Carlos/Spiderman (2015), sculpture of Ahearn's five-year-old son, acrylic on cloth and plaster.

John Ahearn

B.F.A. '73

Carlos/Spiderman (2015), sculpture of Ahearn's five-year-old son, acrylic on cloth and plaster.

Plaster Portraits

By Morgan Evans-Weiler, M.F.A. '21

Binghamton, New York, native John Ahearn (B.F.A. '73) has spent decades creating life cast sculptures for his career-defining sculptures representing the neighbors and everyday people of the places he has lived. As part of an early series, Ahearn cast 35 people outside Fashion Moda, an art space in the Bronx community, in 1979. He produced two copies of each sculpture — one of which he gave to the model and the other he kept.

"My experience of living in Ithaca as a student at Cornell was crucial to my art and self-identity," Ahearn says.

Finding inspiration in the people he encounters and current events, it's no surprise that he initially entered Cornell as a history major. But after taking a life-drawing class, Ahearn started keeping a sketchbook that ultimately took over his interest, and began painting landscapes. He traversed the streets of Ithaca year-round and could even be found under a bridge painting a local scene in the dead of winter. He was fascinated and inspired by the world around him. The Department of Art faculty offered him the right amount of encouragement to keep exploring.

Image of a man looking directly at the camera

John Ahearn, headshot.

a painting of a tree in the foreground and tops of buildings in the background

Sunset Collegetown (1971), oil on canvas, Ithaca, New York.

Ahearn says his art is informed by two formative events at Cornell in 1969: the takeover of Willard Straight Hall by protesting African-American students; and the Earth Art exhibition, a show of experimental art held at Cornell's White Museum of Art (now the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art). The Willard Straight Hall takeover was an event led and organized by the student-run Afro-American Society to challenge perceived racism at Cornell, and the university's slow progress in instituting a Black studies department. The armed takeover occurred April 18–19, 1969, and helped to expedite the establishment of the Africana Studies Program at Cornell and stoke dialogue that would lead to institutional and ideological change.

Ahearn recognizes the clear "irony" that these important events influenced his development despite occurring the semester before he arrived on campus, but says that they provided an atmosphere and energy that stayed with him during his years in Ithaca. "At the time, there were all these radical things going in the town," Ahearn says. "It made me feel inspired."

Ahearn moved to New York City the year after graduating from Cornell. Along with his twin brother Charlie, he became involved in the arts community at large and joined the group Collaborative Projects Inc. Within a few years, he began creating the life cast figure sculptures that he has become well known for in the U.S. and internationally. It was also in New York City that Ahearn met his longtime collaborator Rigoberto Torres, whom he would continue to work with for the next several decades. 

Ahearn uses his art to acknowledge the people in the communities where he has lived and worked, depicting real, unidealized moments from their everyday lives. Three of these works — Raymond and Toby, a Black man with his pit bull; Corey, a Black man with a boom box and basketball; and Daleesha, a Black youth in roller skates — were installed in a traffic triangle outside the 44th Police Precinct in the South Bronx on September 25, 1991. Community members, police officers, and politicians responded immediately with complaints concerning the use of stereotypes and politically incorrect representation. Because of the blowback, Ahearn removed the pieces after only five days. The bronze sculptures currently reside at Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens. These controversial works, often called The South Bronx Bronzes, were the subject of "Whose Art Is It?," a well-known article by Jane Kramer in the December 21, 1992 issue of The New Yorker magazine.

many people in a room preparing to cast bodies for sculptures

Casting at Fashion Moda in Bronx, NY, 1979.

A few years later, Ahearn collaborated with community organizer and activist Ed Whitfield on a life cast project that he has described as a landmark work in his oeuvre. Whitfield, a key figure in the Willard Straight Hall takeover and chairman of the Afro-American Society at Cornell at the time, continued to inspire Ahearn through the years. Ahearn and Whitfield met by chance while Ahearn attended a residency in Greensboro in the mid '90s. "How would I know that he lived in Greensboro, North Carolina? I had no idea. It was a coincidence. I just happened to meet him by chance. And we talked and I went, 'Wow, you're that person?'" Ahearn's three-part piece, Ed Whitfield at the Caldcleugh Community Center (1996), includes a cast of Whitfield's head surrounded by a semicircle of hands, as well as a photograph with Lyndon B. Johnson, and an article about the Willard Straight Hall takeover. 

