John Soderberg’s grandparents from both sides immigrated to America from Sweden and Denmark. John’s great grandmother was personal seamstress to Mrs. May of the May Company in Los Angeles. His mother’s father became one of the first motorcycle cops in that area, and a photo of him sitting on his Indian motorcycle in 1917 is one of John’s treasures. Betty Lee, John’s mother, studied ballet as a child, and loved and encouraged the fine arts.
Grandfather Joel Soderberg, a master carpenter, attended the Bible Institute of Los Angeles hoping to become a missionary to Africa. Being rejected numerous times by several missions due to his inadequate education, he offered his services as a carpenter-handyman to the African Inland Mission in 1914. He spent numerous years in various African countries from the Belgium Congo to Tanganyika and Kenya, building church pews and various structures. Crossing Lake Tanganyika by ferry, he passed within 100 feet of the actual half-sunken German warship which later became the subject of the movie The African Queen. Becoming seriously ill, Joel returned to America where he married the nurse who brought him back to health.
John’s father Richard, an avid oil painter, won first place in a Los Angeles-wide art competition at age 17. He played violin, and even performed once with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. As a child, he was deeply influenced by his father’s storytelling, and by Joel’s simple determination to serve in any way he could. At age ten, Richard gazed up at the huge world map in the Church of the Open Door. Little light bulbs sprinkled the map indicating the presence of missionaries across the world. But, he noticed, one country was dark–not a single light. That country was Afghanistan. At that moment young Richard made a commitment to himself to one day serve in whatever way he could in that country without light–a commitment he ultimately fulfilled.
In the years prior to journeying to Afghanistan, Richard attended UCLA and was Class President. During World War II he was an officer on a small Navy ship headed up to the source of the Yangtze River in China. Author John Hershey was a crewmember on that ship, and later wrote the novel A Single Pebble about that journey. After his discharge, Richard returned to California for graduate work in civil engineering, where he and Betty Lee were married by Dr. Charles Fuller.
Richard and Betty left America with two-month old David (John’s oldest brother) and sailed to Manila less than two years after the end of World War II. They journeyed across India to Karachi, and then took the night train to Peshawar. Bandits attacked the train and looted and killed at random. Although ill and suffering from severe dysentery, Richard managed to prevent a violent intrusion into their sleeping compartment by bracing himself against the door until the bandits were driven off. Driving through the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan, baby David filled his diaper. The driver refused to stop and insisted that Betty throw the mess out the window. After searching the desolate lunar landscape and ascertaining there couldn’t possibly be human habitation for many miles, Betty did. Glancing back, she saw six Khyber bandits with swords and rifles pop up out of the rocks and race back to retrieve the possible treasure ejected from the car. One ambitious bandit leaped and grabbed, then screaming with insulted anger, all six bandits cursed and waved their fists and started shooting at the jeep. With bullets whizzing past the fishtailing jeep, 23 year-old Betty Soderberg held her baby close and wondered about God’s plan. This was her introduction to Afghanistan. In the following years, both John’s parents, as Christians, were repeatedly threatened with death–he by rifle and sword, she by stoning and knife, for not wearing a veil.
Richard Soderberg had been commissioned by Afghanistan’s King Mohammed Zahir to be Director of the country’s first engineering school, the Afghan Institute of Technology. But, upon reaching Kabul, the young couple were a bit dismayed to learn that the school was not yet in existence. Besides acting as director, Richard was expected to build it, staff it, and equip it. He also had to perfect a means of teaching the prospective students English in a very short period of time, as there were no textbooks in Farsi. After much prayer and innovative hard work, the Afghan Institute of Technology was born.
Richard directed the school for some years, and he and Betty acted as undercover missionaries as well, as no missionaries were allowed in the country at that time. John spent his first five years of life in that country, and his first sculptures, commissioned by his mother, were executed in mud in the family’s front yard. When he was five years old, the family left Afghanistan to live and work in India. The Afghans, to honor Richard and Betty, took the old Soderberg station wagon and mounted it on a concrete pedestal with a bronze plaque as a monument at the Institute. When John’s brother went back to Afghanistan as a full colonel in the Afghan army in 1972, dealing with famine relief shortly before the Russian invasion, the monument was still there.
