Dr. John M. Soderberg, Sculptor
A family biography
on Indian motorcycle, 1917.
John Soderberg's grandparents from both sides immigrated to America from Sweden, Denmark, and Holland. 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 among 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. Having been 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.
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. He met Betty Lee Van de Mark in college, and they were married by Dr. Charles Fuller.
King Mohammed Zahir of Afghanistan, in the mid 1940s, was interested in bringing his country out of the technological dark ages. He commissioned young Richard Soderberg to be Director of the Afghan Institute of Technology in Kabul, that country's first engineering school.
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. Motoring 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.
Upon reaching Kabul, the young couple was 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.
John and father Richard in Kabul, Afghanistan, 1953
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 four 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 nearly five years old, the family left Afghanistan to live and work in India with the Technical Co-operation Mission, in New Delhi. 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 Soderberg monument was still there.
At age five in India, John began painting in oils with his father's oil-paints and brushes. The family travelled constantly, and spent time all over India, from Calcutta to Kashmir. John stood in the Taj Mahal at midnight with moonlight from a full moon bouncing off the lily ponds into the white marble. They lived in a carved wooden houseboat on Lake Dahl for a month, and rode on horseback up to the glaciers of the Himalayas at age 7. After living five years in that country, the family moved to Thailand where John studied teakwood carving with the leading master, a Buddhist monk, at age 12. The U.S. State Department was nervous about Americans living overseas "going native," and made it mandatory to visit America for one week every two years. As a result, the Soderberg family circled the world eight times, visiting churches, museums and galleries worldwide, and experiencing the world's great art.
They visited the Holy Land several times, saw Lazarus's tomb, stood in the Garden of Gethsemane, walked in 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 over the abyss by St. Peter and judged by Christ. He was moved by the master's humility. The family stayed in Beirut when it was the Paris of the East and explored Persia and Scandinavia. John studied the sculptors carving in Hong Kong, and was amazed at their skill.
David, Paul, and Steve, John's brothers, all developed in their own directions. David started studying piano at age 5, and composed at 12. He studied some medicine, and by the eighth grade was involved with higher calculus. By then, he had read everything Freud ever wrote. He is a gifted poet, novelist, musician, mathematician, and bronze sculptor today, living with his family in Idaho.
Paul, John's second oldest brother, was fascinated with the natural world. By the time he was 14 years old, he was director of the herpetology department of the museum in Bangkok, corresponding with the Smithsonium Museum, and collecting requested specimens for that institution. Being asked for a certain species of watersnake one day by the Smithsonium, Paul put the word out to Thai farmers and fishermen. Three showed up at the Soderberg home with bamboo baskets of watersnakes, possibly 60 in all. Having no other place to put them, he placed them carefully in the klong-jar in the bathroom. Klong-jars were giant four feet high ceramic water containers which were kept filled with clean water, for bathing use when the city water stopped, or was an unhealthy looking color. That night, John was awarded his Brown-Belt in Tae Kwon Do, and the other students to celebrate took him on his first, (and only,) experience with Thai rice-whiskey. After surviving a taxi ride home, he staggered to the bathroom for a shower, trying not to wake his mother. Finding the water supply off, he dipped a bowl into the klong-jar for a dipper bath and sloshed the mixture of snakes and water over himself. Having heard that drunks sometimes saw snakes, and being un-experienced with drunkenness, it took him some time to realize the snakes on his shoulders were real. John's mother was unfortunately awakened by the screaming, as John chased Paul around the house.
Other snake-collecting trips included numerous experiences in the jungles of Northern Thailand. Paul had an older friend, Gordon Young, son of missionaries, who was born in the jungles and largely raised by the Lahu Hill-tribes people. The Lahu people were quite primitive, and lived in the mountains as they had done for centuries. Gordon became a contract-killer of man-eaters, for several countries. He once tracked a Bengal tiger for two years before he was able to kill it. The tiger had killed and eaten over 2,500 people. It was turned man-eater by a porcupine quill in its knee, which prevented it catching its natural prey and left it no option but to turn to less desirable slow-moving people. Gordon later became interested in herpetology, and met and befriended Paul. John, Paul, and Gordon spent many memorable weeks in the jungle and the mountains with the Lahu, searching for a 22 feet long scarlet-black King Cobra, a snake which had never been scientifically classified. Paul left Thailand for University in Arizona. After graduating with a perfect record, he was first runner-up for the Rhodes Scholarship. Instead of going to Oxford, he went back to Afghanistan in 1971 with the Peace Corps. Within six months he was a full Colonel in the Afghan army, serving as liaison between the U.S. government and the Afghans during the worst famine in that country's recorded history. 600,000 died in the winter of 1972, and Paul personally saved over 16,000 people from starvation. He now lives in Arizona as a professional novelist.
Steve, John's younger brother, followed in his father's footsteps by becoming an engineer. He lives with his family in Arizona, and expresses his art through woodcarving.
John's two daughters, Heather and Misty, 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 T.V., in the National Enquirer, People Magazine, National Geographic, and other magazines, newspapers and shows before they each 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 commissions, as well as collaborating with their dad on monumental bronzes.
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 and education to the disadvantaged, and many other functions. For the past 15 years, he has been Santa Claus on a Harley to the orphans of Agua Prieta, Mexico.
John has completed monumental bronze commissions for private parties, corporations, churches, and organizations across the country, including Amnesty International, the Crystal Cathedral, Rancho Feliz Charitable group, Free The Slaves organization, the Sedona Synagogue, Pepsico Corporation, Texas Winery Products, Jacmar Foods, the Honeywell Foundation, Wilden Pump and Engineering, and others. He has sculpted numerous influential figures including Christ, Steve Biko, Moses, Al Stein, Merlin, Billy Graham, Norman Vincent Peale, Mark Honeywell, Bill and Vieve Gore, Robert Schuller, Jim Wilden, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, St. Catherine of Siena, Gil Gillenwater, and others. Five castings of his �Freedom Award� are presented each year at a major Free The Slaves event in Los Angeles, to five people world-wide who have done the most to expose and eradicate contemporary slavery. Presenters of the award have included Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, Isabelle Allende, and other notable people.
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.