I met John when I was at SMU in 1986. While I had never been one of his students, I had always been one of his admirers. I didn’t know him terribly well, but over the years we were in touch occasionally though mutual friends.
We were living in DC in the late 1990s and one afternoon, I got a call from John out of the blue. He was in town for a conference, so we invited him over for dinner. I was unnecessarily anxious wondering what we would talk about during his visit. Once he arrived, he wasn’t in the door two minutes when he spotted a ceramic statue on our mantle that caught his eye. He walked directly across the living room and put his glasses on to better inspect the piece. He then proceeded to tell me exactly what it was. We had no trouble finding things to talk about the rest of the evening. Prior to that night whenever I looked at that ceramic piece, I always thought of my great uncle who brought it back from Mexico in the 1930s. It still sits on the mantle in a different home, in a different city, but now I think of John and remember the night he came to visit.
Once we moved back to Dallas in 2006, we invited John to our annual Christmas parties. He was always eager to engage a new circle of friends. A couple of years ago, I found him standing in the backyard on a lovely December day talking to a neighbor. She had recently visited an archeological site and was giving John the rundown. Of course John was already an expert on the site and they were debating the irrigation techniques of the inhabitants. The next time we saw John, he asked about the “ancient irrigation enthusiast.” We now refer to our neighbor, not by her name, but as our “ancient irrigation enthusiast” friend.
It was an honor to have known John Lunsford. He always made an impact and forever changed the way we looked at things. He was thoughtful, kind, brilliant, talented, and giving. He was an extraordinary man who was always giving--whether it was an article to share about a plant in our garden, a book he thought we might like, or knowledge on one of the many topics on which he was an expert. We spent time with John in the woods bird watching and in Oak Cliff restaurants--usually eating Mexican food--we went to local heladerías, and he came to our home. When I was working on a massive research project, John was so supportive, he set up a meeting to introduce me to another historian who he thought would offer insight on my topic. The time John spent with us was the best gift he could have given to us, and we will always cherish it.
I am John Lunsford’s godson, Steve Watkins. I had heard your name many times in conversation with John. While I saw you at the memorial service, I didn’t get a chance to introduce myself. You had asked that John’s friends write something about him, and my wife keeps asking me if I’ve done it - so here it is.
First, the “godson” moniker is an interesting one considering John’s feelings about religion as well as my own. Alas, I suppose we all go through different phases of life, and at least according to my family, John was at some point involved in the Episcopal church, thus was assigned as my godfather whenever that process takes place in one’s upbringing… honestly I never cared enough to really dig into the why or how John became my godfather. Our relationship took shape in its own way, without any real connection to religion other than its beginning.
My paternal grandmother became acquainted with John in the 60s, I believe. That story is long and a little hazy to me, so I will focus on what John meant to me and give a couple of high points of our relationship.
My first memory of John was eating stacked enchiladas, New Mexico style, at my dad’s house. I would have been about eight years old. He had been around I’m sure, because I remember he existed in my mind as a kind of mysterious guy that had strange masks hanging in his house and was somehow affiliated with the museum. I knew he didn’t have a television, and this always amazed me. I’ve learned that he was far more prescient on that topic than I ever knew…
I remember we had intermittent interaction with John throughout my childhood, but nothing really stands out until my late teens when John re-entered my life. I was having some rough times trying to find my way in life, and I believe he reached out to me at the request of one of my parents. We went to eat at a restaurant in Fort Worth called Caro’s - home of the puffy tacos. This would become the first of one of my many culinary adventures with John.
John in many ways was my connection to a world that otherwise I didn’t have much exposure to - folk art, fine art, adventurous eating, Latin Americas adventures, birdwatching - John’s world just had a different orbit than mine. Since his passing I’ve reflected on this quite a bit, and whether John knew it or not, he was the catalyst for what would become many of my interests and hobbies. After that meeting at Caro’s we went to dinner fairly regularly, though looking back, not regularly enough. He would tell me about his travels to places , some of which I had barely heard of, much less been to - Bhutan, Malta, Bulgaria, Cuzco, Santa Fe. We ate at Hula Cafe, Cafe Veracruz, Green Papaya, Cosmic Cafe, Spiral Diner - all places I still enjoy today. He took me to the King Tut exhibit at the DMA years ago, and we visited a number of other museums and galleries over the years. The depth of his knowledge on just about any topic was absolutely amazing. As life went on, I married, divorced, married again, had a child. Depending on how busy my life was, the frequency of our meals together ebbed and flowed. I think we always enjoyed our visits - he remained my connection to a different world, and I think I was a connection to a world he didn’t experience - marriage, kids, corporate America.
