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About John Perry


 

I have been lucky enough to have spent the past 35 years doing what I love to do, sculpting animals, and, gratifyingly, found people liked them enough to buy them. I have also sculpted a series of figures of acrobats not only stand up, but that they could be stood one upon another in an amazing way. If you wish, you can see more of this on my web-site Quili.org.

EARLY DAYS

Born in Bath, England at the outbreak of World War II, as a baby I narrowly escaped death when our home was destroyed by a German bomb. Growing up in Plymouth, Norwich, and London, I attended Nottingham University, (whose only famous scion of note was D.H. Lawrence) where I obtained a degree in Geology. Changing direction immediately I moved to studying business administration at the London Polytechnic and then briefly went into management. Changing direction again in 1967 I emigrated to the USA on the British wave led by the Beatles and within a year found myself making a living, admittedly hand to mouth, as a sculptor.

I had received no formal training in art, but I had from a very young age enjoyed modeling things of clay. At the age of seven I was diagnosed with Perthe’s, a rare bone disease related to the development of the head of the femur. In those days the remedy was complete bed rest. For almost 18 months I sat in bed, endless hours at my disposal, and it was there I believe I developed my skill with my hands. It’s rare but nice when sometimes in life a major setback can have a beneficial side effect. I now consider myself truly fortunate to be able to make a living doing that which gives me so much pleasure.


TAKING A TIGER BY THE TAIL - SEAGULLS

Settling in Southern California I began creating one of a kind sculptures out of fiberglass. Although most of my output was modern and abstract, I also made stylized seabirds that I sold through a few coastal galleries. Late in 1972, however, these seabirds began leaving the galleries faster that I could make them. When questioned as to why this was, one of the gallery owners replied, “It’s Johnathan Livingston Seagull, haven’t you heard?” Well I hadn’t, but the book by Richard Bach was quietly becoming a best seller and establishing something of a cult around the mythical seagull and it seemed that I had created it’s perfect three-dimensional manifestation.

On learning that a motion picture was to be made of the book I became intrigued by the potential. I re-sculpted three of the seabirds to make them more seagull-like, hand made about a dozen and one Friday put them into a store priced according to what I figured I could sell them for if they were molded – $20 each retail. On Monday morning the storeowner called me. He had sold out. He had never seen anything move so quickly in 30 years of retailing. I realized I had a tiger by the tail.
Being reluctant to relinquish my bohemian artist lifestyle my first instinct was to try to make a deal with the Johnathan Livingston Seagull people. After numerous telephone calls I discovered that Mattel had acquired the licensing rights to the forthcoming movie. After many more calls to and transfers within Mattel, I finally reached the responsible person who declined to even look at my bird, “We have our own seagull, thank you” (which as far as I know never saw the light of day.)

I then figured I would have to go it alone and began looking for distribution. Exploring the Los Angeles Merchandise Mart, I found myself in the showroom of the late Vincent Lippe, unbeknown to me the largest distributor of giftware in the USA. Timorously inquiring at the reception desk if there was someone I could show my gull to, I was surprised to be ushered into the vast office of Mr. Lippe himself, who it transpired, had been searching high and low for something to fill a new demand for seagulls.

It was a rainy day in January and I was wearing a raincoat. I had a bird in one pocket and the base in the other. As I assembled them on his desk, Lippe’s eyes widened.

“How many can you make?” he asked.
“How many do you want?” I replied.
“How about a thousand a week? Would that be a problem?” he asked. I gulped inwardly.
“Not at all.” I replied.

“Well, send a couple dozen samples to each of my showrooms and we’ll get rolling.”
By working around the clock I laboriously hand-made the samples and shipped them to the showrooms. As the orders started to pour in, I began the process of transitioning to high volume molding. This proved much more difficult than I had ever dreamed and by the time I had it figured out the order pile was nearly a foot high. The problems eventually were all resolved and the birds fluttered out into the world by the tens of thousands.

Soon I had 20 employees, a distributor, and thousands of retailers all asking the same question – “What next?”


BETTER TO BE BORN LUCKY THAN RICH – DOLPHINS & SHARKS

On my second visit with Vincent Lippe, he posed that question:
”What next?”
“Well what do you recommend?” I replied,
“Well dolphins are pretty popular.” He said. He was holding one of my seagulls.
“In fact the head of your seagull looks almost like a dolphin’s head, you might say you have a head start.”

So I began sculpting various stylized dolphins, some curving up, others down and one curving sideways. A visitor to my Studio admired this sideways dolphin, but thought it was a shark. On reflection I realized the mistake was natural because the characteristic movement of a dolphin is up and down, whereas a shark’s is from side to side. Well I had always liked the deadly grace of sharks so, just for the heck of it, I turned the sideways dolphin into a shark and made a mold for it along with several dolphins. Believe it or not, as the word of what was coming got out, we received a call from a gallery in Nantucket , “They are shooting a film up here about a shark. If you could rush some of the new sharks up here I am sure the crew will buy some. The name of the movie? Something strange – like maybe Jaws?”

At about this time the books of the late John Lilly and his work on dolphin communication began receiving publicity and the movie “Day of the Dolphin” with George C. Scott further stimulated interest in dolphins. As mine were the only reasonably priced dolphins and the only sharks in the market-place, they were soon selling as rapidly as the seagulls.


