For a long time, it seemed like he could last forever. His wiry body was as strong as the metals that he spent his life welding, casting, cutting, shaping, bending to his will. His friends felt that strength every time he hugged them; that sturdy embrace was his standard greeting. He radiated warmth.
Richard Howard Hunt, who passed away in December at eighty-eight, was the greatest sculptor ever born in Chicago. And he was one of the most innovative and prolific in America, with some 160 public sculptures displayed across the United States, and other works in museums around the globe.
By December 2020—exactly three years before the end of his life—he had made enough impact for a dozen lifetimes, and was still going strong. Then death took a swipe at him, and missed. This spurred some reflection. Once back in his Lill Avenue studio, he took major steps to get his “things” in order—such as papers, from important contracts to news clippings to doodles, saved over eighty years and never culled or organized—as well as to preserve his monumental artistic legacy. After launching those efforts, he picked up his tools and resumed sculpting.
Doctors advised him to take it easy, but Hunt wasn’t interested. He rearranged his day-to-day life—to call it eccentric would be an understatement—just enough to satisfy them. And he persevered for three more years, turning out some of his finest work.
Those three years were both a challenge and an inestimable blessing for Hunt’s crew, a handful of devoted apprentices who helped construct his largest pieces and who kept the studio running. Says sculptor Gwen Yen Chiu of the December 2020 episode, “I wanted to learn more from him. I was so scared of losing him… but he pushed through and came back. These past years are my treasure.”
Eric W. Stephenson, the senior member of the crew, talks about the rescue operation that snatched Hunt from the brink of death on December 15, 2020. “I had worked a full day at Richard’s studio, and then driven to my own studio on the Southwest Side, when I got a phone call…”
It was Jon Ott, Hunt’s biographer, calling from California. Ott had been collaborating with Hunt for eighteen months, conducting more than a hundred hours of interviews. They had a standing appointment twice a week. That evening Ott had called as usual, and Hunt had answered. But something was amiss.
“He sounded distant. His face was not next to the phone. I could hear ‘Jon, Jon?’ but he didn’t seem to be hearing my responses.” Then the call was disconnected.
“Ice was running through my veins,” Ott says. “What was happening?”
He called back and was able to question Hunt: “How are you feeling?” Hunt’s voice evinced no alarm, but his words were labored and slurred:
“Well, I must’ve… Well, I’m sitting on the floor here in the studio… I was looking at this sculpture and I stepped back with my head craned up… I fell backwards… I must have hit my head… I’m just sitting here on the floor and I’m eating some of the pears you sent me for Christmas.”
When Ott said, “I need to get you some help,” Hunt demurred. “No, I’ll be fine.”
(“Typical Richard,” Ott later reflects. “Totally independent, doesn’t need any help.”)
Ott queried Hunt about symptoms. How was his vision?
Hunt: “Well, I’m looking at the studio lights and everything has a big blue halo around it.”
Ott: “Lemme call Eric.”
Stephenson, after receiving Ott’s call, spoke with Hunt himself. “Richard said, ‘I stumbled. I can’t feel my legs. Something’s wrong. Come and save me.’ So I got in my truck and raced across the city.” He called 911 en route.
First responders were admonished not to ring the bell lest Hunt try to get up and answer. They used an ax to get through the studio’s industrial-strength entrance.
And then off to the hospital? Not quite. “When I arrived,” Stephenson relates, “Richard was in an ambulance, but it wasn’t going anywhere.” Hunt, never one to complain, had told first responders very little. According to Stephenson, the paramedics said, “He doesn’t seem to be in any pain. Other than some tingling in his legs, he seems fine. We think we’ll let him go.” Only after Stephenson related everything Hunt had said on the phone did the ambulance roll.
Before long, Hunt was ensconced at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where doctors surgically intervened in a life-threatening cardiovascular event called acute aortic dissection.
After a period of rehab, Hunt was eager to get back to normal life—as he defined it at eighty-five. Doctors were surprised to learn how much physical activity that involved. They particularly objected to all the hammering, and they were concerned about climbing. Hunt told them he had a loft in Lincoln Park, which didn’t sound so bad, until Stephenson told them, “Don’t think ‘loft’ so much as ‘tree fort.’”