The highlight of our relationship was a trip we took together to Bolivia. I speak Spanish fluently, and had traveled quite a bit in Mexico and South America, so John approached me about going to Carnival in Oruro, Bolivia with him. The festival is known for its elaborate costumes and marathon series of processions. John wanted to take pictures of the parades. It was quite the adventure!
The altitude is above 10,000 ft, and by this time John would have been in his late seventies, but John was a trooper. We stayed in Bolivia at that altitude for a week. Driving from La Paz was an epic adventure - off roading to avoid impromptu street markets, going through crime ridden El Alto, almost being robbed in Oruro. But John and I had a great time. I still have a condor mask used in the Oruro procession hanging in my office.
I have so many fond memories of John. I wish now I would have made more time over the last few years to spend more time with him, and I wish I would have made more of an effort to be less distracted and more present during the times we were together. I guess that’s the way it goes. I did get to eat burgers with John just a couple of months before he died.
I wrote a lot, but I hope you can find something in here to put in your journal article about John. He was special to me in more ways than he knew. I am a far richer man having known him.
I was disappointed, to say the least, to miss John's memorial service.
That week was the only opportunity to see all my kids and grandkids in one place at the same time, in California.
Heather attended, and said it was beautiful. Thank you for all your dedication to his memory, for your friendship.
John and I visited over lunch most Wednesdays (or sometimes another day of the week, due to our schedules) from 2008/2009 until he went into the hospital the last time. We probably had almost 500 lunches together, all told.
John was "our man of culture", albeit his heyday in the forefront Dallas's artworld had come and mostly gone by the time I met him. But he still reigned large in his community, which I was lucky to become a part of.
We met at Nodding Dog Coffee in the burgeoning Bishop Arts District in 2007/2008. Friends from Jeff Chandler's early morning yoga class, which I was a member of, and others, would occasionally gather there for coffee.
So John and I met through friends and proximity, and immediately began to share our art lives.
Meeting John was like finding an old lost friend, as he was partly responsible for the DMFA art collection and exhibits in the 60s and 70s that I grew up looking at with a hunger. He influenced my world view without me even knowing him so long ago.
We got a kick out of our how our lives overlapped in time, when we finally had the pleasure to get to know one another. Upon learning my last name, he inquired if I was related to Caro Carapetyan, who used to direct the Dallas Symphony Chorus in the 60s. Caro was my dear Grandfather. He was a generation older than John, but they had known one another as art professionals in the nascent Dallas cultural scene. As in my relationship with my grandfather, my relationship with John was as an artistic forefather of sorts. His life's work was part of my heritage, as it was for so many of the art community in Dallas. He was a carrier of a lineage of artistic scholarship and knowledge. He knew stuff I was curious about, and I wanted to know more.
I don't have a specific story to tell, but here's a picture he let me draw of him while we were visiting at his house around 2010.
I'll miss him.
May he rest in peace.
My memories of John concern more the general texture of our friendship. However, I do have a somewhat humorous recollection. During planning for the current Meadows Museum, which included a restaurant, John stopped by Bywaters Special Collections late one afternoon. With a combination of exasperation and weariness, he plunked down in a chair in my office and declared, “I’ve spent all day learning about commercial dishwashers!” Of course, he was a splendid director of the museum even though, that day, I was pretty sure that he would have preferred to have been examining art or bird watching.
John Lunsford’s passing marks not just the loss for many individuals of a beloved colleague and former professor but also the loss of a living link to an earlier era. As pre-Columbian curator at the Dallas Museum of Art for thirty years, director of the Meadows Museum, and professor of art history at SMU, John was indispensable in the cultural history of Dallas over the past sixty years. Always self-effacing, he skillfully passed on this vast reservoir of knowledge and experience to those of us fortunate enough to have known him. For example, John proved to be an invaluable resource for me and the other staff members of Jerry Bywaters Special Collections, Ellen Buie Niewyk and Emily George Grubbs. Mr. Bywaters had been instrumental in launching the careers of John, Ellen and me. But John had a slight head start, having been hired as an assistant curator at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (now the DMA) in the 1950s when Jerry Bywaters was its director. Having worked with him for so many years, John definitely had helpful thoughts about organizing the collection, a collection development policy and, of course, exhibitions; his ideas proved to be especially valuable after Mr. Bywaters’ death in 1989.
