Local Treasures: John McIntire – Memphis Magazine


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Many Memphians know John McIntire, and you can bet he knows most of them back, including the students he encountered during a quarter-century of teaching painting and sculpture at the now-defunct Memphis College of Art (MCA). There may not be another soul among us who so exudes conviviality, nor a mind that can catalog so many names, dates, and facts: never quite fixed, but suspended as in a slow-motion whirlwind, held in place by McIntire’s creative will and eye for detail.

“I can remember everything everyone says,” he tells me matter-of-factly. “My father could, too.”

His memory becomes apparent as he guides you through his home in Cooper-Young. From a yard like a sculpture garden that’s seen better days, he leads you inside, as if entering an archaeological site, where McIntire peels back the strata of piles of papers, books, or sketches. Or polished rocks. Or fine china. Or wind-up toys. Or — it goes without saying — more sculptures. He’ll then recall nearly every detail of any photo or sketch or curio from those stacks. Unlike so many who struggle with a fading memory, his has seemingly grown more powerful over his 86 years.

All of which makes McIntire’s residence a veritable national heritage site — or should, given his role as a catalyst and curator of the Memphis counterculture, to say nothing of the acclaim he’s won as a sculptor. A saner world would earmark his many collections for the Smithsonian, and if that seems a bit out of touch, there’s much in his approach to life that may lead you to question the world’s lucidity, not his.

Back in tiny Wellsville, Ohio, his father would joke that they found baby John on a rock. That mythic beginning is quite in keeping with the surreal childhood that he remembers.

“I’ve been drawing since I was five,” he says. “My first paints came from the city dump. I was living with all the Italian kids and Black kids. We played in the city dump all the time, and I found little boxes of pastels from France, and little teeny tubes of oil paints. I found out later they had come from the Tru-Tagg Paint Company in Memphis. Anyway, I gave them to my mother and she put them away, because I was too young to know what to do with them.”

Most of the ten McIntire kids played sports except John’s eldest brother, who had a passion for art. “He was an artist who was going to draw for Walt Disney. He didn’t play sports like my other brothers did. I played baseball.” He also had a knack for engine repair, and when a Chicago millionaire landed his private plane in a nearby field, John’s brother, Morgan, only a month away from graduation and his job with Disney, helped him with engine repairs. The millionaire took a liking to him and offered him a ride, a thrilling prospect in small-town Ohio, circa 1940.

In fact, the whole town was soon taken with the talent this young artist revealed, eventually taking up a collection to send him to the Carnegie Institute of Technology, now known as Carnegie-Mellon University.

“My mother tried to make him stay home, and not go out to see this airplane in the cornfield,” McIntire recalls. Her trepidation was all too justified when the plane took too many loops too close to the ground, and both pilot and passenger were killed. “My older brother died in that crash when I was five. My mother told me about it, and said, ‘He was falling out of the sky.’”

Something about the trauma caused McIntire to turn to the art Morgan had so loved. He thought of the paints he had found at the dump. “My mother had put them in the sewing machine drawer,” he says. “I knew they had something to do with art. So just after my brother had died, I went and got them out. She had an antique table she got from her mother, with big fancy legs, and I copied one of the legs with the oil paints.”

Wellsville was also home to a ceramics industry. “There were like, 14 sterling china shops up and down the river there,” says McIntire. “And they’d give me clay and plaster and stuff. I’d get my little wagon and drag it down. And then I saw a Life magazine with a story about Michelangelo, and the head of David on one of the pages, so I copied that in clay. I copied the head of David, down to the curls and everything. My mother couldn’t believe it!”

In fact, the whole town was soon taken with the talent this young artist revealed, eventually taking up a collection to send him to the Carnegie Institute of Technology, now known as Carnegie-Mellon University. While he didn’t take to that, he wound up studying at the nearby College of Steubenville, then the Cleveland Institute of Art, and finally at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. And if none of those institutions ended up bestowing a degree on McIntire, he did just fine without one, thanks to the freewheeling spirit of what was then known as the Memphis Art Academy, and the man who’d directed it since 1949.

Ted Rust hired me in 1961,” McIntire recalls of the man who would be his boss for years to come. “He just called me up. I didn’t know where I was going. I didn’t have any degrees or anything. He said, ‘We heard about you. Just come down here.’ So they flew me down. My mother and father were panicky, because my brother was killed in an airplane. But my father put a suit on me, and my mother made me a tie. She ran in the house and made a tie real fast! She could really sew. She raised all of us kids by her sewing. My father was a Dapper Dan.

