Twelve rust brown Core-ten steel elements welded together form an organic screen 12 feet high and 8 feet wide. Each large abstract shape eases into the next, creating a dynamic unit that captures the eye. The rhythm of the sculpture draws you in, inviting you to walk around the piece to complete your contact with the artist’s creative statement.
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- The modernist David Hayes
My wife, Ann, selected this piece from the hundreds scattered in the fields of David Hayes’ studio and home in Coventry, Connecticut. This was the engine room of his creative soul, over 57 acres where David worked his magic. A sculptor up at dawn cutting sheets of raw steel with his torch, assembling fluid shapes into signature works of art. A collection of tall, slender, black, geometric free-form clusters are reflected in a secluded dark pond. Red, blue and yellow interlocking angular and curvilinear forms create a border of large and colorful sculpture around a sunny 10-acre opening in the woods. Walking down the rugged path, you can catch a glimpse of black steel clouds, defying gravity, dangling from sturdy branches. David Vincent Hayes, a Connecticut Yankee to the core, was a keenly focused artist with a unique vision.
We met as young men making basic discoveries about art and life at Notre Dame. I remember shaking his hand in O’Shaughnessy Hall, where the new Art Department was located. It was immediately obvious — he was as seriously a committed artist as I was. That was when our friendship began.
David received his bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame in 1953, a year before I got mine. He received his MFA in 1955 from Indiana University, where he studied with the internationally renowned sculptor David Smith. A post-doctoral Fulbright Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship took him to France, where he finished his unofficial apprenticeship in the little village of Antony near Paris. His mentors and friends included such sculptors as Alberto Giacometti and Sandy Calder. His son David M. remembered when they’d go down to Calder’s castle at Saché and swim in the Loire. His father also took trips to England to the studio of his friend Henry Moore.
In those days, he also designed jewelry for Christian Dior’s collection. David Hayes was a keen observer who did his homework. You can see the results of his labor in many major museums, including the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and the Museum of Modern Art and in hundreds of private collections. In 2007, he was conferred an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree by Albertus Magnus College.
David and I kept in touch as much as possible after graduation, military service, marriage and growing families. I heard about him from friends and followed his success in the art publications as he built an international reputation. One day I walked into a New York City gallery on Madison Avenue at 72nd Street. The place was crawling with abstract sheep and humanoids made of welded steel. David now had a New York gallery and real career as a professional. I was proud to be his friend.
In 1989, when we were both living in Connecticut, we reconnected at a wedding. When Ann and I sat at a table with David and his wife, Julia, the years melted away. We brought each other up to date and talked a lot about the art market, artists, his art and my art. In time, critiquing each other’s work at his studio or mine became a routine. I was a successful producer of educational documentaries on art for the school market, so it was natural to do a video of David at work, sketching, cutting steel and welding. At that time he was working on the large steel stabile that would eventually stand in front of Notre Dame’s Snite Museum.
Whenever David and Julia did the New York galleries, they’d stop at our house in Greenwich. I commented on how much time he was saving me by critiquing the exhibitions and telling me which one I had to see. It was around then that I bought my first David Hayes “Screen,” a large Core-ten steel masterpiece. He’d freely give me advice on where to position it for the best view.
In Greenwich it stood in a prominent position at the top of the driveway. When we moved to New Canaan, I had the perfect spot. When you entered the house, you’d walk directly through the hall out onto a terrace with a sweeping second-story view of an acre of lawn, an acre of wild flowers and a large wood before the river. His sculpture stood where a path from the lawn entered the flowers. “A bench?” was how David objected. “A bench!” I laughed.
I took him out to my new studio. The glass doors at one end framed his sculpture. “The view, David, is for me. I see your work every day. Anyone else has to earn it.” When I moved to my backcountry three acres in Stamford after my wife died, all you could see as you came down the long driveway was that sculpture commanding the view and reflected in my pond.
Since that time I’ve added three more Hayes sculptures to my collection and the joy of having them in my daily life, sharing them with others.
I drove up to Hartford in early 2013 to visit David when he was in the hospital. When we shook hands, I noticed how much strength his leukemia had stolen. I visited him several times in the hospital and at his home in Coventry. Each time his eyes became more and more sunken. The spark of his genius remained but he had resigned himself to the reality of his situation. We sat quietly talking about nothing or in the silence that only friends can share.
Once we talked about the days when the old ND art department was on the top floor of the Main Building. “I remember the rotunda had four life-sized plaster nude male classical sculptures, in front of four painted niches by the four main piers,” David said. “Each one had a flat tin fig leaf held in place by a single headed nail.” He pointed out with a laugh that the modesty of the university extended to our life models, who never posed nude — one-piece swimsuits for the ladies and jockstraps for the men.
At his wake I was thumbing through one of David’s early sketchbooks when I came upon a pencil sketch of a nude male in a jockstrap. I laughed and said, “Notre Dame.” Nobody got it.
The last time I spoke with David was at the opening of an exhibition of his hanging sculptures in Manchester, Connecticut. Large clusters of black steel forms were hung from several trees on the grounds. These heavy masses of metal turned slowly on a slight breeze, graceful and almost alive. David had to be carried to the car by his sons. Five days later he was gone.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by the size of the line waiting to enter the funeral home. What did surprise and amuse me was David’s command of the event. His casket was a masterpiece of the carpenter’s craft, a no-frills pine box made with pegs, no nails. He had it made when he knew he’d need it. It was all David. His children had placed a small black steel maquette in his hands and a 2B pencil in the pocket of his tweed jacket. As usual, he was ready to sketch.
In St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Storrs, each of David’s children, David M., John, Brian and Mary, spoke of their father’s love and his art. At the cemetery, after the priest’s comments and words of love spoken by others, we each placed a miniature sunflower on the top of the casket. After everyone had left, I sat looking at that magnificent pine coffin, hovering above his grave, the sunflowers catching the light shifting in the gentle breeze. It was an image David had planned completely, an artist to the end.
David Hayes was a passionate, honest man. A religious man, he was dedicated to his art and true to his identity. When he died on April 9, 2013, we had known each other for 63 years. I’m sure when we meet again my best friend will tell me exactly how to deliver this little message.
Richard Byrnes lives in Stamford, Connecticut.