At age five in India, John began painting in oils with his father’s paints and brushes. After living five years in that country, the family moved to Thailand where John studied teakwood carving with the leading master, a Buddhist monk. The U.S. State Department was nervous about Americans living overseas “going native,” and made it mandatory to visit America periodically. As a result, the Soderberg family traveled around the world every two and a half years, visiting churches, museums and galleries worldwide.
They visited the Holy land several times, saw Lazarus’s tomb, stood in the Garden of Gethsemane, walked by the Red Sea, and visited Bethlehem. In Rome, they walked the Apian Way, went down into the catacombs, and in San Pietro en Vincoli, John’s mother held him up so he could touch Michelangelo’s Moses’ foot. In the Sistine Chapel, John gazed up at Michelangelo’s self-portrait, being held by St. Peter and judged by Christ, hanging over the abyss. He was moved by the master’s humility.
John circled the world eight times before graduating high school in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1967. He flew to America for college, but due to extreme culture shock, ended up oil painting on the street in Berkeley, California, in the middle of the riots of the late 60′s. Not being real successful in his first professional art foray, he lived under a house on Telegraph Avenue and hid his canvases in a crack between two buildings. One night at two in the morning, after going six days without food, he sold his masterwork, a large oil painting of a Buddhist monk and a candle, for two and a half dollars and bought six tacos. Eating his feast, contemplating his professional failure, and considering the escalation of the riots and drug-abuse around him, he decided to return to South-East Asia. His only way of doing so was to join the U.S. Marine Corps in 1970. But, since he spoke some Thai, taught martial arts, and had 18 years experience overseas, the Marine Corps in it’s wisdom sent him to Yuma, Arizona, as an electronics/ communication technician.
After his honorable discharge, John spent time as a tool and die-maker machinist, custom knife maker, and gold and silver jeweler. He completed numerous commissions, including a bracelet for Elvis Presley, and made custom jewelry for individuals and service organizations. Feeling a drive to work big, his jewelry became too heavy to wear, so he literally evolved into a sculptor. He moved to Flagstaff, Arizona with his wife and two baby daughters to learn the art of bronze. He worked in a small bronze art foundry for four years, earning one dollar an hour and sculpting on his own work late into the night in his un-insulated chicken-coop studio. His first bronze was used as a doorstop in the foundry and his second was bought and used as a boat-anchor in Lake Havasu. After numerous starving-artist years, he ended up at Northern Arizona University as Resident Artist. He later received his Ph.D. in Humane Letters from that institution.
John Soderberg has executed many monumental bronze commissions across the country, teaches at various art academies, and nurtures and mentors many other sculptors. He has invented tools, materials, and techniques, which have bettered the world of art.
His two daughters, both at age one, asked for clay and began sculpting. John cast hundreds of their little sculptures, and at age two, they chose (without any prompting from dad) to go professional. Paul Harvey heard about them at that time and put them on his radio show.
They sold in art galleries in Scottsdale, Houston, and elsewhere, and were on That’s Incredible TV, in National Enquirer, People Magazine, National Geographic, and other magazines and shows before they turned seven. All this when their father, John, was still swapping his bronzes for power tools which he would then sell at swap-meets for rent and food money. Heather and Misty today are noted professional sculptors working on their own monumental commissions.
As a means of tithing and a way of giving back to his world, John has involved himself with service and charity work for 30 years. He has taught martial arts to disabled children and adults, given many sculpture workshops for children, served as a board member for domestic abuse shelters and other groups, worked on famine relief for the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico, and was one of the original core members of Rancho Feliz, a charitable organization which builds and maintains orphanages, soup-kitchens for kids, provides medical clinics to the poor, and many other functions. For the past 15 years, he has been Santa Claus on a Harley to the orphans of Agua Prieta, Mexico.
In 2008, John met and later married Cynthia Richmond, a professional author, (Simon & Schuster,) behavioral therapist, educator, talk-show host, columnist with the L.A. Times, and other publications, the leading expert on dreams in the country, pilot, and accomplished master of the culinary arts. She works in her “Dreampower” studio on the ranch in Camp Verde.
John lives and works on that small homestead ranch in Arizona. His passion is Bronze, and his fascination is the lonely, timeless, and ultimately noble drama of the human experience. He sculpturally explores worthy human themes in a manner which simply and honestly evokes empathy in the viewer.