Published in The Washington Post on Dec. 30, 2018
John Safer September 6, 1922 - December 7, 2018 John Safer
(age 96) of McLean, Virginia, born September 6, 1922 to John
and Rebecca Hertzmark Safer, died peacefully on December
John was an American sculptor. Safer's varied career spanned
work in theater lighting, television, real estate, politics and banking. In 2017, at the age of
ninety-five, with his editor and wife Joy at his side, Safer authored and published his first
book, "Reflections and Reminiscences". Last month they finalized his second book, Volume II
of the same title. John Safer was best known for his monumental sculptures but he also
created many smaller works. These include award sculptures for Smithsonian National Air
and Space Museum, PGA Tour, Georgetown University Lombardi Cancer Center, World
Peace Foundation, and the Shakespeare Guild. Safer's works stand in museums, galleries
and embassies throughout the world. In 1972 and in 1989 the U.S. Department of State sent
a group of Safer sculptures abroad to be exhibited as examples of America's finest art.
President Gerald Ford presented Safer's, Limits of Infinity, to King Juan Carlos of Spain as a
gift of state. Safer never stopped creating sculpture. He worked with his stepdaughter,
Kathryn Scott, to whom he taught his trade and offered his mantle. In 2007 they began work
on a monumental sculpture, Quest, for the Wilmer Eye Institute. Safer, a patient, donated the
multi-ton sculpture as a gift of appreciation. Over the next ten years the Safer-Scott partners
continued to collaborate on private and public projects and in 2014 Scott began negotiations
with MGM Resorts International for a centerpiece at MGM National Harbor in Maryland. The
60 foot high stainless steel sculpture, Unity, weighing eighteen thousand pounds and
unprecedented in its scale, was installed two years later on November 12, 2016-one month
before the opening of the $1.4B resort. Additional monumental work is currently in production.
Safer explains the motivation behind his sculpture: "At its best, sculpture can give a glimpse
of the relationship between that with lies within us and that which does not. I strive to make
works that will elevate the human spirit. What I see and try to capture is the movement of
beauty. I try to freeze a line of motion that expresses strength, power or grace. I try to grasp
and make permanent something that is ephemeral."
Born and raised in Washington, DC, Safer learned to read and write by the age of four. At this
time, his mother entered him into the first grade at the Maret French School. Safer continued
as a precocious student. Fluent in French, he entered high school Wilson High (1937) at
the age of eleven and graduated when he was fourteen. He entered George Washington
University at age sixteen where he majored in economics. In 1945, after serving in India,
Burma, and China as a flying cadet in WWII, Safer returned to attend Harvard Law School.
While still in Europe, Safer opted for an additional year in the Air Force in order to fulfill a
dream of seeing Europe's great works of art. A fortuitous event resulting in Safer spending
time alone at the Accademia in Florence with Michelangelo's, The Prisoners, gave John an
insight that was to impact his entire life and transform his artistic career. After Safer
graduated from Harvard Law School in 1949 his fascination with the emerging technology of
television prompted him to take a job at WXEL in Cleveland, Ohio.
In 1953 he returned to Washington DC to take over his father's affairs which he parlayed into
a major real estate development business. In 1974 Safer entered the world of banking
becoming Chairman of the Executive Committee of Financial General Bankshares and later,
the Chairman of the Board of DC National Bank, which became part of the Bank of America.
Earlier, Safer served as treasurer for the Eugene and Agnes Meyer Foundation. In 1999
Safer became Chairman of the Board of Materia, Inc. a company that specializes in olefin
metathesis and is noted for it's 2005 Nobel Prize winning green chemistry.
Safer's interest in sports provided the inspiration behind many of his sculptures. Dancer and
the Dance, Serve, Before the Wind and Line of Flight are works that capture a line of athletic
motion. Safer holds awards in marksmanship, baseball and bowling. He played competitive
golf, well into his eighties, and won tournaments at the Lyford Cay Club, Burning Tree,
Woodmont Country Club and at Linville Ridge.
Safer has been awarded three honorary degrees, has been the subject of two books, has
sculpture listed in the Guinness Book of World Records, is named in several Who's Who
Publications, served as Founder and Director of the Washington Gallery of Modern Art;
Founder of the Washington Tennis Center, served on the Board of Directors of the
Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, The Scripps Research Institute, and The
Shakespeare Guild. And of most importance to John, he influenced the lives of countless
friends and family who consider him a role model and a mentor.
John is survived by his wife of 35 years, Joy Scott Safer; his children, Janine Whitney and
Thomas Safer; step-children, Kathryn Scott and Mark Scott; grandson, David Whitney; and
step-grandchildren, Shawn Scott and Melia Scott.
A celebration of his life will be held this Spring in Washington, DC and a digitized version of
the same will be produced sometime in the future.