“So they put me on the airplane in Pittsburgh,” he continues. “You had to walk all the way out to the airplane, and my mother was crying. And my father was there. Almost no one else was on the airplane. I told the stewardess, ‘This is exciting! I’ve never been on a plane before!’ Then I could hear two men talking up at the front of the plane, and the stewardess came to the back and she was terrified.

“I said, ‘What the heck is wrong?’ She said, ‘We’re flying over a tornado.’ But we were above it, and you could see this big, flat black thing, everything swirling. I just thought that was fantastic! It reminded me of a flea in a big bale of cotton. I said, ‘Can I take this seatbelt off?’ And she said, ‘I don’t care what you do!’”

That impulse came to full flower as he settled into Memphis. Having identified with those on the margins of society since his days playing in the Wellsville dump, he took that openness to the next level as the sixties wore on.

Those words perfectly foreshadowed the life he was to enjoy in Memphis, which he has very much lived with the seatbelts off. At the MCA, he joined other teachers who became iconic names in the Memphis art world: Burton Callicott, Dolph Smith, Veda Reed, Murray Riss, and many others. But even surrounded by that talent, he started off gingerly, still feeling his oats.

“I came down from Ohio with two suitcases, and a hammer and a chisel. When I had my class, I’d write something on the board and all the students were just sitting there. Rust said, ‘No, you’ve got to talk!’ Then once I started talking I couldn’t stop. I ended up singing in my classes.” He says the last quip, as he says many things, with a mischievous gleam in his eye. In his disheveled overcoat and plaster-stained pants, there’s always a bit of a dare in his demeanor.

That impulse came to full flower as he settled into Memphis. Having identified with those on the margins of society since his days playing in the Wellsville dump, he took that openness to the next level as the sixties wore on. As local filmmaker and comic artist (and former McIntire student) Mike McCarthy notes, “I didn’t know the first thing about John, personally, until I read Robert Gordon’s book, It Came From Memphis. And then I thought, ‘That was my teacher?’ He had all these interests in the counterculture, and yet was older than the counterculture, really.”

Gordon’s book traces the evolution of the underground arts and music scene in Memphis, a sort of shadow world lurking behind the shiny pop success of Sun and Stax Records, growing out of folk and blues fandom and an abiding interest in psychedelics. And McIntire, it turned out, was at the heart of that scene. As with much in his life, his dreams helped him find his way.

“Up in Michigan, I had a dream about having a coffeehouse with folk singers and all this stuff,” he says. So there was a shock of recognition when a new friend of his in Memphis casually remarked, “We ought to start a coffee house.” That would become the Bitter Lemon, a tiny place tucked into a row of shops at Poplar and Humes, which became ground zero for the folk music crowd that was coalescing here. Meanwhile, McIntire’s own home in Overton Square (where Ballet Memphis stands today) became a hub in its own right, with the unassuming art teacher welcoming any and all who wished to crash there.

In Gordon’s book, the late musician and New York Times music critic Robert Palmer describes the milieu: “McIntire was like a non-guru. He was a bit older than everybody else, he had this great visual eye and this unlimited tolerance for weirdness. I think of his place over there on Madison, Beatnik Manor, as having been like a salon for artists. … From night to night it was hard to tell who lived there and who didn’t. The epicenter of the Memphis beatnik scene was for sure with McIntire. And it wasn’t really anything he said or did, although he could be incredibly charming and funny. His attitude was like, ‘I’m doing art, here’s my house, you know, rock on.’”

McIntire himself was only an occasional participant in the mental excursions of LSD trips. For him, tripping was more like a continuation of otherworldly journeys he’d taken since he was a teenager: out-of-body experiences.

As it turned out, such epicenters were still a rare and magical thing in the early- to mid-sixties, in any city. Beyond having musicians like Sid Selvidge or Lee Baker sharing the stage with the likes of bluesman Furry Lewis, there was an openness to new “experiences” that weren’t necessarily born of pure hedonism. It was a time when Owsley Stanley, a San Francisco chemist, drew underground acclaim and/or notoriety for pioneering the mass production of LSD, and, it turned out, Memphis was hip to it long before other parts of the country, due to one man in particular. As McIntire says, “We had it right from Owsley. Owsley’s old roommate was living with me.” With channels to San Francisco wide open, elements of the art and folk scene started to get weirder.

During folk times, [the Bitter Lemon] was folkie,” Lee Baker told Gordon. “And when the psychedelic thing began, McIntire painted the whole inside psychedelic.” And yet McIntire himself was only an occasional participant in the mental excursions of LSD trips. For him, tripping was more like a continuation of otherworldly journeys he’d taken since he was a teenager: out-of-body experiences.

