Reaching to the skies

Proper restaurant etiquette: Don’t light swizzle sticks on fire using the candles on the table.

GW alumnus John Safer did not abide by this rule. If he had, he may not have the illustrious career he has today.

Sixty years ago, Safer experimented with sculpture for the first time by lighting those sticks on fire and molding them into abstract shapes. This year he received the Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award from the Alumni Association for his sculpting accomplishments.

“I kind of stumbled into sculpting,” said Safer, who also sculpted the 78-foot-tall statue titled “Ascent” located at the entrance of the Smithsonian Institution’s Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum at Dulles Airport. Safer created it with polished steel on a granite base, and said the intent of his piece was to draw the eyes toward the sky.

The statue represents man’s desire “to break the bonds of gravity,” he said, adding, “We’d love to fly the way a bird does.”

Safer received his associate’s degree in economics from GW in 1942 and his bachelor’s degree in 1947. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1949.

And though he has been recognized as a successful sculptor, he never took an art class.

“Formal training has nothing to do with art,” he said.

Besides sculpture, Safer has been successful in banking, real estate and television production.

“I feel I’ve lived two lives: business in one and art in another,” he said.

No matter what he was doing, he always had an attraction to fine arts. Today, his work is featured all over the world, including Spain, France and Beijing. The first floor of Gelman Library is also home to Safer’s statue “The Golden Quill.”

This year, the University presented the Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award to three alumni including Safer. The award annually recognizes alumni who have had notable achievements during their careers. Raina Lenney, the senior director of Alumni Relations, said “it is the highest honor an alum can receive.”

The award’s committee evaluates the nominees’ careers, professional, civic and political activities, memberships and other awards. This year’s winners graduated from many schools within GW, including the School of Business, the Elliott School of International Affairs, the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Columbian College. Their careers vary from presidents of companies to actors.

Each of Safer’s works embodies a different theme.

In one piece titled “Echo,” which is composed of two jagged vertical beams, Safer focused on the relationship between sculpture and music.

“I wanted to create harmonies, chords and discords as well and then solve the conflict all in one piece,” he said.

He noted how at times his imagination gets the best of him. “Your hands create things you’re not consciously aware of sometimes,” he said.

Safer continues to sculpt every day and does his best to fulfill every request he gets. One request he received was from the Funger family – of Funger Hall. The result was “Unity,” a sculpture consisting of three curved steel beams reaching to the sky. Safer said it embodies “the beauty of nature and the way grass blows in the wind” and the strength of family.

One of his most unique works is not in front of a museum or university and has not been highly publicized. It is called “Fantasy” and features circular lucite twisted into intricate knots. Using polarized light, Safer was able to make it glow a brilliant blue.

“No one else has done it before or since,” he said.

When giving advice to students, he said, “Let your instincts be your guide.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.