The studio of Jack Howard-Potter feels like the tiniest museum in the world. The 700-square-foot space in Long Island City is packed to the ceiling — literally — with sculptures ranging from a 3-foot-tall warrior to a female torso the height of the room, whose giant arms suspend from the ceiling nearby. The space serves as both a workshop and storage unit for the sculptor’s creations.
Howard-Potter’s primary medium is steel sculpture, bending and welding steel rods into intricate figures of the human body in motion. His pieces can be found mainly in outdoor venues nationwide, but some live in galleries or collectors’ homes. Selections of his work will appear in this month’s seventh annual Long Island City Arts Open (LICAO), running May 17 to 21.
“Watch out for that,” Howard-Potter says, laughing, as I almost collide with the elongated hand of a giant dancer in the middle of the room, too distracted by the kaleidoscope of sculptures I’ve entered. “That happens a lot,” the artist admits, brushing his dark hair away from his forehead as he inspects his work. Howard-Potter has a kind face and artist hands, worn from years of manipulating steel. He sports a T-shirt with a bike on it — a hobby of his, and primary mode of transportation commuting daily from his home in Manhattan to the western Queens studio.
This piece is “Dancer 11.” For more than 20 years, Howard-Potter has been creating and recreating this dancer theme with his larger sculptures — all of them balancing on one leg in slightly varied poses, titled “Dancer 1, 2, 3,” and so on. “Dancer 11” stands about 11 feet tall with her right leg bent in the air in front of her and arms stretched out in an “L” shape. The repeated sequences of steel rod running up her legs and around her torso resemble muscle and athletic movement in an effortless way.
“I like playing with the idea of this heavy, hard, immovable material, but making it light and airy and motion-filled,” says Howard-Potter on working with steel. “That eventually came around to dancers, because dancers have this amazing constant motion that very rarely gets frozen. They’re incredibly graceful and then also really athletic, and I really liked that mix of grace, power, movement, and then this beautiful stillness.”
When completed, “Dancer 11” is going to live on the campus of Union College, the artist’s alma matter, where he first fell in love with steel. “I did my first weld in college and I instantly knew that this was the medium I wanted to peruse and refine,” says Howard-Potter. “If I were a painter and made paintings on canvas, they wouldn’t last forever. But if I work in steel, it’s going to hang around a heck of a lot longer. There was this primordial everlasting quality to it that I was totally drawn to.”
However, he recalls feeling that “something was missing” from his early steel pieces. Some of this work hangs in the back of his studio, and it’s clear what he means. These statues seem more abstract —they possess the metal frame of what resembles a human figure, but they’re less detailed than his current work. Now, he starts with a steel frame, but then fills in details with rods to create a clearer human form. Like a diligent scientist, Howard-Potter constantly challenges his work and seeks ways to improve his artistry with every installment.
“People always ask me what’s my favorite statue I’ve made, and I always say, ‘Whatever I made last,’” says the artist, “because there’s all kinds of little things that I pay attention to and work on as I go along with each work. No matter how perfect I think I’ve made it, when I step back and look at it, I think, ‘Oh, well, I could do this.’ It’s my favorite because all those little nuances are changed from the most recent ones, but it’s an opportunity to get even better.”
About 11 years ago, Howard-Potter left his former Williamsburg studio and was immediately drawn to the arts community of Long Island City.
“That’s the thing that really struck me when I chose this studio in Long Island City — that there was this amazing concentration of people that were not only really invested in the arts and in their own work, but in the community of the arts and collaborating together,” he recalls. “There was this incredible energy of an arts community that I was really drawn to.”
That’s what was missing from the Williamsburg community: a lack of support among the resident artists. Too many were getting priced out of their studios, and there was lingering tension in the air. In Long Island City, there’s hope. Howard-Potter admits there is still a tangible fear of being priced out as the metropolis of New York City expands East, but the community is fighting it.
“There’s something about being able to walk down the street in the neighborhood and know who is here every single day trying to do this. I really have felt a strong connection to the people,” reflects the artist. “There’s something about that rhythm and repetition that keeps me here. This whole community’s changing so drastically and I know a lot of people are getting priced out of here now, but there seems like there’s this core group of people that’s committed to digging in and preserving this thing that we’ve built over 10 years.”
Howard-Potter credits Long Island City Arts Open as a driving force behind this sentiment. Richard Mazda, founder of LICAO, reached out to Howard-Potter to participate in the festival’s inaugural year, and the sculptor jumped at the chance.
“I was immediately drawn to it, not only this guy, but this concept and this idea of furthering not only the artist but the arts and the community — it was exactly what I was looking for,” he says.
“We’ve been really pleased to partner with Jack through the Long Island City Arts Open throughout the years,” Mazda says. “I think Jack is one of the more significant sculptors working in the Long Island City area.”
Howard-Potter’s work has been displayed in every Arts Open since. This year, he’s switching it up: he plans on showing a maquette of a rendition of Lady Justice, and some drawings — featuring not dancers, but robots.
The artist speaks optimistically of the future and one day hopes to acquire a larger space to satisfy the demands of his ever-expanding steel empire.
Gazing at his life’s work packed in front of him, the artist smiles and says, “I guess what I’m saying is… I could make my work anywhere. I’d rather make it here.”