“I was going to school in Steubenville when that first happened,” McIntire explains. “I was looking at this body laying there in the bed. And I said, ‘God, I wonder who that is?’ And then I noticed the lightbulb that hung from the ceiling over my bed. [The room] was above my daddy’s dry cleaning shop. I lived up there with the hot water tanks.” The body was his own. “And then I was leaving the house. I was going out into the sky. And then, when I returned to my body, it was like a vacuum cleaner pulling a feather. Shooop! Back through the door, which was just a crack open, so my mother could call me and get me up in the morning to get ready for school.”

Such experiences have peppered his life ever since. “I can get myself into a state of numbness,” he says, “and I’ll fall asleep and all of a sudden I’m up. I remember one time about a month ago, I went out that door and into the kitchen, and then I was going out the window in the kitchen. And I realized, ‘Oh man, I’m having an out-of-body experience.’ And as soon as I realized it, I went shzoom, right back into bed. You zip right back.”

All along the way, the whole point of McIntire’s life has been pursuing his art. At a certain time, he told Gordon, “I never did [LSD] anymore. I had goals. I wanted to be an artist and I didn’t want to let that get in my road. A lot of these kids were younger, had no goals, and went looking for heavier stuff and killed themselves. We lost a lot of friends.” Despite such losses, though, McIntire remains open to such states of mind. “It just opens your eyes,” he tells me. “That’s why I think everybody should take LSD at least once.” He pauses. “Unless you’re brain-damaged,” he adds with a smile.

Indeed, the art itself has remained front and center throughout his life, tending toward the non-representational since he first attended college in Steubenville. “I was a realist when I went to art school,” he remembers. “And everybody laughed at my work. They said, ‘God, you’re about 500 years behind!’ And I looked at other people’s work, and they were doing nice abstracts and so on. But I picked up their style right away.”

Even while he was teaching at the art academy, he was creating commissioned works for the likes of Elvis Presley, Isaac Tigrett, and even the city itself. “In 1977, I finished the statue out in front of city hall. It’s 21 feet high and over 10,000 pounds.” Titled “The Muse,” it helped to bolster McIntire’s reputation as a world-class artist. “Everybody said I was the Henry Moore of the South,” he laughs. Yet it’s hardly McIntire’s best-known work. That would arguably be the statue Elvis Presley commisioned in 1965, a Christ figure for the Meditation Garden at Graceland.

“When I made that life-sized statue of Jesus, I couldn’t sleep. I stayed up three weeks,” McIntire remembers. “Elvis’ people came on the sixth of December and said they wanted it by Christmas Eve. I said, ‘Do you know how long it takes to do something like that? Maybe a year!’ But I stayed up day and night. And sure enough, they came on Christmas Eve in a big black limousine. ‘We need it now!’ I said, ‘Well I’m still working on it!’ But they just put it up on their shoulders and ran out the door.

“And Elvis’ bodyguards made up this little poem that was printed on the plaque on the bottom. Jerry Chisolm, my roommate, added that. Beautiful work. But Elvis never liked it. He said the inscription made him seem equal to Jesus, somehow. I forget how it was worded. But Elvis kept saying, ‘You’ve got to change the wording on there, John. You’ve got to take it off.’”

McIntire never got around to it. “Well, years later,” he says, “Elvis’ cousin Billy Smith told me, ‘John, lightning hit it! It went through the statue, and blew the base all to pieces. But we saved the sculpture.’ They just had another base made. I said, ‘Billy, Elvis is dead. You ought to write that down and send it to one of those magazines or something.’ But anyway, Elvis was happy with it!”

McIntire lets out a chuckle as he ponders the odds and ends surrounding him in his home, his own works in marble, wood, resin, and rough-hewn stone scattered among the knick-knacks of a lifetime, many of them found at garage and estate sales. “I’ve done almost 1,000 works since I’ve been in Memphis. Mostly all sculptures,” he says. Having left the MCA in 1985, he’s made a living selling his works ever since.

But now he needs to start work on his hand-drawn Christmas cards, which he’s made for friends and family since he was 11. I bid him farewell, and run into Mike McCarthy around the corner. I ask him if, when he was a student at MCA, McIntire had moved completely beyond realism in his work. McCarthy raises an eyebrow. “Well, yeah.” He pauses and smiles with approval. “In his everyday life and thinking, he was beyond realism. For John McIntire, just going to lunch is surreal.”

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