The consummate professional, John was an outstanding role model in many ways. For example, he was a gentleman who maintained high standards but personified the adage of disagreeing without being disagreeable. Conversations with John (often over lunch at Cisco Grill) were wide ranging and sometimes had surprises for me, Ellen, and Emily. For example, we learned that John’s many ties to SMU began even before his birth, when future SMU president Umphrey Lee, an ordained Methodist minister, performed the wedding ceremony of John’s parents. In relating this and other tales of his family, it became clear that John was very proud—but not prideful–about his deep Texas roots. We greatly enjoyed and learned from his reminiscences of growing up in Oak Cliff, his globetrotting stories (including his bird watching exploits), and his thirty years at the DMA. On more than one occasion, he and I discussed our shared affinity for the writings of C.S. Lewis, specifically Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters.
It is well-nigh impossible for me to put into words the many ways that I and countless other individuals benefitted from knowing John Lunsford. Perhaps the most fitting tribute to him came in 1995, when the Dallas Visual Arts Center named him as the recipient of its “Legend” award. That was perfect for John, since he personified that word in every way.
Blog post: Sam Ratcliffe, former Director, Bywaters Special Collections
Image: courtesy of Meadows Museum
Here are a few reminiscences about John:
I will never forget his small sign on the faucet of the sink in his downstairs bathroom that simply said: NO! because it didn't work right. Still makes me smile.
I house sat for him during one of his trips to India. This is the trip where the security person dropped his camera and broke his new lens he'd bought especially for the trip. He was devastated. His house was simply amazing, truly, especially his living room and his book room. What a treat it was to stay there for a week.
I am sure he didn’t really know what to make of me in the midst of all the uber preppie overindulged undergrads at SMU and oh-so-serious art history grad students--except Kathy Windrow who took studio-art-student hippie-chick to a whole new level (smile, Kathy!). With cowboy boots and Levi's I was a little different than most SMU students, and most Dallasites for that matter. Anyway, I would run into John in the hallways at the Meadows building during one of his night classes and we became friends; I think I amused him just a little.
My second year spring semester John and I had become friends and I rode along to Fort Worth with him quite often to go to the Kimbell, mostly for whatever exhibition was going on since I didn't yet have a car. He began talking about wanting to go to Big Bend and camp. So, by spring break I had secured a pickup, thinking he had camping equipment. I certainly didn't, having moved to Dallas with very little beyond the clothes on my back and about $17 in fall of 1985. He had no camping equipment, so I bought a two-man dome tent at Dick's and Jess and Kathy lent me a sleeping bag and backpack. It became clear John's idea of camping was much like the African safaris you see in films like Out of Africa or old Hollywood. And, John having his own thoughts on food (as most of you know), normal camping food wasn't going to cut it. So, we took some of the strangest food. We took off and camped the first night in the Davis Mountains near Indian Lodge and it snowed! John did okay but the lack of an air mattress and other comforts discomfitted him. (Smile everyone!) As many of you know, John's vast memory often left places locked in time in his head. So, when we arrived in Big Bend in Spring Break 1987, needless to say it wasn't as he remembered it. Wall to wall RVs, Big Wheel trikes, Frisbees, dogs, and a "cast of thousands" filled the main campground. I had relied on him to know about these things and this was before PCs and smartphones, so there was no place to camp. John was fairly inconsolable and kind of stopped functioning. (Some of you may have seen this happen with him.) I finally convinced him that we could sleep in the back of the pickup on the side of the park road, which we did. His mood had not improved the following morning. So, I did my best to resurrect the trip, not knowing where anything was. We drove through much of the park, and sight saw. We then headed to Terlingua (I needed a beer!). We drove through a couple thunderstorms that you don't find anywhere else but Big Bend, and he started to brighten up and come out of his funk. He was still very disappointed that Big Bend wasn't as he remembered it from the 1940s. We slept in roadside parks (I slept on a concrete picnic table one night) and made our way back to Dallas. Overall it was a great trip and I got to see things I'd never have seen. John taught us all to look and see. But he wasn't infallible and really didn't adapt to disappointment and change very well. He was my friend and mentor and I love him.
If this is usable and not disrespectful in your opinion, please use it. I will send another installment or two about our adventures.
