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Portrait of the Artist

by Nicole Pensiero; Photo by Tim Hawk

Haddonfield sculptor John Giannotti is responsible for some of the most iconic artworks in our region—and he’s not about to slow down.

When it comes to public art in South Jersey, there’s one man whose handiwork has helped determine how we remember our historical moments and cultural icons, how we connect with our community, and how we mourn and heal.

That man is Haddonfield sculptor John Giannotti, perhaps best known locally for his playful, 17-foot-long Hadrosaurus Foulkii, the dinosaur statue that has cast a watchful eye across Kings Highway for eight years.

Technically, it’s a masterpiece in bronze, perfectly replicating the creature discovered, improbably, right in the borough back in 1858. But it’s not his technical proficiency that makes Giannotti most proud.

“You can have all the technique in the world, but if you don’t inspire people, something’s missing,” he says.

Giannotti has nothing to worry about on that account. Acclaimed as both an artist and an educator, the 65-year-old father of four has spent a lifetime instilling creativity in his students, while making a powerful impact on the public with his dramatic sculptures. Those range from the Victims of Terrorism Memorial in Cooper River Park in Pennsauken, to the slightly-scary-but-mostly-fun Seven Deadlies—a group­ing of bronze shark fins that appear be swimming across Cooper River Park nearby in Haddon Township—and just about everything in between.

It’s bigger than just South Jersey, though: Giannotti’s art has been displayed everywhere from London’s historic St. Martin-in-the-Fields church to the Galleria Cimabue in Florence, Italy—not to mention Venezuela, Australia and Japan. His strong affinity for the writings of another South Jerseyan, Walt Whitman, has inspired Giannotti—whose wife, Antoinette Vielehr, is executive director of the Walt Whitman Association—to sculpt four larger-than-life bronze statues of the famed writer that are on display throughout the world. (One eight-foot-tall version calmly surveys the Camden Children’s Garden adjacent to the Adventure Aquarium.)

While Giannotti’s talent has brought him international acclaim, he seems equally touched by comments from the now-teenage area youth who still thank him for letting them take part in the creation of Haddonfield’s bronze sculpture of the first intact dinosaur skeleton found in North America.

“To me, that’s so meaningful; to have made a personal impact through my art,” he says. During the 10 months it took to create the dinosaur, Giannotti—one of several sculptors who vied for the commission—invited area schoolchildren to visit his studio. Each one was given a piece of clay to place anywhere on the framework of the Hadrosaurus, or “Haddy,” as they took to calling it. More than 500 youngsters, including his own then-second-grade son, Delano, added their part of the dinosaur to the work in progress.

“It became a true community project,” Giannotti recalls. “I still hear about these children, now nearly grown, who come to visit the sculpture and point to the spot where they put their piece of clay.”

Giannotti’s civic-minded approach to art-making has served him well in creating more somber works, too. His two lifesize bronze sculptures of firemen, titled The Rescue, are on display at the Chews Landing Fire Company and at Blackwood’s Camden County Fire Training Center, in honor of local heroes. And his 13-foot-tall Matthew Henson statue, which stands in front of the Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum, lends gravitas to the memory of the African-American polar explorer.

This summer, Giannotti is refurbishing one of his most beloved local works—the seven-pillar circular Victims of Terrorism Memorial—in time for the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Originally planned as a memorial to the victims of the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, the project took on a much wider scope following the events of Sept. 11. “I’d already made the design for the Pan Am memorial; had shown the scale model to the family members … and then 9/11 happened,” Giannotti recalls. “The key people involved, myself included, met the following day, Sept. 12, 2001. The meeting had already been arranged. Everyone was in a state of shock. We looked at one another and immediately agreed that this project just got a lot bigger.”

Dedicated on the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the dramatic yet elegant memorial honors American victims of terrorism going back to the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. It is, as Giannotti notes, “a project that meant a great deal to many, many people, and one that I hope helps bring a sense of closure and healing.”

Giannotti himself looks to his artwork for healing, too. All of his more recent works, he says, are dedicated in spirit to his late son, Oran, who died in 2006 at age 38.

While Giannotti has left indelible im­prints across South Jersey, he’s actually a New York transplant. His love of art took root early, instilled by his father, a Brooklyn sign painter whose workshop was like “a wonderland, with hundreds of paints and colors.” Giannotti’s father was also a carpenter, motivating him to enjoy working with his hands and learning to “make something out of nothing.”

“That desire to create was sort of in- bred in me: looking at a blank wall and turning it into a colorful billboard was no big deal,” Giannotti adds. “It might be a challenge, but it was also great fun.”

That fascination with color has never left Giannotti, who is still an avid painter. “I’ve never been a typical gallery artist, do­ing variations of one style. I always wanted to explore and try new things,” he says.

But it’s Giannotti’s sculpture that consumes the bulk of his time—so much so that, after 31 years as a professor at Rutgers-Cam­den, (and later chairman of its fine arts department), he retired to devote himself to the slew of commissions coming into Giannotti Studios, based in the barn behind his home.

“I had a deeply rewarding career at Rutgers,” Giannotti says, adding that a decade after retiring he is still involved with the college, including the study-abroad program that he helped establish.

“To be able to teach and do what you love at the same time is a wonderful gift.”

That’s why keeping a hand in at Rutgers is so important to Giannotti.

“I truly believe that teaching isn’t just the finest profession, it’s the only profession. By that I mean, whether you are a teacher ‘by trade’ or involved in any profession imaginable, the real purpose of life is to pass on your knowledge to someone else,” Giannotti says. He adds that he strives to always broaden his own horizons as well.

“If it isn’t something that challenges you and keeps you growing, why bother? I’m constantly trying to expand,” he says. “I couldn’t imagine living any other way.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 4 (July, 2011).
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