Art imitating life

From battles with the KKK as a youngster to fighting cancer as an adult, Tel Aviv artist Richard Minns isn't done just yet.

richard minns 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
richard minns 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
'I was born in Granger, Texas; population 1,500. It was Ku Klux Klan country. When I was about six years old, my dad had a chain of convenience stores. It was the height of the Depression, and he was the only one around making money. He had a big sign in the window that said, 'We sell to everyone, regardless of race, color, or creed.' He gave a turkey to everyone around who named their sons George. So, the town was full of black kids named George… Anyway, my dad was making money while everyone else was bankrupt, he was selling to blacks and Hispanics when these people weren't even allowed in the other stores, and he was married to a Jewish woman. "Well, one night our whole house was suddenly lit up. I looked outside and there was a huge cross burning on the lawn, and 12 hooded Klansmen on horseback calling for my father to come out of the house. My mother said, 'Don't go out there George, or they'll kill you for sure. "Well, my father had won a medal for valor during World War I. He went right on outside. The leader of the group had a gun pointed right at my father's head. All of a sudden, a single shot rang out from behind us, and the leader slumped in his saddle and then fell off his horse. And my grandfather, who was a man of no words, spoke the longest speech I ever heard from him. He pointed his buffalo long-rifle at the Klansmen and said, 'You men take off your hoods. I always like to look a man in the eye before I kill him.' "They took right off, leaving their leader lying on the ground. I looked up at my grandfather and asked, 'What's going to happen now?' And he just said, 'Nothing, son. It's finished.' And sure enough, that was it. They never bothered us again." As one listens to this story, told matter-of-factly in a luxurious apartment in north Tel Aviv by an elderly sculptor on the eve of a major exhibition of his work, one can only wonder at the long, winding trail that has led this extraordinary individual from there to here. As the artist continues his story in a soft Texas drawl, the late morning sunshine bursting through the windows illuminates a room full of vivid bronze sculpture pieces depicting Biblical scenes and Greek myths. The visitor, listening to the story and gazing at the sculpture, is reminded of a line from a Grateful Dead song: "…lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it's been." Richard Minns was born almost 79 years ago and grew up in rural Texas. He is the grandson of an Irish pioneer who, Minns says, came to Texas as an Indian scout in a covered wagon; and the son of a man who, still a bachelor in his 40s, did some research and decided that Jewish women made the best wives, mothers and homemakers. Thus did George Minns come to court and marry young Ethel, one of the 10 unmarried daughters of his friend Benjamin Goldberg. George promised Ethel that their children would be raised as Jews. Minns recalls, "When I was born in Granger, my parents had to travel many miles to find a rabbi to do the circumcision. We were the only Jewish people living around there, and I didn't know any other Jewish people. And I didn't meet any other Jewish people until I was in boarding school. That's when I discovered that I was Jewish." Not only did Minns first meet other Jewish boys at the San Antonio Military Institute, but it was there, and later at the Peacock Military Academy, that he became seriously involved in sports - largely as a hedge and protection against the virulent anti-Semitism of that time. Minns's absorption with sports ultimately won him a football scholarship to the University of Texas, where he took a pre-med course in the hope of becoming a doctor, like all the men in his mother's family. Fate had other plans, however, as Minns experienced an epiphany while watching The Hucksters, a 1947 movie about life in a Madison Avenue advertising agency, starring Clark Gable. So strongly did Minns identify with the character played by Gable - both of whom, in the character's words, "starting out life with an even nothing" - that Minns resolved then and there to become a writer. He eventually received a BA in journalism and an internship at the Houston Chronicle. Minns soon became the editor of the Chronicle's magazine section, wrote a regular fitness column called "Live Longer and Better," and taught several classes in journalism at the University of Houston. Minns then opened what was to become a highly successful advertising and public relations agency. A chain of health clubs became one of his major clients. The chain later went bankrupt and offered Minns three of its outlets in lieu of money they owed him. At that time, however, "health clubs" - still in their infancy - were mostly called "gyms" and were located in America's inner cities. Minns - armed with a background in sports, medicine, management and marketing - took the gyms and immediately began to reposition them into a different, more upscale market. Minns's three gyms soon grew into a chain of "clubs," "studios" and "spas" for both men and women. His Presidents and First Lady health clubs (named after John and Jacqueline Kennedy) grew to become the largest chain of fitness centers in the United States. Minns became famous as a fantastically wealthy "multimillionaire Houston health-club tycoon" whose colorful life, loves and exploits were breathlessly covered by