While we were at Fort Burgwin/SMU in Taos during intersession 1987, and after the students had left, John decided he wanted to go to Cordova, a small Spanish village in the Sangre de Cristos. I say Spanish because many of the people in these remote villages up there consider themselves Spanish, not Mexican, and are quite proud of being direct descendants of peninsulares and criollos. Because of their remoteness and isolation, and also because many of these villages are practicing penitentes, they are not very welcoming to outsiders, especially Anglos. Anyway, John wanted to go to Cordova because it was a center for the carved (but not painted) santero tradition, with the Lopezes, Mondragons, and etc. as the best known artists. So in his blue Chevy POS we drove up into the mountains. Cordova then had one road in and the same road out, and is literally perched on the edge of the mountain. Let's just say the looks and stares we received upon driving into their village, it became clear we needed to get the hell out, John executed a perfect 25-point turn as there was nowhere to turn around. It reminded me of those old Hollywood B movies where the British explorers in pith helmets stumble into the remote African village purely by accident and just before their heads are removed, the villagers take pity on the fools. That was us in Cordova, but there were no smiles on the faces of the villagers when we exited. He was so sophisticated, yet so naive sometimes. It was one of the most charming and endearing things about John Lunsford.
McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City
Almost twenty years ago, my husband David Searcy introduced me to his longtime friend and mentor, John Lunsford. David shares John's passion for art of ancient cultures. Meeting for a meal together always began with a discussion, and competition, between the two of them about John's most recent acquisition.
Our group trip to Turkey became an art history field trip with Professor Lunsford. Mary Cook had charged me to take care of him. By the end of the trip we were all just trying to keep up with him.
However, I treasure most his willingness to play. I have pictures to prove it. Each time he would surprise me. Like the time I put a cardinal mask over his head and he seemed quite amused as he sat for his formal portrait. Or the time at one of our annual retreats at The Hacienda when Ruby spun him at wild speed in the hanging chair. When he recovered he started laughing. Thank goodness. Still a bit wobbly, but laughing.
For me, my favorite image of John is his portrait as a Balinese shadow puppet. That's just him to the T, the wise old man of the world. I am sure that I see a twinkle in his eye even in paint. What a twinkle.
I am honored to have called John Lunsford a friend. And I will always miss him.
Almost 50 years ago, John invited me and David Searcy to go with him
to see an African artifacts dealer who was in town. In those days
they were called ‘runners’ and were usually set up in motel rooms
with this fabulous stuff laying around the place. So who should be there already but Stanley Marcus. So my little memory consists of meeting Stanley Marcus in a cheap north Dallas motel room courtesy of our mutual friend.
“And drifting into thoughts of monstrousness and elegance. And how John moved so easily between them. And not only in his work. I thought of how our elegant friend could be prevailed upon to terrify our children, to transform himself by somehow flipping upside down his wonderful dental appliance and emerging, from behind concealing hands, a tusked and terrible (Archaic Greek, I think) monstrosity.”
In July, 2010, I became reacquainted with John on a trip to Turkey. Reacquainted, because I had always known him as a curator, working alongside him at the Dallas Museum of Art from 1977–1990. John was IT at the museum; he knew everything and everybody, and was a fixture in the museum library, where he devoured the NYT, as well as in the darkened galleries where he explained pre-Columbian gold to gold-studded docents. But John was most at home in the art storeroom, where he meticulously measured, sketched and labeled works of art from far-flung places. I was fortunate to just observe and take notes. His wide-ranged knowledge was far beyond the art history canon I had studied, and at staff lunches in the “prep room”, he often entertained us with the stories of opera and his travels into the wilds. So, years later, when I was invited, along with my husband Rick, on a “free” trip to Turkey with John and others of the Dallas arts community, I jumped for it. Our small group found ourselves to be celebrities-- for no reason-- to the fervid followers of the Gulen Movement, which had underwritten our tour. The very first day set the pace in Istanbul, jet-lagged and eager, skimming through museums, newspaper offices and neighborhoods, down the Bosphorus, eating baklava puzzles that resembled Obama. In a school we managed to pause in one long hallway of plaster busts. John Lunsford posed, facing down a stern statue. I’m sure he could tell you the name of this sultan, and recorded it in his ever-present pocket notebook. It wasn’t until later that we all realized the similarity of noses in profile... The entire trip was like a whirling dervish, and John gained steam as we ventured forward, talking constantly. But by his gravitas, he also maintained a stable atmosphere for those of us who suspected we had been kidnapped by a mysterious, but very kind, cult. Nothing like bonding with fellow travelers in a quixotic land where you fear you might never return home.
