The Way to Stay “Creatively Unemployed” is to Never Stop Working

Most artists who’ve been working for 55 years have an audience in mind. But John D. Richards just takes the ideas he says “pop constantly” into his head, goes into the studio, and starts making stuff. 

If John D. Richards’ glowing folk-art lamps (opposite) look familiar, it’s because the artist has been a strong presence in the Southeast — and beyond — for at least three decades. Here he is pictured with a sculpture he calls his mother.
Portrait by Rachel Pressley

“Then,” he says, “I go see if I can sell it.” He’s best known for his whimsical figurative sculpture, including, most recently, “trash-assemblage fish, birds, people, frogs, bugs, rockets, and more.”

In 1963, Richards, who’s now in his eighties, quit his teaching job to study art and design at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, before starting a freelance career. He says he’s been “creatively unemployed” ever since. He began creating small sculptures of wizards, witches, and other figures in Plastalina (an oil- and wax-based clay) and casting them in pewter and plaster. 

Then he glued tissue paper on wire sculptures and lit them from within. “It was a hit,” he says. 

Cat
Photo by Rachel Pressley

His early successes included filling a display window with musical insects at Tiffany’s, to usher in New York’s symphony season. Puppeteer Jim Henson bought one of the artist’s mooseheads, and another one appeared (uncredited) in Playboy magazine. 

Next, Richards took to the road, setting up his tent on the craft-show circuit and doing around 30 shows a year until, he says, “[I] got too old and the tent fell apart.”

Alien Woman
Photo by Rachel Pressley

It sounds like a slog — and yet, to hear him tell it, Richards has crafted his life around quirky spontaneity. He met his wife Claudia Dunaway at a show in the early ’90s and immediately asked her to marry him. They did just that, in St. Augustine, Florida, seven months later. Then they opened a gallery in an old Victorian house near the heart of the city’s centuries-old historic district and dubbed it “The Temple of Great Art, No Spitting,” where Richards continued to sell his sculptures and Dunaway began making stoneware. 

The success of The Temple enabled them to stop doing shows, and allowed Dunaway to return to her love of making pottery. (She has since transitioned to wood-block printmaking.)

John working on a new collage.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

In 2002, they ventured north to Asheville to visit the founder of the Great Cosmic Happy Ass card company, Diane English, an artist they’d met when they all lived in St. Augustine. (English owned a New Age bookstore there called Dream Street.) By the next year, they’d sold their house in Florida and moved to a ten-acre property in Burnsville, opening their current gallery, Yummy Mud Puddle, that features their work plus handmade apparel and accessories by Kathryn Lynch.

Toys Were Us
Photo by Rachel Pressley

The couple also runs a vacation rental on the site, suggesting they’ve truly arrived. But Richards’ air is restless, not complacent. He needs to stay in motion. 

“I have lots of things I’ve made that sell below $50, and others that go for a couple of thousand,” he notes. “[But] when you raise prices, you sell few things. The way I do it is [to keep] working.”

Longevity is all about “the satisfaction of making people smile — and, of course, income.” Anything else readers should know? “I’m allergic to walnuts and raw pineapple.”

Fish Lamp
Photo by Rachel Pressley

Yummy Mud Puddle, the gallery of John D. Richards, Claudia Dunaway, and Kathryn Lynch, is located at 264 Clear View Lane in Burnsville, open by appointment (828-682-6567, yummymudpuddle.com) and during the Toe River Arts Studio Tour happening Friday, Dec. 6 through Sunday, Dec. 8, 10am-5pm (toeriverarts.org). Richards’ work is sold at dozens of venues, including the Toe River Arts Council galleries in Burnsville and Spruce Pine, Grovewood Gallery (grovewood.com), the shops of the Southern Highland Craft Guild (southernhighlandguild.org), Miya Gallery in Weaverville (miyagallery.com), Earthworks in Waynesville (earthworksgallery.squarespace.com), Seven Sisters in Black Mountain (sevensistersgallery.com), and Garage on 25 in Fletcher (garageon25.com). 

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