armies of news reporters and paparazzi. These days, it is a quieter and more reflective Richard Minns who greets visitors to his rambling flat near the Tel Aviv Museum. Minns's sculpture fills much of the available floor space; his paintings, both oil and watercolor, line the walls. Bookshelves seem to sag and groan under the weight of large art portfolio editions of Renaissance and modern masters, as well as an eclectic array of books on human anatomy, Biblical studies, as well as ancient and classical mythology. Minns speaks softly and slowly, often seeming to measure each word. He is elderly, but not old. His body remains trim and "health-club hard," and his arms are still well-muscled. Having sold his chain of health clubs several years ago, Minns is now retired. Diagnosed with cancer four years ago, he is presently in remission, and almost single-mindedly devoted to creating works of art. "I've had 14 different careers, and I've been retired that many times," he says. His current obsession with art began with his last retirement, after he sold his clubs and was living in London with his third wife, Mary. First came painting, which he studied at the Hampstead Academy, and then sculpture, which he studied for two years at the Avni Institute of Art in Bet Yanai after making aliya with Mary almost nine years ago. About a third of Minns's oeuvre is inspired by Greek and Roman mythology; the goddess Diana is a persistent theme. The rest of his current work depicts subjects and events from the Bible. Is he religious? Minns explains, "I'm pushing 79, and four years ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I'm not even supposed to be here today. With all that going on, I'm afraid of getting too much scientific logic, because I need something to lean on. I think Abraham Lincoln said that as far as religion is concerned, you take as much as you can by logic and the rest by faith. So, yes, I do have faith and I do pray." Asked whether he thinks Biblical narrative is literal truth or metaphor, Minns replies, "I believe it's a comfort." The pieces themselves are quite visually compelling. Minns says, "I follow in the footsteps of the Old Masters," and Michelangelo and Rodin are both very evident influences. Like theirs, Minns's sculpture is obviously well informed by a precise knowledge of human anatomy, especially the body's musculature. Unlike the "masters" however, Minns's works have a distinct postmodern edginess, coupled with an unmistakable anger that sometimes seems to border on rage. Moses sees the Golden Calf and furiously throws the Tablets of the Law to the ground. David decapitates the defeated Goliath and throws his head back with a look of exultation, his left arm extended in a gesture of murderous triumph. The intense emotion, united with each figure's raw physical power, make the sculptures seem as though they are about to explode. Completely three dimensional, the pieces almost seem to move. One can almost see the Ten Commandments tumbling out of an enraged Moses's hand and hear the tablets smashing on the ground. Another piece, entitled "Samson Slays the Lion," appears to be almost a live wrestling match between man and beast, in which the outcome is still very much in doubt. In addition to an intense awareness of the human body and how it moves, Minns has put a bit of himself into each piece. He says that he created his Moses - whose face is consumed with anguish - at precisely the time that he himself was in anguish over being diagnosed with cancer. His David's face glows with exultation - reflecting his own exultation at being told that his cancer was in remission. "The greatest gift to my career as a sculptor was when I found out I had cancer," he says. "Not only did my work reflect my own emotions, but it made me bury myself in my studio, focusing all of my attention on each piece. Everything I did, I thought it would be the last thing I was going to do on this earth. I just put my heart and soul into it, thinking that this is what I'll be remembered for. I think that raised my level of skill to a point it would have taken 20 years to reach otherwise." The rather complicated process by which these sculptures are made is every bit as dramatic as the pieces themselves. Minns makes his initial carving on a type of soft synthetic clay called plasticina, which, according to Minns, "is a lot like Play-Doh." The sculpture is then divided into 30 sections, and a special silicon mold is made of each one. Each mold is a convex negative impression, into which hot molten wax is poured. Each wax section is then fine-tuned and reassembled into a complete wax replica of the original plasticina figure. The wax sculpture is then again cut up into 30 sections, each of which is covered with ceramics, which are then cast into bronze. The 30 bronze sections are once again fine-tuned, reassembled, placed on a pedestal and covered with a patina-like color that is baked into the statue. The sculpture is now finished. Is Richard Minns finished? Does he plan to finally decide that "retirement" is indeed retirement and start taking things a little easier after the upcoming exhibition in Tel Aviv? "Hell no," is his unequivocal reply. "What have I got - maybe another five years? I plan to continue to sculpt, to get back into painting, and to continue to throw myself into each and every creation as though it were my last." Richard Minns's sculpture will be exhibited at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center, 19 Shaul Hamelech Avenue, from January 20 to February 24 2008. Sun. - Thurs. 8:30 a.m. -8:30 p.m., Fri. 8:30-1:00 p.m.