Jeff Waddle looks like he rides a Harley Davidson. He’s an artist in Little Rock, whose work is full of arrows and stars wiggling through sheets of metal or brightly painted pieces of wood. But many of the sculptures in his studio are chunks of glossy, light green steel by Waddle's long-time friend, the French artist Jean Faure, known simply as Jeanfo.
“He came over as a spatial artist,” Waddle says. “He was a painter in the 70s, and had a show in Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian and came over with this artist, Benini. And then Benini had told him about this little place in Arkansas — Hot Springs — and he felt that it was a lot like southern France, where he’s from, and knew that this was the place he needed to be.”
Jeanfo, now 85, lived in Hot Springs for more than 30 years. His pieces in Waddle's collection are distinctive, with thick, hammered curves, and the same shade of light green painted on every one. They stand out against Waddle's own work, but he says artistic similarities weren’t what drew him to Jeanfo.
“The passion he had for his work — I mean this guy was pumping every day, I mean, banging metal, bending — I was really blown away by that. And so I went over and started helping him move sculpture, you know, every time he would sell a sculpture… he’d give me a call and I’d help him move. And I kept helping him, and any time he needed help with anything, I was there. He had become like a father to me in the art world,” says Waddle.
Waddle and Jeanfo became close friends over the years. Though he kept his day job, Waddle began making art more frequently, inspired by Jeanfo’s drive and love of art. But eventually, Jeanfo needed help with more than just moving sculptures.
“He fell down in his studio one night, and called me,” Waddle says. “I told him to call an ambulance and right then I knew, cause it’s Jeanfo, he’s — I don't know, it’s pride or something, I don't know, I told my wife I don’t think he’s called the ambulance. So I got in my car and drove down there and sure enough he didn’t call the ambulance. So I put him over my shoulder, and Jeanfo’s a pretty big guy — strong, strong guy — and I took him to the hospital, and he just wasn’t doing good.”
That’s when Waddle decided to get Jeanfo back home. In Hot Springs, Jeanfo’s options were limited, but in France, his daughter could help him live comfortably. Waddle came home from his job as a copier repairman to spend nights repairing rusted, broken sculptures, and finding buyers so Jeanfo could afford the move.
“We went down the avenues,” Waddle says. “He gave me the rights to sell his work, to restore it to any way possible. The main goal is to try and get all of it restored so that him and his family will live on with his art.”
It’s been a couple years since Jeanfo went back to be with his daughter, but many of his pieces are still in Waddle's studio. Some are fully restored, while others are a dull rust-spotted grey. There are said to be more in his yard, and some bigger ones were left in Hot Springs, Waddle says. Earlier this summer, a collection he restored was put on display at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock It has been over a decade since they met, but Waddle still looks at the dents made by Jeanfo’s hammer, and marvels at his friend.
“I think it’s the drive and the passion that you see that come from artists… gets that fire in your belly. That’s what art does. And I saw that in Jeanfo.”
There’s a sign Waddle got from Jeanfo’s studio. It reads, “To work unworried by anyone and to become strong, this is the artist’s goal.” The quote is by French artist Paul Cezanne, a sort of mantra on Waddle's wall as he turns on the radio to classical music, picks up his torch, and begins his next piece.