Photo of a carving titled Miss America Contest (ca. 1990s)
Miss America Contest (ca. 1990s). Photograph courtesy of John Cross.

Carving His Niche

Former ad executive John Cross, โ€™60, evolved his lifelong passion for wood carving into a thriving career as an artist.

There’s a crowd in the living room at the upstate New York farmhouse of artist John Cross, ’60. Next to an opera star, there’s a woman playing a viola. Nearby are two swimmers, one in a swan dive. Of course, these figures are all sculptures that Cross, a retired advertising executive, has carved from soft Sugar Pine wood. “They’re poised, getting ready to act,” Cross said of his creations. “I like that about carving, as opposed to trying to create a gesture of running or speed.”

The passion that started with Cross’s childhood hobby of whittling has evolved into a successful art career. Having exhibited in numerous galleries in New York and beyond since the 1970s, Cross has a new show opening December 20, 2016, at the National Arts Club in Manhattan.

“I always had a real desire to be an artist,” Cross said. “I enjoyed sitting with a piece of wood and a knife. I enjoy carving people, and I do it to this day.” After moving to Montreal from New Jersey as a boy, Cross found inspiration from wood carvings of sea captains in Canadian store windows. However, his muse wasn’t the ocean, but Willie Mays and the New York Giants. “I stayed in touch with sports in the states with SPORT magazine,” he said. “It had lots of pictures and I used that as a source for my carving. I read it like the Bible.”

Along with numerous baseball players, Cross’s work includes famous faces such as Abraham Lincoln, Pablo Picasso (sculpted in Champlain black marble), Luciano Pavarotti, and Willie Nelson. His art appears in the collections of the Smithsonian, the American Folk Art Museum, and the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His pieces have commanded between $6,000 and $8,000.

While Cross dreamed of being an artist, his father foresaw a different path. After excelling as an economics major at Middlebury College, Cross earned a scholarship to Chicago Booth. “My father asked me what I wanted to do with my life,” he recalled. “My brother studied nuclear physics at Yale, and I said I wanted to be an artist. My dad said, ‘That’s ridiculous.’”

Hyde Park proved a culture shock, in a good way. “I was so impressed with the shift from a solid, rural liberal arts school in Vermont to this quite serious academic endeavor,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is really serious, these people are not playing around.’ I enjoyed that.”

Photo of a carvings titled Self-Portrait (2010) and Goodbye Joe (2014) Goodbye Joe (2014) and Self-Portrait (2010). Photographs courtesy of John Cross.

At Booth, Cross became an assistant to professor Gary A. Steiner, AM ’54, PhD ’57 (Psychology), a “wonderful guy” who did research for ad agencies. “The whole concept of writing commercials and coming up with advertising lines fascinated me,” Cross said. After graduation, he enthusiastically embarked on what turned into a 35-year advertising career.

Over the decades in his advertising job, Cross brought his bag of honed knives and blocks of wood along for the downtime on commercial shoots. “I would sit on the set listening to the performances and whittle at the same time,” he said. “I would come back from the West Coast with a bag full of figures.”

In the early 1990s, Cross retired from advertising, but he has continued his art career. “People were going into galleries buying my things,” he said. “I said, ‘Heck, this is pretty good, I could keep doing this.’”

Along with his wife, Linda—an established painter who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and met Cross during his time at Booth—Cross is active in an artists’ residency in the Hudson Valley, the Omi International Arts Center. The not-for-profit arts organization offers residency programs for international visual artists, writers, translators, musicians, and dancers.

Now in his 80s, Cross said his passion for turning wood blocks into figures poised for action hasn’t flagged. “Carving is as much a part of my life as it was when I was working,” he said. “I was at it all the time, and I am still at it all the time. I just stay with it and I love it.”

View Cross’s art at carriehaddadgallery.com and view a video about Cross and his work at wmht.com.

 —By Sam Jemielity