THE WHALES AND FLO

Having got lucky three times, ridden on three sets of coat-tails as it were, I resolved in my next sculpture to go out in front and make something for which there was no demand: I would make a whale. I had been hearing the few voices trying to be heard, protesting that whaling was driving the great whales to the brink of extinction.

In 1974 on a vacation in Hawaii I had an encounter with a whale. Lying in the net trampoline of a 50 foot catamaran running down to Lanaii from Maui on one of those incredibly beautiful Hawaiian days of rainbows and flying fish, as I gazed into the depths, a huge dark shape materialized. It’s speed and direction matched the boat’s and it surfaced just ahead, it’s enormous back about 12 feet wide seeming to fill the space between the hulls of the catamaran. I had an almost irresistible impulse to leap onto its back, (which fortunately for myself I managed to resist.) and then the whale and the moment were gone, leaving me transformed.

At that time there was little public awareness of whales or concern for their plight. I felt that a beautiful sculpture of a whale would help remedy this situation. As I began searching for reference material I was surprised to discover that there were no photos available of whales alive in their environment. Pictures of dead whales, bloated and distorted on the decks of whaling vessels, abounded, but of live whales there were practically none.

At this point I was easily persuaded to finance an expedition to Hawaii to film the Hawaiian Humpbacks that, it was reported, could be approached underwater. As it turned out it was possible, but not easy, and after weeks of frustration we returned with the first footage of these extraordinary looking whales.

By studying this film I was able to create my Humpback Whale sculpture - which was an instant flop! People did not recognize it as a whale! ‘The Sperm Whale of Moby Dick fame was a whale – what was this odd-looking object?’ It would take a year or two of growing awareness before the public at large would come to recognize the Humpback as a whale.

Experiencing the whales in Hawaii, seeing them underwater and familiarizing myself with their grace and gentleness, drew me to become more committed to their welfare.

By then Greenpeace had begun their campaign of disrupting whaling operations on the high seas. The dramatic film of their efforts, showing them willing to risk their lives to save whales, captivated the media but it was the resulting raising of public awareness that was the real weapon for progress.

If creating publicity and raising of public awareness were what was needed, what could I as an artist contribute, I pondered? The Humpback with its long flippers often looked like it was flying underwater (in fact it’s Latin name Megaptero means “long winged”). The idea of a flying whale came to mind.

On searching around for someone who could build such a thing we discovered George Stokes, a pioneer in the design and construction of unorthodoxly shaped pressurized, hot-air balloons. For about a month, working night and day, he sewed piles of blue and white cloth together according to some formula he had mostly in his head. Then one bright morning we switched on a huge fan in her belly and magically Flo was born.

She was an immediate hit. Her huge smile charmed and her immense size, 110 feet long, commanded attention. When juxtaposed against a significant landmark she created a montage that the press, even though they knew they were being hyped, usually could not resist. For the next six years I, with a group of friends and volunteers, campaigned Flo in both anti-whaling and pro-whaling countries around the world.

The original Flo – Big Flo as she came to be known – with her blowers, burners, generator and propane tanks – weighed over 300 lbs. Since we always flew her tethered to a vehicle or boat, in any sort of breeze she became an uncontrollable monster. So we had George build smaller Flos – two 40 footers, a veritable flotilla of ten 25 footers and even little 15 foot walk-about Floettes that one got inside, inflated around one and walked about in.

These smaller Flos, that could be inflated very quickly and used in confined urban situations, often generated as much press as Big Flo. They were loaned out or donated to other groups to campaign in their own countries and were particularly effective in Spain, Brazil, and Sweden. As a result of all this activity Flo eventually became such a symbol for the movement that no major save the whale demonstration or event was complete without her.

As the momentum towards the moratorium on whaling grew, the Flo campaign became frenzied, almost obsessive. At times it felt that Flo was doing the pulling, dragging us from one demonstration to the next. Some financial support for the campaigns came from the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C., Greenpeace and some private donors, but most was provided by the Studio. By the time the moratorium was passed in 1982 Big Flo was literally worn out and the Studio neglected and drained to the point of ruin. “Oh, but what a ride it had been – to have been part of a movement that seemed so hopeless and quixotic as late as 1976 to such a clear cut victory in 1982.”

I returned to my art and the Studio and began a burst of creativity that resulted in a plethora of new pieces some of which are still part of the line up and retain their appeal even today.

The Studio and I remained active in many animal welfare and environmental causes. Flo continued to create publicity for many campaigns from land-use to nuclear disarmament. In fact it was a Flo at a rally in Washington, D.C. that first spouted a “Save the Humans” banner.

Following on the concept of the Flos, other inflatables were created, notable among them Joanna, a 17 foot tall kangaroo walk-about, that was used extensively to publicize the uncontrolled slaughter of kangaroos, and Betsy the Beaver, a 16 foot tall fake-fur covered beaver that has been campaigned widely against inhumane trapping methods.

In 1992 I briefly reconnected with the movie industry with the creation and distribution of the Friendship Doves that were featured in the 20th Century Fox’s Home Alone II.
In 1998 I emerged from retirement so to speak to join the front lines when I was invited to join a group touring Europe with Betsy the Beaver to protest the World Trade Organization’s actions in forcing the European Union to repeal it’s humane trapping laws. [A video of this trip, called “The Trap Tour”, is available from the Studio.]

As we mark the twentieth anniversary of the passing of the moratorium the prospect of a resumption of commercial whaling raises it’s ugly head again and we ponder the next step.

 

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