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Soaring in Place
John Safer made it big as a businessman, but his passion also drove him to become a sculptor of renown. It all began with a love of art, a swizzle stick, and a flame. By Wayne Nelson
In the Kensington studio where he has worked for three decades, Safer buffs to transparency a Lucite model of one of his monumental works. All photographs by Stephen Voss.
Comments () | Published December 14, 2010

His sculpture “Ascent”—a soaring, polished-steel salute to aerospace—greets some 3 million visitors a year at the entrance of the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport. “Limits of Infinity” presides over George Washington University’s rose garden, and “Golden Quill” greets visitors to its library. “Serve” adorns Rock Creek Park Tennis Center, as “Symbol of Courage” does Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.

His “Timepiece,” which hung in downtown DC’s International Square for years but disappeared when the lobby was renovated, held the Guinness World Records title as the world’s largest clock. It kept time within a hundredth of a second and indicated when the sun was directly overhead in 12 world cities.

Other works by the sculptor grace US embassies abroad as well as the United Nations Headquarters in New York City and can be found in more than 1,000 private collections. The New York Times has noted that “the best-known works of art shown abroad” by the US State Department include “the photography of Ansel Adams, the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, and the sculpture of John Safer.”

C. Douglas Lewis, former curator of sculpture for the National Gallery of Art, called John Safer “a visionary genius whose works in fields as diverse as aerospace, Shakespeare, sports, engineering, and antiquity are rich with a sense of exploration and experiment, yet each remains instantly identifiable as a work of John Safer. He captures what is essential and reduces it to the pure line in space that Aristotle believed to be the basis of sculpture.”

But Safer remains unknown to most of his fellow Washingtonians. Over the course of his eight decades, he has been a real-estate developer; chairman of what was then Financial General Bankshares; chairman of DC NationsBank, which became part of Bank of America; and chairman of Materia, a plastics company.

It’s largely because of Safer’s fundraising efforts that Rock Creek Park Tennis Center exists, and he played a significant role in the Udvar-Hazy Center’s development. He survived World War II as a pilot and was Eugene McCarthy’s campaign manager, but it’s his evocative works of metallurgical poetry that prompt some to call him one of America’s greatest sculptors.

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Posted at 07:18 AM/ET, 12/14/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles