I’ve been an artist all my life, but when someone asks me, “What sort of work do you make?” I find it nearly impossible to reply. One is right to expect a straightforward answer: I paint portraits, or I photograph landscapes.

I build plastic model airplanes and glue photographs on them.

It’s hard to even say this and expect to be taken seriously. Worse, it’s difficult to express how this might be a serious intellectual pursuit.

Of course, I began my career as an artist by making portraits and landscapes.

From the series ‘Inconsolable,’ 2003. Color photograph. John Ferdico

Most artists learn through well-defined mediums and genres of art practice. My friend Amber Aguirre, for instance, who is also one of the 11 artists taking part in Artists of Hawai‘i 2013, learned pottery by throwing bowls and cups on the wheel. After learning the craft, she discovered and developed the strange and lovely narrative figures that will be included in the show.

Like Amber, I learned the craft and later wandered away from traditional mediums and genres when I became more interested in inventing a personal iconography: finding a mode of expression that was unique to my own experience and ideas.

And so I began playing around with different ways to present photographs. It wasn’t too long before the model airplanes were thrown into the mix; I had been building them since I was a little boy. My father was an airline employee, and mine is a family of many veterans, so an interest in aviation and the military was then quite natural.

At first, photography and scale modeling intermingled with the same joy for invention and juxtaposition featured in my childhood drawings, where dinosaurs fought army men without regard for plausibility or the limitations of glacial time.

Without quite intending it to, the work evolved into something in which I saw an uncanny resemblance to devotional sculpture, especially the tradition of polychrome wood.

Polychrome wood santos in the museum’s Filipino Gallery and a work in progress by John Ferdico

With the term devotional sculpture, I mean to summarize a common theme in the art practice of many different cultures, where the art object is created to address the intangible and spiritual.

In my case, it refers to the trinkets of my Suburban New York-Middle Class-Irish-Italian-Catholic heritage. I now appreciate the connection between those rosaries and Nativities, and the devotional expressions of other cultures: Native American totems, Day of the Dead altars, and deities from the Far East, to name a few.

Polychrome wood crucifix

Tinglit totem pole, Alaska.

Thai figures



Traditional devotional sculpture functioned mostly as tribute or talisman. For my sculptures—though made according to the Modernist tradition where fine art lacks utility—imagining what purpose they might serve helps me choose the images and forms that make up the work. What might be a symbol of understanding and comfort for the specific trials of our lives? What is worthy of our tribute? What might we hang on our walls as protection from our unique peril?

From the series ‘The Protectorates,’ 2006. Photographs, plastic model, wood. By John Ferdico

This is what I try to make.