A sculptor with a passion for a broad variety of materials—that’s John Acorn. He was also an esteemed colleague, professor, and department chair at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina. 

Acorn was born in Paterson, New Jersey, in what he has described as a congenial neighborhood with a sizable population of Italian Americans. In middle school he took classes in manual training, which he called a “marvelous experience,” and one that acquainted him with an assortment of tools and materials. He completed projects in wood and metal. In high school, he took art classes, and because he was a good student, he was allowed to go to the art room instead of study hall. He was awarded scholarships to attend both Rutgers University and New York University, but since he lacked funds for living expenses, he lived at home and went to nearby Montclair State University from 1955–1959. He continued his education at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where his major was sculpture, and his minor was weaving. After the first semester he was asked to teach non-majors and in 1961 he was awarded his Master of Fine Arts degree. 

While Acorn was at Cranbrook, Harlan McClure recruited him to join the newly established school of architecture at Clemson University. He began there in 1961, and remained until 1997, serving as head of the department of visual arts, 1976 to 1997. After securing a Fulbright Scholarship, Acorn did post-graduate study in sculpture with an emphasis in bronze casting at the Hochschule für Bildende Künst, West Berlin, Germany, where Henry Moore had some of his sculptures cast. Acorn also taught summer sessions at the Penland School of Craft, in Penland, North Carolina. 

In his early work, Acorn tended to create large freestanding metal sculptures, many of which were installed as public sculptures in Greenville, South Carolina. He has explained his penchant for working in series: “I’ve always done artwork in series. And in doing pieces in series, one image suggests another. I am simply the person who gives them form, some kind of reality, some kind of material sense, so that I can share them with someone else. Once you start with something that interests you, it generates its own momentum; it kind of makes itself.” In the 1980s he completed  a series of masks which hang on walls. He has called Pablo Picasso “the greatest artist of our time,” and like him Acorn has a small collection of African art. One recurring motif is the profile of a woman; when asked about her identity, he has retorted, “she is who she is.” At times she is made of wood and like many of his sculptures she is enhanced by patterns of trailer nails which have spiral shanks and require drilling a hole first. 

At times Acorn’s subject matter veers towards the political. One series is about the American fascination with guns, and culminated in a work called A Quilt of Pistols. In another, the camouflage figures are human scale,  headless, and covered in different surfaces that allude to such issues as race, religion, and ethnicity. In 1999 in Three Flags and Four Letter Words in Columbia, he addressed the South Carolina issue revolving around the Confederate flag positioned on the dome of the capitol building. Words such as ‘beat,’ ‘whip’ and ‘rule’ are hammered into the six-foot copper sculpture resting on the floor. 

In 1975 the South Carolina Chapter granted Acorn the American Institute of Architects Award for Art-in-Architecture. In 1998 the Governor’s Award for the Arts, South Carolina’s most prestigious honor, was conferred on Acorn; it was given to an individual artist for commitment to developing the arts in the state. In 2018 he was inducted into the Clemson University College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities Hall of Fame for his dedication to enriching the experience of every individual at Clemson University. This recognition is in keeping with his personal philosophy: “I’m a teacher artist. I enjoy the interaction between the generations. I’m not an artist who happens to teach.”