Friday, May 10, 2013

The Secret Sculptor

A look at one of many artistic sides of Joe Jeffs

"Madonna" by Joe Jeffs

My Dad always had a half-done piece of a sculpture, draped in a sheet, in the corner of his dark downstairs office. I remember as a child I loved to poke around his workbench that covered as a tool closet, fix it center, and art studio all in one. Half repaired broken household items, children's toys, and tools littered his workspace. It was every little boys' treasure chest of cool items to investigate. But the one think that you never missed was the smell of artists clay wafting up from under that sheet. I was fascinated by the half-completed, covered figures that were hidden beneath those old sheets. I would peek under to see a body split in half with sheets of tin almost ready for casting or a head on a pole. They gave the impression of haunting figures in a long-forgotten, abandoned mansion, covered over to keep the dust off. I distinctly remember playing with my Dad's sculpting tools, touching the blobs of unused clay, and getting the smell of it all over my hands. The memory of the feel and smell of the clay is as clear as if I was touching it today.

The artist circa 1960 and 2013

Being one of the youngest of 8 kids, many of my dad's sculptures were done years before I was born. Therefore, I only have vague memories of Dad talking about his sculpting when I was growing up. I actually never saw him sit down to sculpt. Even my older sister Denise doesn't remember seeing our father work on a sculpture. He was truly the secret sculptor and it was something he did late at night while the rest of the house was asleep. Now this is hard to believe, because I'm one of eight children. Along with our Grandmother on my mother's side, who moved in to our house to live there when I was in 6th grade, we totaled 11 in all. All living together in a small originally 4 bedroom colonial. We eventually added a 2 bedroom addition to the back of the house, but it was still close quarters living. 

Throughout the house, his finished casted sculptures sat on book shelves, by the fireplace, and outside on our screened in porch. Everything from passionate religious themed figures in emotional poses, to political statements, to figures from greek mythology, to heads and busts of family members. Super realistic to modern art style creations, Dad tried it all.

Dad's tools

One sculpture in particular that always amazed me was a life size head Dad did of my older brother, Tony. It was the first completed sculpture he ever attempted, and It had such a uncanny resemblance of Tony that it almost seems alive. When I looked at it, it was like staring directly at my brother. It sat for years on a dresser at the bottom of the basement steps, staring into the former TV room, which eventually became my Dad's Library. How did he ever get my squirmy brother to sit still long enough to do it? Tony recalls his experience of posing while dad sculpted him at the age of 4. 

Head of my brother Tony Jeffs at age 4. Plaster Cast 1968. Height 15"

"Dad was taking a sculpting class at the local recreational center called Elwood Smith and he brought me in as his subject matter. All I remember was thinking this is complete torture! I couldn't sit still." He did the piece in the class over the course of a few weeks, sculpting it in Plasticine, a substance that doesn't dry out like regular clay, which constantly needs to be moistened. Then he built the casting mold out of plaster of paris. But before encasing the plasticine head in plaster, he would divide it into two halves by cutting tin cans into flat pieces, inserting a line of them directly into the center of the plasticine head. This enabled him to take the mold off in two pieces after the mold dried. Next he coated the inside of the now revised mold with a green substance that would keep the final sculptures plaster from sticking. He then poured pre-colored plaster, either white, greenish gray, or red into the hollow mold, let it dry, and removed the mold to reveal the final sculpture. Not an easy task.

His Training

Constantine Seferlis

Dad's excitement and love of sculpting continued, and he enrolled into sculpture classes given by Constantine Seferlis who taught in his Kensington Maryland Studio. Constantine (1930–2005) is acknowledged as a master sculptor and stone carver whose works exemplified a group of public monumental artists in the United States during the second half of the 20th century. He was a Greek sculptor who's talents graced many buildings in Washington D.C. including parts of the facade of the Smithsonian Castle, the U.S. Capital building renovations, the granite interior of the Washington Monument, and most famously the limestone gargoyles, pinnacles, saints, and angels of the National Cathedral. Dad enjoyed his classes for two years in the early 1960s'.

One of many Gargoyles by Constantine Seferlis that decorate the

 National Cathedral in Washington DC


The classes Dad took under Constantine Serferlis advanced his knowledge of the human form, figurative structure, and composition. The relief of a woman's head called "Madonna" below is one of my favorite pieces of his. The lines are exquisite and guide your eye throughout the piece. The woman's hairline, as you can see in the picture taken from the side, gracefully flows from top to bottom. It is my Dad's largest piece at 22" high.


Religious themed Pieces

My Dad's faith has always been a very important part of his life, and it shows in the group of religious sculptures below. He sculpted stories from the bible that where emotionally charged and meaningful to him.

1) "The Visitation"

Dad based this piece on a story from the bible called the Visitation. Mary visits her relative Elizabeth; they are both pregnant. Mary is pregnant with Jesus and Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist. Catholics believe that the purpose of this visit was to bring divine grace to both Elizabeth and her unborn child. 

He did two versions of this piece. The first was a study about 6 inches tall, and final larger one about 15 inches tall. The larger piece sat by our fireplace throughout my entire childhood. He cast the study in a reddish colored plaster, and the final piece in green. The embrace Dad captured just feels so honest, real, and genuine.

