Hero-building sculptor branches out with 'Black Brigade'
What do Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and heroic black Civil War volunteers from Cincinnati have in common?
They’ve all been brought to life via the sculpting talents of Cincinnati native John Hebenstreit, 39. He is part of the sculpting team for the Black Brigade monument at the Smale Riverfront Park
, which will be publicly celebrated Sept. 9. The monument honors the more than 700 Black Cincinnatians who helped protect the city from Confederate attackers.
For the 1991 Roger Bacon alum, the Black Brigade monument was the latest in a series of public art projects that encompass a wide range of historical significance. And Cincinnati is not his only stage. In fact, some of his highest profile sculptures entertain adoring fans in Hollywood.
Nine years ago, Hebenstreit and his wife, Shelley, also 39, took a trip to California to visit a friend. Hebenstreit carried with him a life-size sculpture of Jimi Hendrix from the chest to the top of his curly head. It was a gift to a friend who had given the music-loving artist an amplifier for his guitar.
Before he saw his friend, he and Shelley made a tourist stop at the Hollywood RockWalk
“We saw these plaques on the wall and sculptures of different musicians, and my wife was like, ‘You could do this,’” Hebenstreit says. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, I could.’ ”
Fortunately, Jimi Hendrix (the sculpture) was still in the trunk of the car. Even more fortunately, the director of Hollywood RockWalk was available for a meeting. Hebenstreit talked to the people at the front desk and they sent him, his wife, and his Hendrix sculpture upstairs.
“It was all happening so fast that I didn’t even realize I was getting a job,” Hebenstreit says. “He liked the sculpture so much, he wanted me to make some just for the Guitar Center.”
Since 2004, Hebenstreit has used 16x16 inch plaques to create 3-dimensional faces of Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame members, including Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jackie Wilson, Muddy Waters, Curtis Mayfield, Dimebag Darrell, even Miles Davis.
“I met [Davis’] family and got to hang out with them,” Hebenstreit says. He’s also shaken hands with members from KISS, Pantera, and Earth, Wind and Fire. His most recent RockWalk plaque, an homage to Kurt Cobain, remains behind the scenes until final approval.
For Hebenstreit, music has always been more than an interest.
“He’s spent thousands of hours studying musicians,” says Carin Hebenstreit, John’s mother and an established classical portraiture artist. “Not just music, but sports and movies, too. You ask him who was in what movie and he just knows.”
Back at home, Hebenstreit is busy with his two young children—Ian, 5, who took sculpting lessons summer camp, and Charlotte, 2. He also picks up his guitar and jams out every Thursday with a friend. Sculpting may be how he makes his living, but it’s not his life.
When he was younger, he went years without picking up a ball of modeling clay. Though his parents tried to find different ways for Hebenstreit to get involved with his world, nothing really stuck.
“He’s like a cat,” his mother says. “He didn’t talk to you much. He’s quiet.”
She signed him up for piano lessons when he was in 7th
grade. After only two lessons, the instructor called his mother, saying John could hear a tune and play it back by ear. Instantly.
Hebenstriet got his first exposure to sculpting before he turned 10. His mother and several other artists began a sculpting group when he was about 8 years old. He would tag along with his mom and mess around with lumps of clay. One member of that group, Dick Miller, became Hebenstreit’s mentor.
It wasn’t until high school, though, that he started to take the craft more seriously. He entered a scholarship contest for the Art Institute of Pittsburgh
on a whim and won a full-ride scholarship even though he had no portfolio and no resume.
Hebenstreit attended the school right after graduation to study movie makeup. After a year, he decided to study something more practical, so he moved back to Cincinnati, where he met his wife.
“We were both working in advertising and got laid off at the same time,” Hebenstreit says. “It was then that we stopped forcing things to happen for us, and everything just kind of fell into place. I decided to go back to sculpting.”
In 2004, Hebenstreit completed his first piece for the RockWalk. The following few years, he was commissioned to make sculptures of four University of Charlotte chancellors as well as a 7-foot statue of George Vanderbilt, among several others.
Hebenstreit credits his mother’s connections for much of his work. He and his family are very close, figuratively and literally. He and his wife live in his childhood home; his parents are just minutes away; and his only sister, Marlena, is one block from them. All of them carry an artistic gene.
“It takes so much to do the work and it drives you crazy,” Hebenstreit’s mother says. “John can be really intense.”
While Hebenstreit was working on a six-foot sculpture of a monk in Mt. Adams, Neil Bortz, co-founder of Towne Properties, witnessed that intensity.
“He worked in the chapel adjacent to the monastery, and it was fun to see [the sculpture] emerge from raw materials,” Bortz says. “John is very, very talented, very modest, and very intense when it comes to his creative work.”
The sculpting process is long and both physically and emotionally demanding. He may work on a piece for three or four months before sending it to a foundry, where it will could take another four to six months before it is ready to display. The drawn-out process can be particularly challenging.
“I have pieces I was surprised by once they were finished,” Hebenstreit says.
While he is particularly fond of sculpture of Chancellor Kenneth Peacock at the Appalachia State University, Hebenstreit still manages to find flaws in some of his other pieces – flaws that are visible only to him.
Hebenstreit celebrates his 40th
birthday this month, but his outlook on life is as fresh as a 16-year-old boy who just got his driver’s license. “I think I’m younger than I am,” he says. “It’s however you feel.”