David Hostetler couldn’t help himself as he pointed to the tree trunk with protruding lumps and limbs. “There’s a woman in there. There’s a woman in every tree,” he professed. Like a well digger finding water with a divining rod, he would find the sculpture of a female form in each piece of wood. Hostetler seemed comforted by being in his barn, surrounded by knobby, lumpy hunks of trees. Metal racks on all four walls held giant logs from around the world: Indian Laurel from Sri Lanka, Cherry from Nantucket, and Zebra wood from South America. “If I had a magic lens, I’d show you the flowing gown and a figurehead image,” Hostetler said, pointing to one hunk of wood sitting upright on the floor.
Hostetler was an attractive old soul, a bearded, feisty, bandanna-wearing, eighty-two-year-old Renaissance man who laughs easily at himself. His rugged hands show the wear from thousands of gouges in wood over fifty years working as a sculptor. He was a modern-day Don Quixote—but instead of seeing a windmill as a dragon, he looked at a tree and saw the female form that lied within. He was one of America’s greatest living sculptors before his passing in late 2015.
The scope of his work includes 600 sculptures that stand in museums, private collections and galleries around the world, in front of the Trump Tower in New York and the Kennedy Library in Boston. His riveting story, born from a tumultuous generation that created a man with ardor in his work. Hostetler embodied a well-lived journey.
A woman lovely as a tree
It seems odd at first that women are the subject matter of every one of his sculptures. But as you listened to Hostetler, you became entangled in his fascination with the female form. “Women remain child-like with their voices and that softness… Women are the warmth, they are the ideal form, exotic yet pure, compositionally variable, yet identical every time. Life itself comes from woman.” Hostetler praised. “The rooster can strut around the barnyard, but it’s the hen that lays the egg.” He didn’t apologize for his obsession. “It has led me from the contemporary woman as mother, wife, nurturer, to vamp, seductress and queen,” Hostetler said.
He spent a lifetime studying women’s role in society. “This art form for me is constant discovery. This idea of women . . . I’m (always) searching to find answers. Now I’m back 4,000 years in the history of women. My focus is Near East with Minoan, Cretin and Cycladic imagery. I’m still looking,” said Hostetler. “It’s like Giacometti said, I’ll leave without the answer and that’s the way it should be, because it’s part of the evolutionary process.” But as you listened to him you would wonder if he actually did have his answer.
Small town momma’s boy
His humble beginnings were in the town of Beach City, Ohio, which offered neither a beach nor a city. He remembered his father as a brooding unhappy man who was raised Amish but left the sect because he considered the Amish “cowards” because they wouldn’t fight in World War I. His mother was nurturing, warm and protective. Hostetler was a self proclaimed momma’s boy, enamored with women early on.
He joined the Army at seventeen during World War II and tested so high on entrance exams that he was placed in a special unit to become an army engineer. His time studying for the army at Ohio University led him to what would become the loves of his life, woman and art. Hostetler’s military career was cut short by a training exercise that left shrapnel in his leg. His Army hospital bunkmate was a watercolor artist and with the offer of free art supplies from the Red Cross, Hostetler began drawing and discovered what would become his lifelong passion.
During his yearlong recovery in 1946 he was earning $20 each week from the military (known affectionately by veterans as the 52-20 club). He studied art history and learned how to live an artist’s lifestyle. “You could drink a lot of beer for $20 a week back then,” Hostetler chuckled. He audited classes at Cleveland University and was tutored casually by Albert Hise, an art historian and director of the Massillon (Ohio) Museum. “I fell in love with art history and Shakespeare that summer” said Hostetler.
His first immersion into the application of art was at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., where he met his mentor in Professor Karl Martz. In the first class, Martz masterfully turned three lumps of clay into beautiful vessels of varying shapes within minutes. Hostetler exclaimed, “You could make hundreds of them a day.” To which Martz softly replied “But who would want to?” With that statement Hostetler began to understand the nature of the true artist. Karl Martz’ soft and gentle demeanor had a lasting impact on the person that Hostetler has become. Hostetler also learned a great deal from the respected colony of artists near the university, known as the Brown County School.
Hostetler made a living in pottery in the late forties and early fifties with a large pottery operation in Athens, Ohio and a sales office at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. He believes his days as a potter were great training for his future as a sculpture because “pottery is about contour and potters also see silhouettes in shapes.”
