Love, Art, and Determination of Sculptor John Rhoden

Determined to Be: the Sculpture of John Rhoden is more than just an exhibition of artworks; it's a discovery show about love, art, life, travel, and determination. As you wander the exhibition, you'll explore not only John Rhoden's sculptures but also through themes, styles, and materials, the story of the artist himself.

I put every feeling, every passion–everything I have–into sculpting. Someone once asked me why I do it: there are so many easier things. I can only say this: sculpting is my life. 

Unknown author, “A Visit with John Rhoden,” Topic Magazine no. 5 Special Issue - The Negro In The American Arts, 1966: 29

gallery view of the John Rhoden exhibit

View of front gallery space, Determined To Be: The Sculpture of John Rhoden, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, October 5, 2023–April 7, 2024 in the Hamilton Building. Courtesy of PAFA. Photography by Adrian Cubillas.

Rhoden's story is compelling for many reasons, not least because he was a self-made artist in the 20th century against all odds. Born in Birmingham in 1916 at a time when the art world was often inaccessible to those without major galleries or financial backing, he sought out connections and networks with artists and art enthusiasts, which allowed him to create and travel the world solely on the strength of his talent. This exhibition tells the story of a man who created his own path in the art world.

Black and white photograph of John and Richenda Rhoden's wedding day on April 21, 1954 in Rome, Italy

What sets Rhoden's story apart is the profound love and kinship he shared with his wife, Richenda Rhoden. They weren't just life partners; they were working artists who shared their resources, time, energy, and creative influences. They worked together, made art together, and exhibited together. Her administrative support, like managing his correspondence from home while he was abroad, was an integral part of their artistic partnership. Her indigenous heritage was reflected in his sculpture, such as Sky Father Earth Mother. Her likeness appears in several of his busts and statues. Whenever possible, Richenda traveled with him. They married in Rome in 1954.

Black and white photograph of John and Richenda Rhoden's wedding day on April 21, 1954 in Rome, Italy, 1954. The John Rhoden Papers at PAFA, MS.2019.01.4515.

One time you made me so mad. I didn’t know what to do. I looked you dead in the eyes and said to myself, ‘Gee, I really love that girl Richenda. Will she ever know?’

Excerpt from a handwritten letter from John Rhoden to Richenda Rhoden, dated March 19, 1959. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, MS.2019.01.0075.       

Rhoden's international travels had a profound impact on his work. They expanded his artistic horizons and situated his work and influence in a global context. His story resonates with the historical backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement and the Great Migration in the United States, reflecting the cultural and political dynamics of his time.

Front cover and first page of Richenda Rhoden's passport

Richenda Rhoden's passport, issued in 1960, 1960. The John Rhoden Papers at PAFA, MS.2019.01.2365. 

Cover and first page of John Rhoden's passport

John Rhoden passport #729128, inside cover, 1955. The John Rhoden Papers at PAFA, MS.2019.01.1940.

Rhoden's legacy holds significance for all who encounter his work, serving as a reminder that institutions like PAFA should continue to tell a diverse range of stories in innovative ways. It endures as an inspiration to aspiring artists and students, offering insights into how to make a life in the arts. His art offers new perspectives on art history and challenges conventional notions of art, its creators, and what we should and shouldn’t venerate. He consistently created art throughout his life, using local and often expensive materials, fabricating work in bronze and crafting large-scale pieces in wood. His persistence and unwavering focus on his craft drove him to overcome obstacles faced by fellow artists.

I have enjoyed my life. I have had just about everything I really wanted and you are lucky when you can say that. Every time I went out to make a real knock-down, drag-out effort to get what I wanted I never got it. But the other things, I've just been lucky.

Coker, Gilbert. 1990. “John Rhoden: Sculptor” interview by Gilbert Coker, Jan 28, 1990, IN James V. Hatch and Leo Hamalian, editors. 1991 Artist and Influence Vol. X New York: Hatch-Billops Collection, Inc., pg: 168

Rhoden poses with stature with a contemporary image of the exhibit

Black and white photograph of a John Rhoden posing with a sculpture, undated. The John Rhoden Papers at PAFA, Rhoden-JR063b_2.; Entrance to the exhibition, Determined To Be: The Sculpture of John Rhoden, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, October 5, 2023–April 7, 2024 in the Hamilton Building. Courtesy of PAFA. Photography by Adrian Cubillas.

When you come to the Rhoden exhibition, you'll see it as a tribute to a love story, a testament to resilience, and a journey that spans continents. The legacy of Rhoden is not confined to his sculptures alone; it's a travel narrative expressed through art, a story that needs to be seen, heard, and appreciated. Whether you are an art enthusiast or simply seeking beauty, this exhibition invites you to stand in the gallery and immerse yourself in the world of John Rhoden.

It’s really hard to appreciate what’s great about this show until you see it all in one space, and so the material breadth, the influences, the travel narrative, it all comes out in the work that when you look at the move from a definitive…like a practice that is devoted to continuing to make sculpture materially, to work in wood, to work in stone, to work in bronze, to figure out how to get it done when all of that is really difficult to do, you kind have to stand in the gallery and look around to appreciate and…I hope that people do. 

Quote from Dr. Brittany Webb, Evelyn and Will Kaplan Curator of Twentieth-Century Art and the John Rhoden Collection, 2023.

Determined to Be: The Sculpture of John Rhoden is on view at PAFA from October 5, 2023 until April 7, 2024 in the Fisher Brooks Gallery located in the Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building. For more information and resources about John Rhoden, explore

About the Exhibition

Curated by Dr. Brittany Webb, Determined to Be: The Sculpture of John Rhoden is the first comprehensive retrospective of twentieth century African American sculptor, John Rhoden (1916-2001). Through approximately 70 sculptures in bronze, wood, and stone, and archival materials from the recently-processed John Rhoden Papers, this exhibition illustrates the visual and technical mastery of this award-winning artist.

Determined To Be: The Sculpture of John Rhoden is made possible thanks to the following generous supporters.

Lead support and artwork provided by the estate of Richanda Rhoden. Major support is provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art, William Penn Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional support is provided by the Wyeth Foundation for American Art and donors to PAFA’s Special Exhibition Fund.  

Lead support for the exhibition catalogue is provided by the Henry Luce Foundation.

The organization and digitization of the John Rhoden Archives at PAFA was made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom.

Banner Image: Black and white photograph of John Rhoden working on wood carvings, circa 1961-1963. The John Rhoden Papers at PAFA, MS.2019.01.0744.       

About PAFA

Founded in 1805, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is America's first school and museum of fine arts. A recipient of the National Medal of Arts, PAFA offers undergraduate and graduate programs in the fine arts, innovative exhibitions of historic and contemporary American art, and a world-class collection of American art. PAFA’s esteemed alumni include Mary Cassatt, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, William Glackens, Barkley L. Hendricks, Violet Oakley, Louis Kahn, David Lynch, and Henry Ossawa Tanner.