John Hallett has always loved art as much as animals and science. But as he weighed his career options, his concern about making a living as an artist tipped the scales toward studying veterinary medicine. He softened the choice by setting the intention to create art alongside practicing medicine — a promise that the Class of 1990 UW School of Veterinary Medicine alumnus has made good on over the years as a lost-wax casting sculptor.
In keeping with his generous and civic spirit, Hallett offered to create a tribute sculpture for the school’s building expansion project, donating his time and talents — a proposition that was readily accepted by Kristi Thorson, associate dean for advancement and administration.
“There couldn’t be an artist more perfectly suited,” says Thorson. “As a DVM alum, his perspective on the journey students take in their training, combined with his love of science and respect for our researchers, will most certainly be reflected in the finished piece. He’s so sociable too. I appreciate his collaborative mindset … he plans on talking with alumni, faculty, staff and students to help guide his design process.”
The sculpture is scheduled for installation in 2023 and will be located in a prominent courtyard between the current and new buildings. It is an apt location for the sculpture, titled Forward Together, which aims to embody the spirit of education, research and community at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine.
The project will also benefit from another generous offer. Margo and Jack Edl, long-time friends, clients and donors to the SVM, have committed up to $100,000 to match all gifts directed to the new bronze sculpture project. Through the Margo and Jack Edl Match, they hope to inspire others to support this extraordinary opportunity to showcase veterinary medical students and their pursuit of a dream.
“Our love of animals and those who care for them is what inspired us to share this gift,” the Edls say. “We hope you will join us in support of what we believe will become an iconic symbol of the impact veterinary medical students have on the world.”
All gifts to the sculpture project will be doubled through the Edls’ one-to-one match. And because Hallett is donating his time, the project expenses are limited to materials and installation, making the match even more impactful. All gifts to the project will go to the physical costs of creation and installation.
“There couldn’t be an artist more perfectly suited. As a DVM alum, his perspective on the journey students take in their training, combined with his love of science and respect for our researchers, will most certainly be reflected in the finished piece.”
A Wisconsin native who grew up in Madison, Hallett has an interesting perspective on the founding years of the School of Veterinary Medicine as he literally watched it being built during his high school and college years in Madison. Knowing that a DVM program would soon be available in his hometown, he was excited and appreciative of the effort it took.
While a student at West High School, he forged the plan to become a veterinarian. With the aim of applying to the SVM, he focused his undergraduate studies on animal science at UW-Madison to meet the application requirements. When he eventually received notice that he was accepted to vet school, he was a “content young man” he recalls, having fulfilled his years-long dream.
Hallett’s Class of 1990 was the fourth class to be admitted to the SVM, completing the student body for the four-year DVM program. He is quick to recall how the school’s halls, labs and classrooms were full with students and how the administration celebrated that milestone.
True to his earlier pledge, Hallett continued making art while in veterinary medical school. “Some of the faculty bought animal-themed jewelry pieces from me,” he chuckles. “It really helped with my budget.”
In furthering his attachment to the SVM, Hallett counts meeting his wife Heidi Johnson, a Class of 1990 alumna, as the highlight of his student years. As newlyweds, they moved to Rhode Island, John’s birthplace, where they worked at a variety of small animal clinics. But both knew they would return to Wisconsin, with its’ many lakes, as John was an avid log roller and rower. In his spare time, he coaches log rolling.
Business and Pleasure
Once back in Wisconsin, the couple established the Hallett Veterinary Hospital in Oconomowoc. Over the years, their practice has doubled in size. Most recently, they expanded its campus to include a pet grooming business in a lovely old Victorian house on their property. This self-built business model has afforded the Halletts space and time to continue with their creative pursuits — John’s being sculpture and Heidi favoring painting and poetry.
For the past six years, Hallett has upped his creative game, driving an hour to the UW-Whitewater campus each week to audit sculpture classes. “And to work at their fabulous foundry,” he adds.
Ever the problem solver, Hallett has built two of his own furnaces for sculpting. “I’ve cast in my backyard, at a farm, and even in the Arizona desert,” he muses. “I built a furnace that runs on propane and forced air. I melt the bronze and pour it in the mold, following the lost-wax casting process.”
On the subject of arts and medicine, Hallett draws interesting lines between early exposure to art or other hands-on practices and the core competencies of a veterinarian. “Hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills are the foundations for being able to do surgery,” he explains. “If we have a new veterinarian come work with us, and they have never done anything with their hands — never solved problems using their hands — it’s more difficult to teach them.”
He believes there is a small window of time to introduce young people to the crafts that foster those skills. “It’s much harder to do as we get older,” he posits. “And in surgery, being confident and comfortable is important. If they come in with a base level of skills, I can teach them how to do it safely and efficiently. Their surgical speed will be better. It’s better from both a teaching and learning perspective.”
Molded in Generosity
Hallett is elated about his most recent creative undertaking — the bronze sculpture for the SVM expansion. “I’ve been talking with Kristi about my creative ideas for years now,” he says.
Having so many vivid memories from his time as a DVM student ignites his desire to be part of the school’s continuing story. “I have an emotional connection to the school. For me, it truly feels like family. The relationships I developed there over the four-year program have turned into lifelong friendships,” he says with a smile.
In May, Hallett returned to the school to meet with students, faculty and staff to gain insight and input on the project and to work on some clay models – drawing inspiration from the school’s two donor cows, Ginger and Flower.
“It seems like yesterday; I felt like I was coming home,” he says about the visit. “I can see how busy and crowded it has become, so I’m happy that the expansion is finally coming to life. I’m just excited to see the construction site … again.”
The project itself will be a multi-step, multi-year process. Hallett is currently working on concept sketches and drawings. In the early fall, he plans to meet with veterinary medical students to sketch models for the sculpture. This winter, he’ll work with clay to sculpt the figures. In 2022, after all of his drawings and figures are completed and the concept is approved, he’ll select a foundry. Later in the year, the models will go out to mold makers. In 2023, the foundry will cast and assemble the sculpture.
The aim is for the sculpture to be unveiled in late 2023.
“We’re so grateful for Dr. Hallett’s foresight and generosity,” says Thorson, who is leading the building project on behalf of the SVM. “In addition to being an immensely talented artist, I know that as a veterinarian and alum he’s uniquely qualified. I look forward to the process and know that he’ll do an excellent job of embodying the spirit of our school in a sculpture that will delight and welcome students, clients, graduates and visitors for years to come.”