The Lill Avenue studio is a former electrical substation that Hunt acquired in 1971, before Lincoln Park gentrified. He had resided there, with few interruptions, ever since. It’s a cavernous space, forty-five feet high, where he worked, played, ate and slept.
Why commute? Each night he would climb a steep ladder, emerging through a trap door–no banisters, grips or grab bars–onto a platform ten feet above the floor. He called this his front porch. From an armchair, he could survey all the work in progress and take in fuller views of colossal sculptures.
A few steps from the ladder was the loft, a small enclosure with a window overlooking the studio. There was a mattress on the floor, a nightstand with a landline phone, a reading lamp with a hardhat for a shade. Hunt ate his meals off disposable trays saved from frozen dinners.
Who, encountering Hunt on his frequent forays outside the studio, could have imagined his ascetic private life? He enjoyed socializing. He could rock a tuxedo. He was no less comfortable in an opera house, a patron’s mansion, or Symphony Center than he was at art exhibits, VIP gatherings and elegant restaurants.
Ott recalls an item in People magazine during the 1980s that described Hunt as one of Chicago’s most eligible bachelors. No one who knew him would dispute it. Hunt’s utter lack of pretension was disarming. His accomplishment and sharp intellect dazzled. His bohemian charm was nigh irresistible. Women wrote him love poems.
The magazine also noted, correctly, that people in the know who wanted Hunt to come to dinner would make sure to serve it buffet-style, since he was notorious for showing up very, very late.
On the other hand, he showed up for a lot of things, for a lot of people. Ott, introduced to Hunt by his parents as an adolescent, had to pinch himself at his own wedding when he saw Hunt among the assembled: the celebrity artist had been invited, but the young Ott never dreamed Hunt would travel all the way to Indianapolis. “Here’s this internationally renowned figure, whom I’ve only met a few times. With my fiancée, I’d bought a small sculpture from him and we had taken him out to lunch. We really connected that time. But that he actually showed up to our wedding—I think it reflects the kind of person he was.”
Hunt’s reputation as a heartthrob did not diminish with age. One seldom saw him at a gathering without some female companion who was bright and accomplished. He had no need to pursue anyone.
Yet in private he “lived like a monk,” according to Ott, who oversaw the publication in 2022 of a definitive compendium of Hunt’s life and work. Ott likened Hunt’s unique studio space to a “cathedral of sculpture” to which other artists, curators and collectors could arrange for pilgrimages.
Perhaps it was Hunt’s crew who were the monks, fully dedicated to the realization of artistic visions. Hunt, regarded by all of them with reverence, was more like a Franciscan abbott, a saintly figure who directed the work while setting a supreme example for the others to imitate.
Alas, after December 2020, Hunt’s doctors wouldn’t let him sleep in the cathedral. No more ladders, they said. That meant no more getting up at 4am to sit on the front porch and survey the previous day’s work. It meant no polishing of metal during the wee hours.
So while Hunt was recovering in a rehab facility, crew leader Stephenson found a suitable apartment across the street. Gwen Yen Chiu, who joined the crew in 2016 after several years as Stephenson’s apprentice, volunteered to help with Hunt’s personal care in addition to her other duties. In recent times she attended his medical appointments, coordinated his care with the skilled nurses visiting the apartment, served him as barber and manicurist, and shopped for his groceries. (Top of the list was always black walnut ice cream. Second choice: vanilla.)
Hunt expected to resume living in the studio, and Stephenson worried at first about how he would react to the new digs. But according to Yen Chiu, he accommodated easily enough. “He thought of the apartment as a short-term vacation home. He went from ‘When can I go back?’ To ‘Oh, it’s pretty comfortable here.’ He began to appreciate simple things in life that he didn’t find necessary before, that weren’t on his list of priorities.”
