Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN


June 21, 2012

Liberty shares sweeping creations with public

CROSSVILLE — With a surname of Liberty — once "La Liberte" before his French grandfather emigrated to Canada  — and a first name inspired by the French Pirate and legend-making swashbuckler Jean LaFitte, Jean Liberty seemed named for notoriety. 

For a man who would later specialize in mobile art, his early years and professional life were anything but stationary.

Liberty was a "navy brat." He grew up in Connecticut and northern Virginia (Fairfax County), where he met his wife, and served four years in the Navy, flying anti-submarine patrol planes. After marrying, he got his engineering degree at Virginia Tech, which led to a career in the aerospace industry back in Connecticut. One of his achievements was developing the backpack our astronauts carried on the moon.

Later in his career, he worked with Air Products and Chemicals in Allentown, PA. Seven of the 28 years he was with the organization were spent in Asia —  China, Thailand and Korea — working on semi-conductors and computer chips. "I'm still fascinated by foreign cultures," he says.

As a mechanical engineer, he was involved in structural testing.

"... I saw the artistic beauty of well-designed mechanisms fitted together in precise geometric patterns," he said.

He and his wife, Sandy, moved to Fairfield Glade in 2001 to be near his wife's mother in Pleasant Hill. A relative newcomer to sculpture, Liberty credits his mother-in-law, who was a watercolor artist, with encouraging his art. "She made a fuss over me." This was after he designed a piece for her, and that led to the creation of many more pieces.

His years as an engineer contributed to his design sense, which can be described as abstract with sweeping lines. "The equipment that we built had miles of piping, and there's a beauty and symmetry to all of that." Iconic American artist and sculptor Alexander Calder, who invented the mobile, also influenced Liberty's designs.

"Inspiration for abstract sculpture is all around us..." he stated. "The curves and flow of my sculptures come from nature: waves, birds, clouds, rivers, trees and the bend of wheat on a windy field. There is beauty everywhere; if you file enough of this away in your memory, you have an infinite source of abstract designs."

The sculptor assigns names to some of his creations (somewhat reluctantly), but leaves other pieces nameless, encouraging people to use their own imagination.

"Magical Harp" purchased by four local ladies, is on loan from the new Art Circle Public Library. It remains one of Jean's personal favorites. He has been commissioned to create several pieces for buyers, preferring to see where the piece will be placed before he does any work.

In all his pieces, he aims to create art that is "pleasing for the eye" and fitting for the location, as opposed to making a statement, (the current trend in today's sculpture shows).

Most artists have a process  — and Liberty is no different. After making a rough sketch of an idea, he then produces a 3-D model using cardboard or metal. But inspiration can strike 24/7.

"Sometimes an idea for a sculpture comes to me in the middle of the night ,and I must get up and sketch it... before I can go back to sleep," he said.

But he leaves plenty of room for his unfinished inspiration to inspire its own conclusion.

"The early masters of sculpture had a theory that inside every stone there is a beautiful shape, and it is up to the sculptor to reveal it by cutting away the outside stone. I believe that metal is similar; you learn to feel the material and work with it and eventually, it tells you the shape it wants to assume," Liberty said.

Liberty does his own welding, provided the piece is fairly small. One of his more difficult pieces by virtue of its size, a 14 ft. high piece, anchored by Crab Orchard stone, greets visitors to the Plateau Creative Arts Center in Fairfield Glade. This massive piece required an industrial grade tool to roll the curves.

Local Crab Orchard stone fascinates Liberty. The stratified stone of rose, tan and pink hues is so unique that the artist frequently used it as a focal point of his sculpture. The reflective metal surfaces of his creations add depth and light and soften the natural beauty of the stone. The positioning of metal with stone makes the metal appear to grow out of the stone, producing a single organic structure.

When the school kids come through the exhibit — there have been more than 400 kids tour the show — their eyes light up. One mesmerized little girl, taking in all the creations in the room, gushed in wonder, "You are awesome!"

He enjoys teaching kids that art is for everybody.

"You don't have to be a great painter or good at drawing...," he noted, "or go to school for years to be good at it. I don't subscribe to the notion that an artist is born. I think creative ability is like a muscle — you have to exercise it to develop it."

He and Sandy, who dabbles in watercolor herself, are both active in the Fairfield Glade Art Guild. They travel frequently, taking in an art show every chance they get. For their one big trip this year, they'll visit Sicily and Malta in September.

"Every experience you have adds to your imagination," he mused.

Liberty's work has been exhibited in Chattanooga at the Association for Visual Arts and at River City Co. through the Art in the Workplace program. Liberty serves on the boards of the Red Cross and Cumberland Artisans for Creative Expression (CACE).

The public is warmly invited to see Liberty's sculpture show at Shanks Center for the Arts, 140 North Main St. in Crossville. Hours to visit are Thursdays, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Fridays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday, also from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. There is no cost for admission. The show runs through June 30. Come and be inspired.

You may reach the artist in Fairfield Glade by emailing him at

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