Steel sculpture by David Kennedy of the Cherokee word for “peace,” flanked by Sitting Bull and George Armstrong Custer.
PR intern and journo Chee Brossy sat down with David Kennedy to figure out why the man does what he does and looks the way he looks. They got to talking about art, their first true love. And yes, David is an adman legend, but he was almost a starving artist. This is part 1 of a 2-part post.
by Chee Brossy
Nestled in the awning between two bathroom doors on the fifth floor, David Kennedy’s steel sculpture of the Cherokee word for “peace” can easily go unnoticed. No plaque announces who made it or what it stands for. The steel is worn, weathered, beaten. A sheen of ochre rust dusts the ribbons of Cherokee syllabary. The only indication of authorship comes from its vicinity to David’s work space—a shadowed corner of the fifth floor stacked with cardboard boxes, papers, and an eclectic mix of period hats: cowboy, Puritan, Civil War Union.
Steel sculpture by David Kennedy of the Cherokee word for “peace,” written in the Cherokee syllabary. Next to a fifth floor bathroom! (This will be on the W+K treasure hunt, so take notes.)
Yet the welded steel curves and lettering is a culmination of a lifetime of work. To get there David (Kennedy of Wieden+Kennedy) fell in love with sculpture in Colorado, then lost touch as he built a career in advertising, then found it again in the Pacific Northwest. He made stops in suburban Chicago, had childhood dreams of becoming a geologist, worked on oilrigs along the Rockies. And of course, there’s advertising. But in the end, sculpture reeled David back in, “like a moth to the flame.”
Stocky and strong-limbed, weathered and white-haired, David resembles one of his sculptures. Add his round wire-rimmed glasses and the man could be made of metal himself. In his uniform of black t-shirt and blue jeans, David could be mistaken for a hipster if not for the high rise of his denim. But for David, it really is effortless—he stopped caring about style years ago and now style has come back around to him. At 73, David has an avuncular air about him—your quirky great uncle or family friend who collects headwear and goes on the odd commercial shoot in Montana.
Shalom. David’s “peace” sculpture in Hebrew.
The first “Peace” sculpture David did was the word in Hebrew—although he’s not Jewish, David lived with his family near a Jewish neighborhood in Chicago after he got his start in advertising. He’d found sculpture after decades of being away from the art. It wasn’t until David visited his daughter’s painting class at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in 1988 that he remembered his artistic calling.
“I used to get so jealous of her,” David says. “I could smell the linseed oil and turpentine and I just had to get in a studio. I was addicted again.”
David had studied fine art and sculpture as an undergrad at the University of Colorado-Boulder in the early ‘60s. “Abstract expressionism was over my head,” he says. But metalworking and drawing were his strong points.
Once back to sculpture, David was reinvigorated. Advertising was his work, and he loved being an art director, but lately he’d been bogged down in business side, unable to create.
“I might have been the worst art director in the history of this company,” David says. “Because I spent all my time in meetings. It was frustrating because I just wanted to make ads. If I wasn’t making shit, I wasn’t a happy camper.”
David next to the Tsimshian Totem Pole, second floor, W+K.
Stay tuned for part 2 of the David Kennedy interview—in which David says, “This is fucked,” among other gems!