Rekindling a vision
His fond memories of a quaint campus filled with beautiful women while studying to be an Army Engineer were like a siren call to Hostetler. He returned to Athens to obtain a masters degree in fine arts at Ohio University. He taught art there for more than thirty-five years and was known as a patient man who taught students to celebrate life with their art. His students include David True, Harvey Breverman and Jim Dine. Dine collaborated with Hostetler in his shop in Athens and in studios in New York City. Hostetler spent over a decade with Dine in New York City but left because he felt he was loosing touch with himself as an artist and as a person. Hostetler said, “I started not to know who the hell I was. It was a slippery slope. My agent at the time said, if you cross the Hudson River your history… and she was right. They don’t give out the prizes here in the woods (in Athens), but this is what I need,” Hostetler reflected. One of his students, Estrellita Karsh, describes Hostetler as “a divine human… funny, witty and a very good friend. David is the kind of man phonies copy.”
Hostetler felt “Most (artists) take a more time sensitive approach to producing their art in ways that doesn’t take months. “Time in America seems to be critical in our lifestyle at the moment. It isn’t for me. There is no wrist watch. Time on my wrist, I gave up years ago.” He is one of a handful of wood sculptors that still uses the old school approach of carving by hand with gouges. “The removal of the wood is a very mantra-esque act. I get into a rhythm just like playing the drums,” Hostetler said as he counted 4/4 time while taping away on his latest form. He was an avid jazz drummer but claims he doesn’t have the innate talent to achieve the desired sound on the drums. He was bewildered by his shortcomings as a musician juxtaposed to the ease in which he has created his sculptures and paintings. “I feel my limits in music but I don’t feel them in art,” Hostetler said.
The wondering Hostetler finds himself at home
“They say the teenage years are the toughest, but for me it was midlife. I tried to travel to find myself in the seventies but all I found was that wherever I traveled, I was still me, and my monkeys were still with me,” Hostetler states. He called that period of time his “butterfly years.” “I had fifteen years where I discarded my persona, hopped on a motorcycle and I was questing. I was moving from place to place and woman to woman. What I really discovered was that everything I wanted was here (at his studio). I am happiest here in my sandbox because I built it that way. I built my own Disney World,” Hostetler said. “Art is a mirror image of a person’s life discovery. My biggest discovery (then) was to activate my women,” Hostetler said. Hostetler accomplished some of his most popular work in this era including the Walking Woman and Dancing Lady series. These sculptures were different than his previous work because his “women” showed motion.
Hostetler gave freely to his life to his art, sacrificing relationships in that process. One of his girlfriends burst into his studio in the early 80’s and shouted, “You like your art better than me.” Hostetler could do nothing but agree with her. Hostetler has had many relationships with a wide variety of woman, many of whom who are immortalized in his work. He feels that it is difficult to “find your flower” and stay with the same person for 50 or 60 years. Hostetler believed “People don’t evolve or they evolve in different ways.” In 1983 Hostetler found his flower in Susan Crehan. The only prenuptial he demanded was that his art would always come first. She agreed and they married in 1986. He credited her with establishing the true value of his art to collectors. For the first time in his life, Hostetler heard bells. “I was vapors when I met her,” Hostetler confessed. After more than 20 years together their relationship inspired one of Hostetler’s greatest works in the 13-foot sculpture he named The Duo.
Hostetler believed that evolution has hardwired humans for destruction because we are a patriarchal society. “Religion is patriarchal not matriarchal,” according to Hostetler. He felt our society would be better served by being matriarchal. “I studied Judaism for almost ten years. When it came time to make that leap of faith to believe in that little man in the sky, I couldn’t do it… maybe if it was a little woman in the sky I could,” Hostetler professed. When pressed, he describes himself as a pantheist. His love of nature is undeniable.
Hostetler’s most prized possession was a gigantic pre-civil war oak tree on his farm. “I am enamored with wood. It’s a living material. Its own existence is recorded in its calendar of rings. Whenever I need a little more spiritual attitude, I go back and look at our roots which are after all – nature – from whence we came. Art is, for the most part, spiritual. ” Hostetler said. “(For) a worthwhile artist, their work is an autobiographical sketch of their life. It’s like the psychologist that is trying to discover who they are.” Hostetler hypothesizes. “Maybe (my art) is a search for the strength of women in all of us?” Hostetler added after a lengthy pause.
David Hostetler inspired because he was a man who went searching for who he was and found himself in his art. “I’ve been so blessed, but everybody is in a way.” He confided, “If you follow your bliss – It’s very hard to lose. Because you’ve got your passion and nobody can take it that from you – and that’s the gift.”