James Ding: All You Need Is Love (and Art)

XOXO sculpture in Southampton at night
James Ding’s “XOXO” sculpture lit up at night installed in its temporary home at the Southampton Arts Center just in time for Valentine’s Day.
Kallie Gordon

Southampton artist James Ding was driving on Tuckahoe Road near the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club when he was hit by a lightning bolt. Ding hadn’t been caught in an electrical storm. He had experienced one of those moments when a vision appears out of the cosmos so suddenly and so powerfully that it demands maximum attention.

A year and a half later, the vision Ding saw in his mind’s eye — a massive steel sculpture measuring over seven feet high and 28 feet wide — made its public debut outside the Southampton Arts Center just in time for Valentine’s Day.

“This lightning bolt hit my head and I couldn’t get it out,” Ding says. “I saw everything – the color, the size, the materials, the location. Within three days, I had built a model out of balsa wood.”

As its name implies, the piece, entitled “XOXO” consists primarily of four separate elements: two aluminum X’s and two dark brown steel O’s, each of which weigh over 200 pounds. The sculpture will be illuminated for night viewing with strands of color-adjustable LEDs outlining its perimeter. Along the footers of the main pieces, Ding has inscribed two messages. When read sequentially, one message says: Thought Creates Reality. In at least a partial nod to the Beatles, a second sequential message reads Love is All You Need.

The artist with “XOXO,” freestanding; aluminum
and painted steel
Marc Horowitz
XOXO sculpture in Southampton James Ding artist Master Craftsman
The sculpture, as it stands in Southampton for all to see.James Ding


The messages Ding chose to inscribe in the footers of his work are entirely consistent with a creative ethos he discusses in his artist’s bio.

On Thought Creates Reality: “An idea comes to me like a lightning bolt,” he writes. “It strikes and is unrelenting. At first, I make a maquette (model) to get it out of my head. This process solidifies the dream and brings it into the next level of reality. Each piece will only come into life if I breathe life into it.”

On Love is All You Need: “This exciting phase of my artistic life expresses the affirmation that love has dynamic power,” he notes. “Throughout history, art has been used to convey a social message. My message is love. It is my hope that these new and unique art pieces speak to people’s minds and touch their hearts. I hope to impact people to think about love; ignite how they feel about love and inspire them to act in love.”

Ding, 72, has been creating things in one form or another for his entire life. He grew up in Levittown in an original Levitt & Sons house, where his first foray into art involved hand-lettering neighborhood kids’ names on the sides of the banana seats of their bicycles. In his teen years, he made a name for himself designing buttons and posters for his high school class.

“I never thought of being an artist,” he says. “I just was.”

Ding at workMarc Horowitz

It would be decades before Ding turned seriously to sculpture. He chose not to major in art in college at SUNY Oneonta. But he did create what was for him a seminal piece of work for an art class he took there. He made a copy of a Henry Moore sculpture he had found in a book. Though Moore created the piece in brass, Ding carved his homage to Moore in marble.

“I was at the studio more than the art majors,” he notes. “That sculpture class transformed everything for me.”

Ding says that one of the reasons he chose to work in marble was because a few years earlier, he had been profoundly affected when he viewed Michelangelo’s Pieta, which was flown in from the Vatican and displayed at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. (A New York Times report from 1964 noted that the World’s Fair exhibition was the first time that the Pieta had left the Vatican since Michelangelo smuggled it into St. Peter’s in a horse-drawn cart 465 years ago.)

“Playful,” rotatable; brass, copper, bronze and stainless steelJames Ding

After graduating from Oneonta, Ding got a certification in Industrial Arts from Central Connecticut State College. He eventually landed a gig teaching high school metal shop in Bristol, CT. At the time, Bristol was a manufacturing town that made parts for General Motors and supplied several local factories. The local high school’s industrial arts classrooms were very well equipped and provided Ding with access to a variety of sophisticated fabrication equipment and the chance to hone his skills.

“The high school had a gigantic tech wing,” he says. “I was like a kid in a candy store. I had all the facilities. I was able to do anything I wanted.”

Ding assembling one of the elements of his “XOXO”Kallie Gordon

When he wasn’t teaching, Ding focused his creative energy on furniture making and restoring and reimagining vintage British Mini automobiles. Since the 1970s, Ding has worked exclusively on the British Minis and still works on them today, but only those made under the auspices of their original manufacturer. He has no interest in Minis made after 2000, the year BMW began selling a new version of the Mini with rights it acquired in 1994 when it bought the company from the Rover Group.

While in Bristol, a fellow teacher introduced Ding to screen printing – a craft that ultimately led him to Southampton.

Drawn to the East End partly for its beauty and partly for its then-untapped market for quality screen printing services, Ding opened the T-Shirt Factory in Southampton. Most of his revenue in those days came from supplying promotional materials to local businesses. Initially, he maintained a home in Connecticut, commuting back and forth between his teaching gig in Bristol and his burgeoning printing business in Southampton. But in 1980, with his marriage dissolving, he moved permanently to the Hamptons, where he has lived ever since.

Ding with “Delight,” freestanding; rotatable;
painted steel
Marc Horowitz

Ding ran the T-Shirt Factory in one incarnation or another for almost 25 years, eventually taking in a partner, to whom he ultimately sold his half of the business.

Ding’s decision to sell had a lot to do with the changing dynamics of his market. “I created thousands of pieces of art for the business,” he says. “That was back in the day when people would come in and say ‘this is what I want. You come up with the idea.’ But towards the end of my career, my customers would be walking in with their art directors. All of a sudden, I was just someone else’s robot. It stopped being creative.” In the years that followed, Ding spent a large chunk of time restoring a waterfront home on the East End for a well-heeled client, and also working on the client’s Manhattan apartment. What began as a professional relationship eventually bloomed into a 15-year romance. When that relationship ended, Ding went through a difficult stretch.

“There was a two-year period where I was just kind of floating,” he says. After the breakup, I did a lot of praying. I would say a prayer every day, asking to be able to live my dreams. And that’s what led me back to sculpture.”

“All Directions,” wall-hanging; painted steelJames Ding

Ding began sculpting in earnest around the time the pandemic hit. Over three years, he created six major pieces, including “XOXO.” And more are in the works. After three years of intense prolificity, Ding finally created a website to display his work in January 2024. With “XOXO” up in  Southampton Village, it is the artist’s first-ever public showing of his sculpture.

When Ding is asked whether he’s nervous about putting his work out there – exposing it for the first time to the critical eyes of people he doesn’t know – his response is typically sanguine.

“I can’t control what they think,” he says. “I can only control what I think. It was made with love. Nothing else.”

This article appears in the Feb. 16, 2024 issue of Behind The Hedges, which also is published in the Dan’s Palm Beach edition in March. Read the full digital version of the magazine online. To read previous Master Craftsman columns click here.

The “XOXO” sculpture in Ding’s backyard.Marc Horowitz