> Ginger Geyer
Many of us have marveled over the past few days at how successful John has been in compartmentalizing his world. As we celebrate this great man's life, it has been fascinating now to meet John's friends and colleagues from these other lives. John is major part of the history of the Dallas Museum of Art , SMU and the Meadows Museum and the city of Dallas It is important that as memories fade we do not lose what John Lunsford has meant to those that knew him and to those that will come to know him in the future. For this reason I encourage all of us to take a minute and to write a paragraph about what he meant to you. John's closest friends are working on a way to compile these thoughts so that they can be shared in the future. In this issue I have included the memories of some of John’s closest friends. I hope we receive many more contributions that may be compiled in a more permanent way than this forum.
How did John and I come to know each other. In 1974 I was returning to Dallas after living for almost 4 years in Bahrain just off the coast of Saudi Arabia.. I had been serving in the Navy until I resigned my commission in in late 1973. Anyway I proclaimed myself an art dealer and opened up a shop on Oak Lawn called The Bahraini Chest. This decision created a marketing nightmare as no one could spell it, pronounce it or more importantly find it. Undaunted by the fact that I had dropped Art History at Tulane after three weeks because it was boring I called John Lunsford to present the curator with a Yoruba mask I found in Kenya. If anyone did not deserve any credibility in the art world it certainly was me. But I was delighted when John made his first trip to my shop. I had absolutely no idea how important this visit would be to the next forty five years. Proudly I presented my mask and John said it’s very interesting. I replied that I had no idea what that meant. John said its one of a kind. I was still confused. John said the mask is mushy. A little frustrated I said that I wanted his opinion in plain language. John looked me straight in the eye and said John this mask is a fake, a decorative piece made for sale. I thanked him and from that moment he knew that I wanted candor and I knew that he would always tell me the truth. John became one of my important mentors. We worked together on many projects; however, probably my proudest moment was when he first asked my opinion on an object he was studying. And since he was responsible for me being in that position I suspect it was a moment for him as well. The height of our collaboration was 2013 when Margaret McDermott sent us both to Paris on behalf of the McDermott Foundation and the Dallas Museum of Art to evaluate the Barbier Pre-Columbian collection that was to be auction at Sothebys. A week in this city with John looking at art and experiencing life is as close to perfection on earth that I can imagine. And even then at 81 he walked that city like he was in his 30’s. What an experience.,
John made enormous contributions to both the Dallas Museum of Art and the Meadows Museum. His legacy should not, however, be measured in objects or bricks and mortar. His legacy is all of us. Without John’s influence in my life it is inconceivable to me that I would have had a career in tribal art that now spans 45 years. I certainly would not have been a tribal art appraiser on Antiques Roadshow since its inception in 1996. So John thank you.. thank you for your guidance, your patience, and your friendship.
John Lunsford Eulogy July 2019
In the late 80’s, Cheryl and I co-hosted a “Dress as you were in the 1960’s Party.” I was dressed in a white and black leather motor cycle jacket and blue jeans, unfortunate, most likely with bell bottoms. The door bell rang and I happened to answer it and there was John, standing in a tweed jacket dressed just like he always was. I asked him why he had not dressed a little more the part and he got that look on his face when he was about to zing you and he said, “I bought this jacket in the mid-60’s.”
In my experience, it was always difficult or actually near impossible to get John to answer his phone at the museum.
John was the best generalist I ever encountered. He was knowledgeable about all art history, not just in his area of specialization. When he came to the gallery he would engage with the contemporary artists on view and his taste was diverse. When we went out to dinner, John’s stories were never edited and full of lively details about people and events. What a memory!
About a month before John passed, I had a lovely long phone call with him. I don’t remember why I called except it had to do with something related to the history of Dallas. Cheryl suggested I call John as he was the only one we knew with the age and memory to have known the answer. During our conversation it dawned on me that, even though he was a go-to person on a certain aspect of the Dallas arts scene, I did not know if he had been properly interviewed to record his life story and his participation and behind the scenes knowledge of goings on at the Dallas Museum. John said that he had been interviewed in the past about his knowledge and interactions with other people, but not just about him. I asked him if he would be amenable and he indicated that he might be if he liked the interviewer.
My next call was to the Dallas Museum of Art archivist who was very amenable and promised to start the process of generating a proposal to send John. I wish I had called John about 6 months earlier. Unfortunately, he took a lot of Dallas history with him when he passed. Cheryl and I often saw him at all kinds of events through the years; we will miss him.
John Lunsford was a good friend, schoolmate of mine at Columbia’s Grad School, and fellow friend of the Mc Dermotts and the Dallas Museum. He eptomized the qualities of a. Southern Gentleman. John would always give you his frank opinion on a piece of African art if he knew you could take it.