During those years, Hunt completed the sculpture Barack Obama had requested for his Presidential Center in Jackson Park. (“Book Bird” is now in storage, waiting while its future home is built.) He finished the maquette for a piece memorializing Emmett Till, the civil-rights martyr, who was born just a few years later than Hunt in a neighboring household. He installed “The Light of Truth: Ida B. Wells National Monument” on the former site of the public housing project that once bore her name. He had a glorious solo exhibition on the rooftop of the Art Institute of Chicago. And he unveiled the maquette for his final commission: a one-hundred-foot-tall monument that will anchor the Chicago megadevelopment known as The 78.
Despite the doctors’ admonitions against hammering, the crew conceded to their master the right to pound on the thinnest pieces of metal, using only the smallest hammers at first. “A lot of his language is in the way he forms and shapes the metal with hammers, Stephenson says. “You use the hammer to compress the material against an anvil, or against a forming table that has negative shapes in its surface.”
Hunt himself said in a recently published interview, “I have chosen to use sheets of metal of a certain thickness, not very thick. And then one can create the idea of fluidity and ascension.”
The twenty-pound sledgehammer was kept out of his reach.
Yen Chiu, like most of Hunt’s apprentices, fit her own art-making around her work for Hunt. Arising at 3:30am or 4am, she would head for her own studio and spend several hours there before moving on to Lincoln Park. Then a stop off on the way home to do some more sculpting before bed. It was Hunt who was behind this habit: “I was inspired by how prolific he was, making at all times of day.
“Richard is definitely my biggest influence as an artist. He made me think about how to interpret abstract forms in different ways.” Like Hunt’s, Yen Chiu’s creations often explore the concept of flight.
As a neophyte in the studio, she was often given the job of handing Hunt tools as he worked. Watching him was revelatory.
“He doesn’t speak much when he’s working, unless he needs to ask for a tool. Eric [Stephenson] taught me to make a game of trying to anticipate which tool he’d want next, just hand it to him before he asked. Sometimes hours pass without words.”
They were master and apprentice in the most traditional sense, she says. “He wasn’t explaining. If you want to learn, watch. And steal.”
She was in awe of Hunt’s physical fearlessness. Early in her tenure, she says, he wanted to examine a large piece more closely. So she climbed into the cab of a scissor lift with him and raised it about fifteen feet. “I thought he was just going to look, but instead—this was contrary to my past experience—he jumped out of the cab! He planted one foot on the sculpture, picked up one of the biggest sledgehammers, and then I’m watching him hit the sculpture with it to, you know, adjust it. The whole scissor lift is shaking back and forth as he’s hammering away. It was shocking, yeah, and scary and exhilarating all at once.”
Stephenson, the senior crew member and studio director, was Hunt’s apprentice for more than twenty years. Like Yen Chiu, he has tried to remake himself in Hunt’s image.
“I became his caregiver, but he was my mentor, my employer, my idol. He showed me how to live every day: Be creative, be productive, be true to yourself.”
Be true to yourself. Perhaps no other dictum was more central to Hunt’s personality than that one. He demonstrated it daily.
“I don’t make work for everybody to either like or understand,” he told curator Adrienne L. Childs. “There is always somebody coming along who understands what I have done.”
Mused the curator, “It is so interesting that you end up with objects that are a little frightening.”
Responded Hunt, “It depends, I guess, on what frightens you.”
“I value my independence,” he declared in an artist’s statement on his website. “To me, that means I can make what I want to make, regardless of what anyone else thinks I should make.”
This was perhaps the main reason why, until a few months ago, Hunt never signed an exclusive contract with a gallery.
“He would be more famous now, had he made that bargain,” Ott says. But “you give up freedom in exchange for money. When a particular work sells well, a gallery may ask for more of the same.”
After the health scare, though, Hunt changed his tune and cut a deal with White Cube, considered one of the top galleries in the world. White Cube announced last November that it had become Hunt’s exclusive global representative. On March 13, the gallery will present his work in a solo exhibition at its new Madison Avenue showroom, White Cube New York.
The gallery offered its first Hunt sculpture for sale last December at Art Basel Miami Beach, North America’s largest art fair. Attendees numbered 49,000. But few of them had a chance to buy Hunt’s “Years of Pilgrimage” (1999), since it sold during the first twenty minutes of the VIP session. The $1.2 million price thrilled Hunt’s supporters and marked an auspicious start to White Cube’s representation.