Alongside Torres, Ahearn has taken his life cast sculptures abroad, creating a public art project for the Pan Chiao Train Station in Taipei, Taiwan, in 2000, Sports Wall for Caguas in Puerto Rico in 2003, and two large-scale sculpture murals, each 20' x 40', during a residency at the Inhotim Art Center in Brazil from 2004 to 2006. 



Selected Works, 1971–2015

a painting of a tree in the foreground and tops of buildings in the background

Sunset Collegetown (1971), oil on canvas, Ithaca, New York.

Sunset Collegetown (1971)

a painting of a landscape and a sky, in mostly blue and white

Cows in Winter (1971), oil on canvas, Ithaca, New York.

Cows in Winter (1971)

painting of a person outside of a house, using heavy brush strokes

Cascadilla Creek Spring (1972), oil on canvas, Ithaca, New York. 

Cascadilla Creek Spring (1972)

Painting of a person outside in the winter

Cascadilla Creek Winter (1972), oil on canvas, Ithaca, New York. 

Cascadilla Creek Winter (1972)

a clipping of a paper from Arkansas that describes the Willard Straight occupation in Ithaca, NY 1969

Newspaper article about Ed Whitfield and Willard Straight Hall takeover (1969).

Willard Straight Hall takeover
newspaper article (1969)

many people in a room preparing to cast bodies for sculptures

Casting at Fashion Moda in Bronx, New York, 1979, Ahearn, Toress, Stefan Eins & Joe Lewis in background, with neighborhood kids.

Casting at Fashion Moda in Bronx, NY, 1979

a black and white photo of a man and woman hugging in front of a wall relief sculpture of them embracing

Luis and Virginia at home with their cast (1980).

Luis and Virginia with their cast (1980)

a black and white photograph of sculptural figures relief on the side of a building

Double Dutch (1982), installation view, Bronx, New York. 

Double Dutch (1982)

an older photograph of 3D busts relief from the side of a building

We Are Family (1982), installation view, Bronx, New York.

We Are Family (1982)

sculptures of two girls with arms around their shoulders

Audrey & Janelle (1984).

Audrey & Janelle (1984)

a black and white photo of kids on bikes in front of sculpture reliefs hanging outside on a building

Boy reaching for Corey (1985) on Walton Ave., Bronx, New York. 

Boy reaching for Corey (1985)

sculpture of a woman and a young girl standing on a box embracing

Elloree and Veronica (1988).

Elloree and Veronica (1988)

black and white photo of people looking at sculptures outdoor in an urban area

People viewing The South Bronx Bronzes installed (1990) in the Bronx, New York. Ahearn designed the sculptures for the new Bronx 44th Police Precinct. 

The South Bronx Bronzes installed (1990)

black and white photo of people looking at a sculpture on a pedestal outside

Corey with his bronze sculpture (1990), Bronx, New York.

Corey with his bronze sculpture (1990)

sculpture of a man's head with a framed newspaper article on each side

John Ahearn, Ed Whitfield at the Caldcleugh Community Center (1996), acrylic on plaster and two framed documents, 20" x 28", Weatherspoon Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, gift of Richard and Jane Levy in memory of Frances S. Loewenstein, 1996.11.a.b.c. © John Ahearn; photo courtesy of the Weatherspoon Art Museum.

Ed Whitfield at the Caldcleugh Community Center (1996)

outdoor sculpture relief of a bus and people walking towards it

Rodoviária de Brumadinho (2005), Inhotim Art Center, Brumadinho, Brazil.

Rodoviária de Brumadinho (2005)

sculpture relief on the wall of people on a rolling landscape in oranges and yellows

Abre A Porta (2006), Inhotim Art Center, Brumadinho, Brazil.

Abre A Porta (2006)

sculptures of figures on the wall

Rigoberto Torres's Raul at fabrica (1985) and Shorty at fabrica (1985) about his uncle's statuary factory, drawings by John Ahearn, installation view of the exhibition Automatic for the People (2011) curated by Jayson Keeling, Aljira Art Center, Newark, New Jersey.

Raul at fabrica (1985) and Shorty at fabrica (1985) by Torres,
drawings by Ahearn, installation view (2011)

sculpture of a pregnant woman against the wall and a young boy touching the sculpture

Pregnant Juanita Bathing and son Carlos, installation view of the exhibition Automatic for the People (2011), Aljira Art Center, Newark, New Jersey.

Pregnant Juanita Bathing,
installation view (2011)

a sculpture of a small person in a spiderman outfit looking up crouching down

Carlos/Spiderman (2015), sculpture of Ahearn's five-year-old son, acrylic on cloth and plaster.

Carlos/Spiderman (2015)

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