Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Interview with John Suplee

I have always admired John Suplee’s American Impressionists Painting. Suplee is a local artist that has picked up where Horace Pippin left off, capturing the change and expansion of West Chester, PA. The paintings are common sights painted with confident brush strokes that wiggle around the contours of his subject, popping them from the bright blue skies that surround them. All of the paintings have a shade of red or orange peeking through these brush strokes. I later found out that Suplee’s favorite color is orange.

If I have already lost you with too much art vocabulary and a dizzying description of eye candy, beware, it is going to get more interesting. For, John Suplee is a man that was born too late. If he was born earlier he would be considered a gentleman, a scholarly man, a man of the arts and humanities…today he can be reached by phone not email. This is where my conversation starts. I had only met John once briefly at an art opening and was given his phone number to contact him and set up an interview. I called him and he was pre-warned of my request and graciously accepted. Like all of the interviews they are self serving. I get to eat and drink in the middle of the day while meeting and sharing with wonderful artists. This one turns out a bit differently, however, in a good way. While asking John where we would like to eat he replied that he didn’t really care for restaurants that had long descriptions on their menu and would rather I just join him at home so we wouldn’t be bothered with the distractions of people.  With my self-serving attitude I replied, “That would be great!  I’ll stop by Carlino’s and pick up lunch to be there by noon.”

There I was in Carlino’s Restaurant in West Chester with a plethora of gourmet delights. It is a dieter’s nightmare due to a maze of beautifully laid out food to eat in or take out. I wind my way through dried pastas, fresh cheeses, cured meats, prepared foods, wood oven pizza, hot and made to order, sandwiches, cookies, pies, cakes, and the register.  Dazed and confused, I needed to back track again to gain my bearings and focus on my appetite. I go with the daily specials, a brief menu with a few commas and short and precise descriptions. I take the tilapia sandwich with panko-encrusted tilapia and a chipotle tartar sauce.  For John, I try to play it safe with an Italian marinated chicken breast sandwich. I skip the mixed greens and tomatoes but ask for the sundried tomato spread on the side.  Making my way to the register I notice the bakery section and I think to myself, “We need desert.”  From there I begin thinking about dinner too. My arms are full. I should be able to convince any gentleman that gastronomy is alive and well in West Chester today.

Before I go into the interview, please let me set the scene. Sitting down at John’s newly designed kitchen island, I proudly serve my well thought out “simple” food. I hand John his sandwich and he graciously thanks me. He opens and inspects the sandwich and reaches for his knife, only to scrape every sesame seed off the top of the roll.  Seeds fly across the room landing all around us. Quietly he murmurs how upset his wife will be now that there is a mess.  I press record and allow the humor, the wit, and the contemplative answers to ensue.