A final step Hunt took to cement his legacy was to establish, in 2023, the nonprofit Richard Hunt Legacy Foundation. Run by a board of art-world luminaries along with Ott and a couple of family members, the foundation will oversee book and movie projects and loans of artwork. They are already gathering information from the public for their biggest project—the catalogue raisonné—the index of all Hunt’s works, as exhaustive as possible. It will take decades to assemble. Many works of art are sequestered inside private homes. Others hide in plain sight on college campuses and corporate lawns where, visible as they are, they remain undocumented.
Senior apprentice Stephenson got started with Hunt in 2001, when he moved to Chicago with his architect wife. She had just completed her master’s degree. “For an architect and a sculptor, Chicago seemed like a great fit.”
He arrived jobless and impatient to start his Chicago career. Preliminary research seemed like foot-dragging to this young sculptor. Instead, he immediately began networking in person, volunteering at arts organizations including the Chicago Artists Coalition. There he obtained a list of people who might help him find work: forty Chicago sculptors, in no particular order.
Stephenson started at the top of the list, making cold calls. “Everyone was super nice and friendly, and no help. But they all told me to seek out Richard Hunt.”
The name rang no bell for Stephenson, who grew up in central Pennsylvania. “If I recognized it at all, it was from some art textbook I used in school. I thought of those guys as all dead.” But given the unanimity of the advice, he took it.
Hunt was not on the list of forty. But his right hand at the time, Mike Helbing, was, along with the phone number of Hunt’s studio. When Stephenson phoned, both sculptors were out, but he chatted with a staff member who informed him that Hunt’s chief welder had just left.
Stephenson pounced: He got Hunt on the phone that afternoon. “Can I come show you my portfolio?” Yes, he could.
“I went in the following morning. We had a great two-hour conversation. We just clicked. We shared affinities for certain materials, certain sculptural languages.” Hunt would later describe Stephenson as “very bright, multifaceted and multitalented.”
He was hired on the spot. When his father, who is also a sculptor, heard the news, he was flabbergasted. “Richard Hunt? The Richard Hunt?”
“That was more than twenty years ago,” says the son. “But even now Dad still remarks from time to time, ‘I can’t believe you got a job with Richard Hunt.’”
Serendipity pulled several of the current crew into the fold. “I work here because of my name,” says David Noguchi, who arrived on Stephenson’s heels in 2001. He was part of a group invited to the studio to look at a plasma cutter, used in industry and by artists to slice through bronze and stainless steel.
Noguchi had acquired welding skills early on in a fabricating plant, then worked for twenty years creating special effects for TV. By the turn of the millennium, digital technology had upended that business and led Noguchi back to his first career interest: “Brancusi [known as the father of modern abstract sculpture] was my idol in college.”
During the studio visit, Hunt appeared, approached Noguchi and said, “So you want to be a sculptor? You’ve got the right name.”
(He was referring to Isamu Noguchi, a pioneering artist whose work inspired Hunt as a college student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He was someone “I looked up to… and whom I got to know,” Hunt would later tell curator Childs. “The way we looked at art was very compatible.”)
David Noguchi, unrelated to the great abstract modernist, took a deep breath and answered, “Yes!” Later that year he was hired. “I’m convinced it was because of my name. I called my Mom and told her that.”
Mark Musich, studio assistant, is the oldest crew member at seventy-one. His background is in commercial art—painting and drawing—and retail management, which he says made him good with details. “Working on Richard’s crew is the best job I’ve ever had in my life,” says Musich. “And it took me sixty-three years to find it.”
Musich met Hunt in the early 1980s through the late Joseph Guastafeste, the principal bassist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a productive amateur artist himself. Guastafeste helped Hunt launch a series of classical-music concerts in the studio. Musich was present at some of these, and ran into Hunt at other concerts during that period.
