Sculptures embody beauty … and sculptor’s life

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Friendship Village in Tempe is home to a centenarian who is also a gifted sculptor. (Wrangler News photo)

By Jonathan Coronel

By carving out one’s path in life, adversity often has a way of throwing a wrench in the best laid plans. Local centenarian John Bestall is certainly no stranger to adversity.

Growing up in Downey, Calif., the son of two Irish immigrant parents, Bestall learned the example of hard work from his parents. During World War II, because she was fluent in five languages, Bestall’s mother applied for and was hired on the spot for an assistant position to a colonel in the Army, who was able to pull some strings and help his parents gain citizenship.

Meanwhile, Bestall, already married, began serving at Barbers Point Naval Air Station in Kapolei, Hawaii.

While serving there, Bestall became a metalsmith 1st class as a result of his skill at repairing planes that had been damaged by the enemy.

“There wasn’t anything on an airplane that I couldn’t fix—I was valuable to them and it was a good deal for me since I learned so much,” Bestall says.

Tragedy struck one day while working on the base, however, when a Japanese bomb exploded and left Bestall completely deaf. Luckily, thanks to his skill with his hands, Bestall would return to California and find work as an industrial arts teacher at a public high school.

He wouldn’t catch any easy breaks, though, being assigned as a teacher at a high school notorious for its troublemaker students.

Bestall quickly proved his mettle and laid down the law.

“Some of these students did not like me telling them what to do. One student was a lightweight boxer and brought two sets of boxing gloves to class one day, so we fought. He didn’t cover up so I shot a left jab and caught him in his right eye—turned the right side of his face black,” said Bestall.

It was a pretty good advertisement in case anyone else wanted to cross me!” he says laughingly.

As an industrial arts teacher, and later professor at the College of San Mateo, Bestall loved to create sculptures. Making casts to precise specifications, he would take them to the local foundry, where they were cast in bronze. These days, he’s a resident at Friendship Village in Tempe.

Today, every one of Bestall’s sculptures starts with pen and paper, where he meticulously plans his project to make sure it comes out just right. His precision and skill are evident in his favorite piece, a charming bronze sculpture, titled Pulqueria after the infamously rough and tumble saloons of the same name found in Mexico, that sits at the entrance to his room.

“The pulqueria is not a very nice place; it has a corrugated iron roof and an earthen floor. I named it that because I remember walking down the street knowing I shouldn’t go in there.”

Bestall’s next sculpture, one he plans to give his granddaughter, will presumably be something totally different. “I’m 100 years old. I’m aware my age isn’t going to get any easier, so it’d be a nice thing to do for her,” Bestall says.

What shines through in our conversation with Bestall is his sunny disposition. Despite losing his hearing, and more recently his beloved wife, Bestall takes things in stride.

“You are who you are, so make the best of it—that’s it. One reason I could be so free and easy about it was that I had skills to fall back on, like being a metalsmith, working on shot-up planes. I knew no matter what the problem was, I could fix it.”

Indeed, Bestall has sculpted his life with the same dedication that he does his artwork, and the result has been a masterpiece greater than any made from mere bronze.

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