Highlights from the interview with John Ferguson

Portrait of John Ferguson

On Fells Point and Work

JF: I came to Baltimore in 1969 to go to Rinehart [School of Sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art].

AF: As far as places within this metropolitan area that you’ve lived, where have you lived?

JF: Up until I got married, eight, nine, ten years ago now, I’ve always lived in the City. I started out in Parkville. Then I was separated from my wife and I went to Fells Point, back in the glory days of Fells Point. The City had bought up large portions of Fells Point because they wanted to tie [Interstate] 83 to [Interstate] 95. The remaining citizens of Fells Point got it blocked, because they got Fells Point declared an historic district.

AF: Were you part of that process?

JF: I knew the people involved with it. One of my lifetime friends here in Baltimore is a guy by the name of Jim Dilts, who used to be a writer for The Sun paper. He was actively involved when the committee, the Fells Point Association—I’m not sure of the title, but it was a neighborhood association—actively involved, and they blocked it. Then the City had all of this property that they didn’t know what to do with. I’m not sure how this actually came about, but the solution was you could rent to buy. Fells Point became an artist’s haven, until it was discovered by people with more money. Over the years, for the most part—other than the artists who actually owned—the artists who actually owned valuable pieces of property were able to hang on—but for the most part, Fells Point is not the Fells Point of the 1970s and 1980s. It was really a fun place to be, you know? It was Baltimore’s SoHo.

AF: In your time there, were you a renter?

JF: Yeah.

AF: How many years, approximately?

JF: Oh, from five to ten years. In the late 1970s, I was working as a carpenter for a man who had a renovation/construction company. And out of the clear blue sky they called me from the Institute and they wanted me to come for an interview. The man who interviewed me was a man by the name of Jack [Custee], who was a sweetheart of a guy. And I knew him from my Rinehart years because, one, I drove the delivery truck during my Rinehart years. He wasn’t my immediate boss, but I was a part of his department. And he offered me this job as a head of the maintenance department. And it was really farfetched. I mean, I could make metal sculpture, and I could do carpentry work, and I could plunge a toilet, and I could change a light bulb, and things like that. But the responsibility of the whole thing was really something. But I succeeded. I succeeded, and if you ask people that had anything to do with me from maybe 1978, 1979, through maybe 1994, 1995, maybe 1996, they’ll tell you that I did a good job. And I’m really quite proud of that, you know.

Audio clip from oral history interview with John Ferguson

On Gallery Representation

JF: Oh yeah. Yeah, I was a hot number in the 1980s.

AF: Yeah, tell me. Tell me about your art career.

JF: Well, first of all, I got involved with Henri [Henrietta Springer Ehrsam], who at that time, in the 1970s and 1980s, she was the gallery in Washington. I mean, there was Henri and then there was everybody else. She had a gallery that was on P Street, a couple blocks off Dupont Circle. Her building was a corner building. The building had a turret on the corner, so it was like rounded off, okay? And then there was this open sidewalk. She started putting my sculpture on that open sidewalk, and she was selling them like one a month. It got to the point that I had drilled so many holes in the sidewalk that the sidewalk didn’t hold up. The concrete had just turned back to sand.

But she sold a tremendous amount of work. Plus the fact she got me a one man show at the Phillips Collection.

And then here in Baltimore, I got involved with Barbara Kornblatt. And Barbara Kornblatt was a totally different person from Henri. Everybody called Henri, Henri, but she was a woman. Most people would tell you she was cantankerous, but I got along very well with her. Most of all I think because when I went over there I invariably took my kids with me, and she fell in love with the kids.

But Barbara Kornblatt had a gallery here in Baltimore and she did very well by me. I had two hot galleries thirty-five miles apart. I mean, I was really a hot number. And then Barbara Kornblatt moved to Washington, what used to be the retail district of Washington. It was between Chinatown and the Capitol and the Mall and the Smithsonian. Is that called Constitution Mall, maybe? Chinatown was up here and then there was a retail district—Hecht’s and name another department store here in Baltimore. But it was a retail district. And this building was a building that had basically been abandoned by the retail people and a bunch of galleries took the building over. Again, from the 1980s into the 1990s, this building, it was on 7th Street.

AF: Northwest?

JF: Yes. It was the hot gallery scene in Washington. One of the neatest things that ever happened to me—I was taking work into the building for a show—the other thing about it is Kornblatt had a gallery right on the first floor. It would be like the elevators here and this space would be her gallery and it was all glass. While you were waiting for the elevator, you could see what was going on, which was a real sales advantage. But I was loading this work into the gallery and this guy came down the street. I didn’t know who he was. He came down the street and he said, “Wow, that’s a nice piece of sculpture.” He said, “Don’t bother taking it into the gallery.” He said, “Just leave it there. I’ll get it.” And it was Hirshhorn. It was David Hirshhorn himself. I didn’t know who he was.

AF: [Laughing] That’s incredible.

JF: But he went inside and Kornblatt knew who he was. And Kornblatt was stunned. She came outside and Kornblatt always had something to say. She was mumbling. She said, “You know, that was David Hirshhorn and he said don’t bother bringing the piece inside. He said. ‘I’m going to get a truck to get it and I’m going to buy it.'” There was no question of price or who I was or anything.

AF: He just wanted the piece.

JF: He just wanted the piece. No bullshit, you know, just bam!

AF: And so now that’s part of the permanent collection at the Hirshhorn.

JF: Yeah.

Audio clip from oral history interview with John Ferguson