CHICAGO — Richard Hunt’s pieces are on display all over the world and the 86-year-old has more in the works. But after a sudden heart emergency nearly ended his long career, it took some imagination in the operating room to save the sculptor’s life.
Hunt, who grew up in Chicago, always had an eye for the abstract.
“I’ll say to people, ‘I make pieces that are coffee table size or plaza size,’” he said.
His North Side workshop could be considered a piece of art, too. It’s an old electric substation that once powered city streetcars.
You can spot some of his pieces around town – like the stainless steel “Free Form” suspended above LaSalle Street. And Hunt’s most recent public commission stands tall in Bronzeville, the Ida B Wells National Monument “Light of Truth.”
The sculptor’s hands are always at work, often after his assistants have left for the evening. In late 2020, Hunt was sanding when he suddenly fell to the ground. He was able to phone for help and was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
The major artery supplying blood to Hunt’s organs was about to rupture.
“Richard came in with a very serious life-threatening emergency, an aortic dissection,” cardiac surgeon Dr Christopher Mehta said.
The typical course of action would be immediate open-heart surgery. But Hunt’s fall resulted in bleeding around his brain.
“The blood thinners we would need to give him to put him on the heart-lung machine would also very likely make the head bleed worse,” Mehta said. “And that could potentially be fatal for him as well.”
With traditional surgery off the table, Mehta had to improvise with a less-invasive approach.
“(Hunt) uses a lot of creativity in what he does and often as surgeons, we need to be creative in the things we do,” he said.
He delivered the large stent through a catheter to reinforce Hunt’s aorta and restore proper blood flow.
“Truthfully, we were not certain how well it would go,” Mehta said. “Fortunately we were able to establish blood flow to the true lumen and he did well after that. … I did not know how important a sculptor he was. He very casually mentioned it actually a couple of days after surgery.”
“Obviously I can’t say enough about the good doctor,” Hunt said.
And there’s much more work to be done.
Titled “Bird Book,” Hunt’s latest public commission is in small-scale model form at the moment, but the piece will grow and ultimately land at the new Barack Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s South Side.
Mehta was so inspired by his patient he took his family to see his work.
“I took my wife and daughter to his exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago,” he said. “That was a really important moment for me, bringing my daughter there. It’s an honor for me to be involved in his care.”
Hunt says he plans to complete his sculpture for the Obama Presidential Center in about six months. He has no plans to slow down.