace: John Lyon Paul uses art to comfort those affected by violence
By Vanessa Schneider
The idea for the massive sculpture came to John Lyon Paul in a split second. His brother-in-law had just undergone brain surgery and was bed-ridden at a hospital in Manhattan. Paul sat in the room with him while he slept, keeping unwanted visitors away.
Using a small piece of white hotel stationery, Paul took form the Royal Regency in Yonkers, he began scribbling around 10 pencil sketches. He drew a bound, flat base and lined the outside with large, upright wheels. Three solid tree trunks joined by heavy, steel bands huddled in the center. He wrote the title, “Many Thousands Gone,” from a post Civil War song called “No More Auction Block,” at the top of the stationery.
He made the sketch five weeks before Sept. 11, 2001, and the New York University Hospital where he sat was within sight of the World Trade Center. When he returned to his studio in Ithaca, Paul got to work. “If the wheels were actually turning, it could only go in the same place … again and again and again … like our cycle of violence where somebody hits you, and you want retribution,” he said. “You hit back, then they hit you harder, then you hit them harder.”
Since its completion in June of 2003, the sculpture’s large wooden trunks, each about 7-feet tall, have been covered by almost 400 nails, some bent and others dug deep. Each nail represents a victim of another person’s violence. Paul invites all the visitors that come to his studio to pick up a hammer and a nail.
“It’s out of my hands,” he said. “I made a blackboard and other people are drawing on it.” Carri Jean, a local artist and friend of Paul’s, said the power and compassion of the piece is so profound, the viewer can only be humbled I its presence. “I made my prayer and pounded a nail into the flesh of a trunk in just the right place … my place,” Jean said. “That hammer drove my prayer deep into the heart of something with an enormous voice.”
On a small table in the corner, several pages of a black sketchbook are filled with stories from people, even children, who have driven nails and wanted to express themselves on paper. “For the cow in the dumpster,” one person wrote, “I witnessed her suffering.”
Paul, now 61, flipped through the book and walked around the sculpture slowly, recalling the nails he’s driven into the piece. “Everyone has at least one nail to drive,” he said, “and some of us have hundreds.”
On Paul’s 27-acre property at the end of Sodom Road in Ithaca, there’s an A-frame house on the left, a pond on the right and, at the end of the driveway is his studio, a 3,000 square-foot building he built himself. The studio is bigger than his home. On the second level of his studio, there’s a room for Paul’s colorful abstract paintings. The space is modeled after a kindergarten classroom. There’s a large sink, an open area to make messes (Nobody will tell you not to”), and there’s even a couch covered with pillows for naptime.
“It’s kind of a wacky room,” he said.
Paul, with a fuzzy gray beard and thick, rough hands and dirty nails, never had any formal art training. He studied English at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY, focusing on his writing talents. Around 1970 Paul began to sculpt.
Early in his art career, Paul only created sculptures, until he had “a very beautiful, very powerful dream.” In the dream, Paul had in his hands a mason jar, and, when he unscrewed the top. Out flew hundreds of colorful butterflies. The next day he began to paint. Throughout Paul’s painting room, blond maple frames are stacked in long rows, of 15 or 20 colorful, abstract pieces. Paul spends half the year painting and half the year sculpting. Many of his sculptures are displayed in an airy, ground level room that he heats with a woodstove.
James LaVeck, a friend of Paul’s for 12 years, said what first struck him about Paul was the fact that he was equally talented as a sculptor and painter, a rare combination in the art world. “You just don[‘t hear stories of someone picking up a hammer and chisel and spontaneously creating a beautiful, figurative sculpture out of a piece of oak with no training in the art of carving,” LaVeck said.
Paul works on his art full-time, while his wife, Katy Gottschalk, teaches English and Writing at Cornell University. He says he spends most of the day in quiet, with only Molly, their standard poodle, as a companion. So, when Gottschalk comes home, he’s ready for conversation. “I’m human, too,” he said, smiling. “I can talk.” Gottschalk smirked at him. “I talk all day,” she said. “I come home and don’t want to talk.”
Art Through Meditation
In 1976, Paul took a vow of silence for seven months. He wanted to explore what he could learn my immersing himself in silence. During his time, Paul lived alone in Burdett, N.Y. When he would run errands and people would talk to him, he responded with simple gestures or, occasionally, by writing a note.
Meditation lays at the foundation of Paul’s life. Though he does not practice a particular religion, much of his work refers to spiritual paths. For a piece called “Catacomb Self-Portrait” (1983), Paul carved the body of a monk out of steel, wrapped the body in a robe made of concrete and tied a rope of steel with three knots around its waist. (“Each knot represents a vow: poverty, chastity, and silence.”) It took him about eight months of 16-hour days to complete. “In a lot of my work, I actually both honor and borrow from different religious traditions, and make them my own and try to reach in and pull out something that’s universal,” he said.
LaVeck said one of the things he has learned to appreciate about Paul over the years is the intricate depth of Paul’s work. “Every time I talk to John about any aspect of one of his sculptures, from the nature of the raw materials, the methods used to shape those materials, the symbolism of the structure or even the specific inspiration that came to him to make a particular work, I am amazed at the level of mindfulness and precision that goes into every detail,” he said.
The same thoughtfulness went into the creation of Paul’s “Many Thousands Gone” sculpture, from the large nails driven into the tree trunks for people like Jesus, Martin Luther King, jr., and Gandhi to the six “witness” figures that surround the main piece. The figures, mini versions of the central piece, allow the space between the person driving the nail and the central vehicle to be a protected, sacred space.
“Many Thousands Gone” has received hundreds of visitors since its creation, but Paul doesn’t believe the installation belongs in his studio-in-the-woods forever. He’d like to see the piece travel to cities and countries all over the world so millions of people who know victims of violence can drive nails.
Paul said the message of this piece boils down to the message engraved in the steel base: “May the closed fist of violence become the open hand of mercy.” When people drive nails, they wrap their hand around a hammer in a kind of fist. Once the person drives the nail, he or she puts down the hammer and opens their fist into an open hand.
“There have been a lot of tears in this room,” he said. “There have been a lot of experiences shared here.”
From The Ithacan, Vol 72, Issue 19, Feb. 17, 2005, Ithaca, NY