What is the story of the metal sculpture of a family at the corner of Harvard and 18th streets NW?
K.L. Brown, Washington
In a way, the sculpture’s story is the story of its creator, an artist named Herbert House. It’s called “Family Circle,” and it embodies the connections House had growing up in the District.
“I’m from the school, when I stepped out on the street, my family came with me,” House, who now lives in Chicago, told Answer Man.
House didn’t mean that literally. He meant that he was raised to ponder what his family would think of his actions.
“I go out the door with every relative I have,” he said. “I never leave without them. That’s what fortified me. That’s what kept me on the straight and narrow.”
When he was growing up, House’s family lived in several neighborhoods, including Barry Farm and Petworth. His parents ran a dry-cleaning shop, and he learned how to use a sewing machine and stitch leather, thinking he might be a cobbler. He was a teenager when the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum opened. House showed up every day and pestered the staff for a job until they made him a photographer’s assistant.
“Art and architecture were just things I enjoyed as a kid,” he said.
House attended an art-focused D.C. high school that was a precursor to the Ellington School, then went to Illinois State University in 1974 to study art. One of his sculptures is in the school’s collection.
He left Illinois State after a year to apprentice with sculptors who were making large-scale metal works in Chicago. They included Richard Hunt and Ed Love. Both introduced House to a unique sculptural medium: chrome car bumpers.
“It was easy to get, cheap,” House said. “We really didn’t have any great facilities in the beginning. It was easy to make use of what we had. . . . Back then, chrome was king. You found it everywhere.”
House had a VW van into which he’d load bumpers he found on the roadside. He also visited wrecking yards and auto supply shops. “I had a few very good sources back in the day,” he said.
Like a butcher carving up a steer, House learned to identify the parts of a bumper that would work best in his art. He would go over it with a marker, delineating where he would cut, where to harvest a convex piece or a flat one. He called his building blocks “sticks.”
“When you’re pulling pieces and shapes, that’s when more of the ideas begin to flow,” he said. “You know what you’ve got to work with. By the time I made the sticks, I could turn around and begin the work.”
He would arrange the pieces and join them with an acetylene welding torch.
House was represented by a gallery and sold pieces in the United States and Europe. In 1989, Howard University exhibited some of his work. In a review, Washington Post critic Michael Welzenbach wrote: “House’s art is about form, mythos and archetype. Based on the female form, his figures are sensuous and remarkably erotic. . . . The characteristics of ceremonial masks and figurines are readily apparent, giving his works a mysterious, ritualistic aspect. And the gleaming, curvaceous quality of welded car parts lends them suppleness and tactility.”
The Harvard Street sculpture — four figures holding hands on a circular red base — was installed in 1991 with funds from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. (House said that the city once told him they’d put a plaque on “Family Circle” with its name and his. That seems to have never happened.)
It’s hard to make a steady living as an artist, so House felt he needed a backup plan. During a stint living back in Washington in the early 1990s, he became a carpenter and joined the union. His first jobs were in the old Convention Center.
“That turned out to be a very good job, made my mom very happy,” he said. “As an artist, I was up and down, but I always kept a meal ticket in my pocket.”
In 1994, House returned to Chicago, where he was a carpenter with Local No. 10. Last year, he retired from carpentry. He also considers himself retired from art. He’s 62 and enjoys working on his house and spending time with his grandchildren.
He describes his Harvard Street sculpture as a “festive” piece. He wanted to show that a family is a continuum: an endless circle, a never-ending dance.
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.