A world at his fingertips

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts presents Determined to Be: The Sculpture of John Rhoden

5 minute read
Graceful gold-toned metal bust of a beautiful woman’s face, against a blue backdrop in the gallery.
A partner and muse: sculptor John Rhoden made many works depicting his wife, Richenda, including the undated ‘Richanda.’ (Courtesy of PAFA; photo by Adrian Cubillas.)

The world was John Rhoden’s studio. In Determined to Be: The Sculpture of John Rhoden, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts presents the first comprehensive retrospective of the sculptor and international envoy, who absorbed cultures and networked with artists from Zanzibar to Uzbekistan.

Consisting of more than 70 sculptures and abundant archival material, the exhibit depicts Rhoden (1916-2001) as a creative extrovert who found inspiration everywhere he went. From his youth in Birmingham, Alabama, where he was encouraged by muralist and painter Hale Woodruff, to New York, where sculptor Raymond Barthé emphasized learning anatomy, to international study in Rome and work as an art specialist for the US State Department, to living in Indonesia on a Rockefeller Foundation grant, Rhoden eagerly traversed the globe through the 1950s and early 1960s, fusing experience into his practice.

Seeing in three dimensions

Rhoden’s earliest interaction with clay was sliding down a dampened Alabama hillside. Soon, he found better uses for wet clay: “It seemed a wonderful thing to take huge handfuls and shape it … Even then it was exciting and, even then, I knew it was sculpture.”

Works demonstrate the range of natural materials that, in Rhoden’s hands, became ancestral spirits, iconic symbols, and architectural landmarks. Invictus (1948), a rosewood bust of a determined man, is one of his earliest works in wood. In the early 1960s, those grew to monumental proportions under the influence of Indonesian sculpture Rhoden encountered as he worked with native artists to build a bronze foundry in Bandung.

“In three dimensions,” he wrote in 1987, “the wood object causes the viewer to move around it, thereby recreating the natural force [inherent in the living tree] and completing the circle.”

Two stone sculptures, Cloud Woman (1947) in alabaster and Contentment (c. 1950s) in jade, illustrate Rhoden’s stylistic transition into abstraction. The figures’ blissful and fully detailed faces are nestled amid pillowy suggestions of breasts, hips, and legs. “Once I shaped a piece of marble into a torso and when it was finished … someone touched it and said it felt like flesh,” Rhoden commented in a 1966 interview. “Well, I said, this is the way it ought to be; this is what I feel too. And I knew it was because of the love and care that went into creating it.”

Rhoden’s partner and muse

Nowhere is the love infused in Rhoden’s sculpture more apparent than in the varied iterations of his wife, Richenda Phillips Rhoden, whom he met at Columbia University. The couple married in 1954 in Rome, where Rhoden was completing a residency at the American Academy, the first Black visual artist to do so.

Richenda (1917-2016) painted throughout her long life. Though she rarely exhibited her canvasses, she occasionally collaborated with her husband and twice showed with him. Richenda also assisted Rhoden with administrative chores connected to his career, traveled with him, and clearly inspired him. Her presence threads through his work, appearing in busts of bronze and wood (Richanda, undated, Portrait of Richanda, 1962), as a monumental nude (Richanda, 1975), in the bronze guise of Eve (1957), and Seated Figure (1958). Always, there is the elegant chignon at the nape of her neck, a sign of her dance background, the poised demeanor of a model, which she’d been, and usually, a joyous smile. (Rhoden used the spelling Richanda in titles.)

Richenda's influence is also reflected in Indigenous themes in Sky Father Earth Mother (c. 1958), based on Navajo sand paintings of godly portals, and Nesaika (c. 1976), a bronze commissioned for the opening of the African American Museum in Philadelphia. Richenda’s parents, from the Cherokee and Menominee Indigenous tribes, met at Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

Black & white photo of Rhoden working shirtless outdoors, using metal tools on a large, rough wooden sculpture.
John and Richenda Rhoden spent two years living in Indonesia where Rhoden studied traditional wood carving as he worked with native artists to build a bronze foundry. (Courtesy of PAFA.)

Determined to Be presents varied archival material. The Rhodens’ passports are here, as are letters, exhibition booklets, and an urgent 1953 message from John, traveling in Seoul, South Korea, asking Richenda to forward additional application materials to Guggenheim evaluators. The missive, in telegram format, is accompanied by a handwritten envelope in Rhoden’s beautiful script—a footnote on communication forms now as remote as hieroglyphics.

A painful work

Moving through the exhibit, viewers encounter photos of the Rhodens as they crisscrossed the globe, the kind any well-traveled tourist would take. There are also films of Rhoden sculpting and of Adam Jenkins describing the restoration of Slave Ship (1989), the work Rhoden almost walked away from.

Slave Ship is a departure from the exhibit’s palpable joy. Rhoden almost abandoned the bronze sculpture because researching it was so painful. It is the size of a medium tabletop, a shallow basin layered with prone human figures crammed so tightly they might be cords of wood. You have to look carefully to see that there are three layers of people, one atop another, chained together, a wreath of agony from which there was no release: they either died in transit or arrived to die slowly, enslaved. At the hull’s open center, two posts are joined by a crossbeam. More humans are tied to the posts and one hangs from the beam. Slave Ship is breathtaking and horrifying.

An accessible legacy

In 2017, the Rhoden estate named PAFA to preserve and promote the sculptor’s artistic legacy. The institution received more than 275 works and a trove of archival material. A curatorial team set to work, led by Brittany Webb, PAFA curator of Twentieth Century Art and the John Rhoden Collection. A National Endowment for the Humanities grant was secured, and an online portal was established, providing free public access to a curated selection of 5,000 digitized objects, including art, photographs, color slides, and documents. The site is organized by Rhoden’s activities as a global citizen, community anchor, and creator of public art, with areas devoted to Richenda, Rhoden’s artist network, and a search tool to enable research.

Rhoden breathed life into inanimate substances, persuading stone to become flesh, releasing expression from wood, and rendering emotion in bronze. Determined to Be breathes new life into Rhoden’s artistic voice, enabling him to continue speaking to us.

What, When, Where

Determined to Be: The Sculpture of John Rhoden. Through April 7, 2024, at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Hamilton Building, 128 North Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 972-7600 or pafa.org.


PAFA’s two buildings and adjoining plaza are wheelchair- and stroller-accessible. Staff are available to assist visitors in building lobbies and the passenger elevator. Additional information is available on the accessibility page and at (215) 972-7600.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation