A celebration of life to take place in spring for designer of Topiary Park
Columbus sculptor James Mason, who reimagined a classic Georges Seurat painting in topiary form at the Old Deaf School Park, died Jan. 20 at age 83.
In recent years, Mason, also a longtime sculpture instructor at the Cultural Arts Center, had been suffering from prostate cancer and then lung cancer, said his sister, Priscilla Hewetson.
In 1992, Mason and his then-wife, Elaine Mason, made an enduring contribution to the Greater Columbus arts scene with the unveiling of their topiary version of Seurat’s 1884 pointillist painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”
The Masons crafted and shaped dozens of topiaries meant to evoke figures from Seurat’s painting, including 54 people, eight boats and a number of animals; the topiaries were positioned near a newly added pond on the property of the park, intended as a substitute for the River Seine seen in the original painting.
The topiaries, which drew attention in major media outlets, remain a big draw for arts lovers.
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“People would stop in there from foreign countries that were here visiting, and that was on their agenda to go see that park,” Hewetson said.
The topiaries were a high point in a life spent pursuing creative activities.
Born in 1937 just outside of Bexley, James was the second of two children of James Clarence Mason and Mary Esther Fahrer. The family moved to Bexley when both children were young.
“We grew up after the Depression,” Hewetson said. “My parents did not have the money to buy us lots of toys and things. ... We created from nothing. A lot of the time, we would go outside and we would make little things out of sticks. We lived next door to woods, and we would gather things from the woods.”
Following graduation from Bexley High School, Mason entered Ohio State University in 1956. His academic career was paused with a stint in the Air Force in the early 1960s.
“He was (stationed) in France,” Hewetson said. “When he was there, he went all over Europe looking at art.”
Upon returning to Ohio, Mason completed his education at the Columbus College of Art & Design, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in 1967.
As a sculptor, Mason’s favored media were bronze and wood; he also enjoyed painting. He was represented by Hammond Harkins Galleries in the Short North.
Following the success of his topiary reimagination of “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” Mason created other topiary sculptures at the Columbus School for Girls and in locations in Atlanta, Georgia, and Palo Alto, California, according to information furnished by his family.
Mason also regularly exhibited his other sculptures in gallery spaces throughout Greater Columbus and beyond. His work can be found in public and private collections throughout the U.S.
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From 1978 to 2009, Mason was employed as a full-time sculpture instructor at the Cultural Arts Center; he continued to teach as a part-time instructor, coming in once or twice per week, until the mid-2010s.
“I can only speculate how many students he must have touched over the course of 30 years, teaching daily,” said Geoffrey Martin, Cultural Arts Center arts administrator. “He was one of the beginners who helped found the Center. ... There’s very few of his ilk left in town.”
Mason, who was also a gifted singer and musician who performed with the Ohio Village Singers, remained modest among friends and family.
“He was basically a quiet person, but he had a fabulous wit, wonderful sense of humor,” Hewetson said.
Mason was predeceased by his former wife Elaine, from whom he had been divorced for some years. The couple did not have children.
In addition to his sister, Mason is survived by a niece, a nephew, two great-nephews and cousins. Plans are underway for a celebration of life in late spring at the Topiary Garden in the Old Deaf School Park.
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Sculptor James Mason remembered for Columbus art contributions