Art Faculty Member John Wittersheim Left a Lasting Legacy at SHU
An allergic reaction eventually brought John Wittersheim to Siena Heights, and cancer took him away.
The man who spent 34 years teaching metalsmithing and sculpture in his “garage-like” studio on campus passed away March 17 after a long battle with cancer. He was 59.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Michigan University and his Master of Fine Arts degree from the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Wittersheim took a job as a clay modeler with the Ford Motor Co. However, he had an allergic reaction to the special clay he was forced to work with at Ford, so he pursued other career paths.
The path he eventually followed led to Siena Heights, where he began as a faculty member in 1979. He quickly established himself with students and colleagues as a versatile, prolific and talented artist. His metalworking specialties included the creation of plumb bobs, a small, pointed brass weight on the end of a string used to determine a line perpendicular to a point.
Colleague and friend Bob Conlon said Wittersheim’s plumb bob creations typified his practical vision of art.
“(Plumb bobs) were so beautiful and artistic, but he’d like to talk about that they had a function,” said Conlon, an associate professor of art at SHU.
However, Wittersheim was also known for making musical instruments, even gaining national notoriety for the guitar-building class he taught for several years. In fact, Conlon said there probably wasn’t anything he couldn’t make or fix.
“He just was one of these guys who saw something that needed to be fixed, so he fixed it,” Conlon said. “I really learned that from him. If you see something, figure out how to fix it, or figure out how to make it. Even if nobody ever finds out, you had a blast doing it.”
That “fixing” mentality also overlapped into his relationships with students and colleagues.
“The first thing I remember about John was the first day I was here (at Siena Heights),” Conlon said of his arrival at Siena Heights. “He’s talking to me for a minute and he said, ‘Come into my office. Now, let me tell you how things work around this place.’ … He gave me the rundown on everything, and made me feel like I wasn’t lost. I’ll always remember that.”
Conlon said he often did the same with students, first offering some necessary constructive criticism, but then sometimes spending entire afternoons working side-by-side with them in his studio to help them get it right.
“He taught me to always do what needs to be done,” said one of his former students, Andrew Staton ’03. “Do the work, but don’t overdo it. Many times the beauty is in simplicity. The form will speak for itself. I will be forever grateful for the knowledge he passed to me in the little time I knew him and for the ability to apply it in everyday problems.”
Although unassuming and soft spoken, he was certainly not introverted, Conlon said.
“No matter how the conversation went, he would get you interested in some strange thing,” Conlon said. “I never met a guy who could talk about any topic in an intelligent way.”
Wittersheim received the Eileen Rice Award for Outstanding Teaching from Siena Heights in 1996, and Studio Angelico received an outpouring of sympathy from former and current students after his death. In fact, several notes were left on his studio door referring to Wittersheim’s favorite phrase to his students: “What are you trying to do with that?”
Conlon said Wittersheim never had a problem answering that question, either in art or in life.
“He was just always thinking,” he said. “I’m completely humbled and honored to have been (John’s) colleague. And he would be the first one to think that that was the stupidest thing to say.”
Wittersheim is survived by his wife of 23 years, Jamie Goode ’87, who is an adjunct art instructor at SHU.