Fast-forward a few decades. Says Musich: “After I quit my last job and decided to retire, Joe called me out of the blue in 2016 and said, ‘Richard Hunt is looking for people.’ I thought, c’mon, what would I do? But then Richard called my house and left a message. I was shocked. I wasn’t going to call back, but my wife said, ‘Are you nuts?’ So I got up the courage… When I went to meet him, I put on nice clothes, you know, like a job interview. I had no idea! Everyone was in T-shirts, all sweaty and dirty.”
Soon Musich was visiting the studio every day. According to Stephenson, “At first he was sweeping floors. Next thing you know he’s organizing screws and nails and all the ephemera of the studio.” By the 1980s, a decade or so of sculpting had cluttered the space to the point where it resembled a celestial junkyard—much to the delight of Hunt’s concert guests.
For a while, like Yen Chiu, Musich had the job of handing tools to the master. But in 2019, when Jon Ott began his collaboration with Hunt, Musich was reassigned to the basement in the role of archivist.
Ott had begun that work himself, but soon begged for help. There was far more paper in the studio—in boxes, on shelves, in drawers, stacked on pallets—than the California resident could contend with. Hunt had saved everything since childhood. He was not only a busy professional, but also an insatiable reader who did extensive background research for his commemorative pieces and who was interested in a wide array of topics. His papers needed to be winnowed, sorted and digitized. Musich was the man for the job.
At least eighty percent of the documents—800 linear feet, by the measuring tape—are now at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, which recently bought the rights to all of Hunt’s papers.
Stephenson says Hunt “would buy six or eight newspapers every day. He’d tear out what interested him, but he didn’t throw out the carcasses. There are pallets and pallets of this newspaper in the basement. Before we throw it out, Mark is going through it to make sure there’s nothing sandwiched between the sheets. He’s found contracts and things.”
The only crew member who is not a sculptor or artisan, Musich nonetheless enjoyed the bounty of Hunt’s tutelage. “He was so easy to work for. He was so easy to talk to. He was so generous with his time and his knowledge. I would have the stupidest questions when they were working on the material. Why is it turning colors? Why are you bending it that way? He would explain it all.
“You know how your hand can follow the contour of something? He would do that while he was working, but often that part of the piece was not there to feel. He was imagining it with his hands. Then he would make a cardboard template. I still don’t understand how that two-dimensional template blossoms into a 3D object. When I asked him, his answer was ‘Years of practice.’
“It’s so much fun to be here, even if I’m only cutting weeds or filling dumpsters. I can’t believe how nice everyone is here. That happened through Richard’s personality, the type of people he’s attracted to. And it’s made me a better person.”
Chicago’s public celebration of Hunt’s life is in the planning stages for later this year.
A small private funeral was held in January. Hunt’s sister, Marian Hunt, was there, and his daughter, Cecilia Hunt, born during his first marriage at twenty-two to his college classmate, the late painter Bettye Scott. All remain Chicagoans. Ott says Cecilia Hunt, a creator of handmade jewelry, spent a lot of time with her father.
Hunt’s ashes will be buried along with those of his second wife, the glamorous Lenora Cartright, community organizer, professor, and for a time the city’s Commissioner of Human Services. Just six years into the marriage, Cartright died in 1989 of breast cancer at fifty-three. Hunt, devastated, kept her ashes in the studio for decades and even brought them along for his “temporary” move across the street.
There will be a private ceremony at Oakwood Cemetery, after the crew finishes making the grave marker Hunt designed years ago. He gave Stephenson a small maquette and directed him to interpret it in welded bronze.
What will it look like? “Like a Richard Hunt,” says Stephenson.
How big will it be? “As big as I can get away with.”
Historic Oakwood Cemetery was chosen not only for its beauty, but also for its proximity to Hunt’s childhood house in Woodlawn, and to the nascent Obama Presidential Center.
Obama himself came to Hunt’s deathbed a few days before his passing. He and his wife, Michelle, were not infrequent visitors to the studio. In mid-December, Hunt was not able to converse, but according to Ott, he was aware of the former President’s presence and heard his words. “They were heroes to each other,” says Ott.
Recently Barack Obama requested a gift certificate for the former First Lady. For what, for how much money?
“Anything she wants.”