Ilchi Lee speaks often of Hongik Spirit, the concept of living a life which benefits all. Learn how Sedona Bronze Sculptor John M. Soderberg embodies this concept and speaks of the inherent nobility of the human experience with his art.

LAT: John, your printed personal biography reaches back to begin with the story of your grandparents and then your parents. The details of their lives are so necessary to understand the adventuresome spirit which one day manifested in you. After your father was commissioned by Afghanistan’s King Mohammed Zahir to be the director of the country’s first engineering school, your parents sailed to Manila en route to Kabul less than two years after the end of World War II. It was there in Afghanistan where you spent the first five years of your life.

When did you begin illustrating the early impressions of your world with your art?

JMS: In Afghanistan my first sculptures, commissioned by my mother, were executed in mud in our family’s front yard. At age four, I began painting in oils with my father’s paints and brushes. When I was five, we moved to India. There I painted continuously and sculpted with British plasticine clay.

LAT: You have literally travelled around the world many times over. How did that come about?

JMS: After five years in India, we moved to Thailand where I studied teakwood carving with the leading master, a Buddhist monk. The U.S. State Department had made it mandatory for U.S. citizens living overseas to visit America periodically. So, every two and a half years we traveled around the world. I traveled eight times around the world before graduating high school in Bangkok, Thailand in 1967. My parents loved art, so we visited famous museums and galleries all over the world.

LAT: When you came to America to attend college, you have said it was a difficult transition.

JMS: I suffered extreme culture shock and ended up oil painting on the streets of Berkeley, California in the midst of the turmoil from the riots of the late 1960’s. This country was way too confusing. I soon joined the U.S. Marine Corps as a way to get back home to South-East Asia.

LAT: How did you first discover Sedona?

JMS: My last duty station was Yuma, Arizona, as an electronics and communication technician. My parents had come back from South-East Asia and settled in Tempe, AZ. After my honorable discharge, I worked as a tool and die-maker machinist, custom knife maker. I painted and made jewelry at night. Eventually I quit that job and moved with my first wife and two baby daughters to Flagstaff. I worked in a small bronze art foundry for four years, earning just $1.00 per hour.

My desire was to live my life as a bronze sculptor. I came down to Sedona often to visit the art galleries. My first bronze was used as a doorstop in the foundry, and the second was bought and used as a boat anchor in Lake Havasu! Still, my work ended up in the galleries of Sedona, and we ultimately moved here . . . I’ve been in the Verde Valley 30 years.

John Soderberg humanitarian work

LAT: For the past 40 years you have been involved in several amazing projects, service and charity work.

JMS: I’ve taught martial arts to disabled children and adults, given sculpture workshops, served as a board member for domestic abuse shelters and other groups, worked on famine relief for the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico and am one of the original core members of Rancho Feliz, a charitable organization which builds and maintains orphanages, soup-kitchens for kids and medical clinics for the poor, and much more. I’ve even been Santa Claus on a Harley to the orphans of Agua Prieta, Mexico for the past 19 years!

LAT: Often through the years, your art and your service-work have intertwined. Please tell our readers about those projects.

JMS: I grew up with art that mattered. You know, in some of Picasso’s best work he was protesting war atrocities. So I’ve tried to deal with things that mattered:

I’ve worked with Amnesty International in protest of the Apartheid in South Africa.

I did a bronze that I unveiled in the late 1980’s with Bob Hope and a bunch of celebrities protesting the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets, and their use of anti-personnel mines disguised as toys targeting children. That bronze, “Steel Butterflies” can be seen right here in the studio.

Way of the Warrior by John SoderbergThe piece I did for Rancho Feliz, “The Way of the Warrior,” portrays a little girl who was found near death in a warehouse, abandoned, and they brought her to our orphanage. We got her adopted, we saved her life. A lot of good, grass roots, and good things for others have happened, with an aim not to give charity, but rather to break the poverty cycle through education and opportunity.

When I did the Freedom Award, one that I’m most proud of, I worked with them for years. Today, there are 27 million slaves in the world, bought and sold more than ever before in history. They chose me to sculpt the Freedom Award, and they would give out five a year to the people who did the most to expose and eradicate modern slavery.

So, when I can couple my art with my service work, that’s where I live, where I really want to be. I like beauty, and it’s nice putting out beautiful pieces, but I like to have something more.

LAT: It is easy to understand why ‘aesthetically,’ you would want to be in Sedona, it has traditionally been culturally rich. And energetically and physically, it has a strong presence.

JMS: Yes. Sedona is a place where a lot of the native Indians would come and pray and to connect with their creator. It feels good to me.

LAT: Do you have a sense of that connection when you work?

JMS: Yes, my best work happens when I’m in a Zen state, where I’m not even aware of it…there are times when I’ll look at something and I can’t remember sculpting it: Can’t remember sculpting my best work!

The song is more important than the singer . . . the work lives on.

LAT: Thank You, John!

See John Soderberg’s Bronze work at www.johnsoderberg.com or visit the studio at 3058 W. State Route 89A.

By Lynn A. Trombetta