This is the smaller study he did first. Height 6"

The final piece from two angles. Plaster case, height 15"

A painting of the Visitation

2) "Agony in the Garden"

This is another religious inspired piece. It refers to the events in Jesus' life as recorded in the New Testament, when immediately after the Last Supper, he took a walk to pray. 

Dad's decision to have the figure hugging the rock is another example of his thoughtfulness for simplistic yet expressive composition. The way in which he tilted the head and had the arms envelope the rock strengthens the emotion the piece conveys.

Plaster case. Height 5"

A painting of Agony in the Garden by Heinrich Hofmann 1890

3) "Abraham and Isaac"

The Binding of Isaac is a story from the Hebrew Bible in which God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son. According to the biblical story, God commands Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. After Isaac is bound to an alter, the angel of God stops Abraham at the last minute, and says, "Now I know you fear God." At this point, Abraham sees a ram caught in some nearby bushes and sacrifices the ram instead of Isaac.

This piece always captivated me. In my view Dad captured the scene of the story perfectly. I love how he decided to have Abraham on his knees, with the knife (made from a nail) in hand, hugging his son in such a loving embrace, while struggling with the decision he is faced with. From the back you can see Isaac's arms wrapping around his father's body, trusting him completely. The embrace between father and son is truly beautiful. As a child, I still remember being fascinated with touching the tip of the sharp nail against my finger, and the thoughts of pain it emulated.

A painting of Abraham and Isaac by Giovanni Lanfranco

Politically themed

"Passive Resistance"

The civil rights movement was Dad's inspiration for this piece. My Dad and Mom both were very involved in civil rights during the 1960's. The figure is posed in a fetal position protecting his head and vital organs from the onslaught of violence during protests. It's another beautiful example of Dad's ability to capture so much with so little detail. 
Plaster case. Length 8"

An example of a civil rights protester in a passive resistance position

Emotionally themed


This piece is of a man sitting on a rock with his hands between his arms. Dad described it to me as an expression of human depression. This is the only piece he still has at home.

Unfinished Studies

Below are several works in progress that Dad never finished. They are still in the sculpting stage. After decades of sitting untouched in his basement, the Plasticine is still soft and moldable. Dad still talks of finishing them, which I hope he does, along with many other ideas that he has told me about.

1) "Narcissus"

Dad's Narcissus is his third largest sculpture after Madonna and Tony's Head. His plan was to cast it and then add a mirror as the lake in which Narcissus is staring at his reflection. You can see that the arm ends where the mirror would be, and would appear as if he was dipping his hand into the lake. I hope he can find the time to finish the cast and add the mirror.

Narcissus, meaning "sleep, numbness" in Greek mythology, was a hunter who was renowned for his beauty. He was the son of a river god named Cephissus and a nymph named Liriope. He was exceptionally proud, in that he disdained those who loved him. Nemesis saw this and attracted Narcissus to a pool where he saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it, not realizing it was merely an image. Unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, Narcissus died.

Two angles of Narcissus

A painting of Narcissus in the pose that Dad was inspired by

2) "Matthew Jeffs' profile"

This was a portrait he did of Matthew when he was 8 years old.

3) "Woman at the wall"

The "Woman at the Wall" is of a woman patently waiting by a sea wall for her sailer husband to come home from his voyage.

Dad gave away all of his sculptures, except one, to his children and grandchildren. I sought out as many as I could for this post and I ended up with a total of 10 pieces of Dad's art. The emotions he was able to convey through such simple detail is astonishing to me. His sculptures fascinate me, inspire me, and express such depth from a sculptor I will always admire. 

I know part of my artistic ability came from my father. He is a talented, but a very modest, artist. His love of art drove him to create wonderful pieces of sculpture. He did them queitly, unknowingly to many. He did all of his sculpting during a very busy time in his life as a husband, while performing an extremely demanding job as Curator of Georgetown University's Library, and as a father of eight children. I will always admire his love of art, his encouragement to me as a young boy to be an artist, and that both Dad and Mom filled our lives with fine artwork, culture, literature, and music. That secret sculptor known as Dad, is secret no more.


  1. Your sculptures are fantastic, Grandpa!

  2. Great post Tim! Thanks for sharing, I had no idea Grandpa had done so many pieces, incredible!

    1. Thanks for looking at the post.
      His work is so wonderful and needs to be seen.

  3. Tim: Exquisite analysis and heartfelt response to your Dad's work.

    Your comments form a beautiful memoir of your youthful
    impressions and their lasting effects on your life.

    A loving tribute to a very modest man.

    Love, MOM

    1. That's so sweet of you to say Mom. Dad's so special in so many ways.
      Love you so much. Tim

  4. Incredible post Tim. Thank you for pulling Dad's work together for all to share. If memory serves me correct Dad had me sitting still in that chair for years... not weeks. Also, I don't think it's actually life size... unless a persons head shrinks with age.


  5. Thank you, Tim, for a wonderful and meaningful piece of art history. I had no idea your dad was a sculptor. Your mom said it best; it's a great tribute and a superb memoir. You and your dad are two very modest -- and very talented -- men.

  6. What a wonderful sculpture art work. Having a nice scuplture supply is a another reason to have a master piece. Great job!