How did you get started making art? 
Probably to see things that I couldn’t see without drawing them myself. As a little kid I drew a lot of things blowing up. When I became a teenager I worked on other things that teenagers wanted to see. Around that time, I transitioned into the idea that you could make things that were important that people would pay attention to.
Did you receive any formal art training?
Yeah. When I was a kid, the lady across the road put oil paints in front of me when I was six years old. She painted herself and was a teacher. She was an inspiration. In High school, my art teacher saw some stuff that I made and said you don’t want to take art here in high school. Then he just took four or five of my pieces and put them in an art show. He said I could just come in at noon and use the room if I want. I went to college in New York State, Hamilton College, which I partly picked because of the visual look of the place. I ended up majoring in art there, being virtually the only art major in my class. Instead of just going for an MFA, I’d just continue to work on my own. I studied like crazy. Even today I am just obsessed with searching out other imagery that is not necessarily what the major information streams feed you.
Describe your work in general for the readers?
It’s painting and drawing. I don’t put the drawings out much. I have sort of taken a pause now. But over the last five years I had a big spurt of life drawing. Over the years I have done that and I feel that sharpens my ability to draw other stuff.
What is your medium?
I use acrylic paints. I was working in oils a little before that. I found acrylics was much easier.
How do you choose your subject matter? 
There is never a shortage of ideas. I have always had more ideas than I could bring out. The ones that make it into reality are just sort of the lucky ten percent.
Why are you an artist?
Well, I think I am just sort of a loner type to begin with so I am able to tolerate the isolation and find it preferable to constantly being presented with expectations and interactions with others.
What are your thoughts on perfection?
It’s really overrated. There are painters who paint that way. There is a whole new school of classical realism. They have a rock and a feather and they look so freakin real and you think why? I try to keep it somewhere in between.
Tell me about some of your favorite techniques...
Well I find a great stress reducer for approaching an empty panel is to just do a brush drawing and usually it’s kind of a light shade of orange and eventually transfer into a dark shade of orange and I find corrections present themselves. Then I add white into my painting. The advantage is that I have a lot of orange and reds under my paintings.
How do you decide when an artwork is done?
When stuff that I do to it starts to take it downhill. Fortunately with acrylics, when I see a mistake coming I just wipe it. Even if the correction I am making still needs to be made if it starts out wrong I just, what I call, nuke it and take it back to point zero and then re-correct.
Who has been the biggest influence on your life?
The lady across the street, Aldan Knowls. My family, I had one grandmother who was particularly wise. She would take me into Philadelphia to a Thomas Eakins show. Also, while not extensive but meaningful encounters with Tom Bostelle and he’s the one who started me on the idea that the people who can teach you the most art are dead.
You have been quoted as saying “all art comes from other art” What other artists have inspired you?
Oh wow, well there is sort of a period. I think its more a question of a period of time and an approach to reality that is important to me. It goes from maybe 1870 to mid twentieth century and it’s all about the intersection of the physicality of a painting as it meets the visual world. Say if you take the Dutch landscape, they are all flat with a little bit of land on the bottom and then a sky. I think the big kick in the butt came from our intersection of Japan through Europe. Then all of the artists began to get the idea that you could arrange things and you could intensify things and you could paint things that were a combination of what you saw and what you felt. All the European artists began doing that and then all the American artists trotted over there.  Lately as I have been studying more and more and just recently began studying the internet finding all these obscure people out there that are hugely talented, some of them dead some of them not dead, I found the reason that the high end art is so lame is that talent is everywhere so its not a rarity. There have been a few people who have been given permission to draw representations by the really huge end art world.  Its not that they are so extraordinarily unusual it’s just that they some how sneak under the door.
Besides art what inspires you?
Collecting stuff.
For the beginning artist... what tip do you have?
What are you eating right now? 
I’m eating a dismantled chicken breast sandwich, which I scraped all the sesame seeds off. 
What is your favorite food?
Steak. My least favorite food is anything that takes a long time to describe. I have this sort of paranoid feeling that there is this vast network of menu writing schools. I am a really poor person to go out with for food. 
What does home mean to you?
I get very very attached to stuff that is familiar. My absolute best friend is my wife. We are very happy with our house and our cat. 
What was your mother right about?
Hmmm…Being funny. 
Money is OK, but it isn’t what life is about. What is it about?
Reduction of stress. 
Where did you grow up?
Here in West Chester in the country.
What is the last book you read?
Read…read? Well I’ll put in a plug for a book, I just glanced at by Odd Nerdrum called Kitsch More Than Art. 
You collect?
My wife is a non-clutter person so most of the collections are sort of conveniently put out of sight these days. Oddly enough, rugs were the only worthy objects that my family collected. But even that I backed off a bit because I have some rolled up upstairs that nobody sees. I have some Japanese prints. If I had my way they could easily go all the way up the stairs. Postcards too, it’s just because its random eyeball candy. 
Something that is important on your nightstand?
I have a little skull cap for when my head gets cold.
Your strangest possession?
A shard of glass left over from the accident scene where my childhood dentist was killed.
Your best birthday?
Maybe my fiftieth, Carol made me a nice big party.

You mean drama? I was in some plays. I remember [when I was in school] they took us on a bus trip to see Macbeth in NYC, which was cool.
Philadelphia Orchestra concert.
Plane ride-
Germany during a high school trip
Piece of art you sold-
In college I was doing a lot of free association pen line drawings. I remember that one of the professors in the psychology department bought like twenty or thirty of them.
What is your next trend and where do you see West Chester going?
I think in some ways West Chester is rediscovering itself and kind of becoming a new Manayunk. There are places it could be “do-dadded” up but I think the historical architectural integrity is recognized in the west end of town and they are sort of keeping the lid on, which is good. It doesn’t concern me to capture it. My concern is more about warning people then congratulating them.

I finished up with the questions; we finished lunch and our beers. I reminded John I had dessert, cupcakes, that were decorated accordingly. He reached for the carrot commenting that he likes orange.  We then proceeded through out the house admiring his art collection, his art and other collectibles. When we hit the third floor, he smiled. This was the end of our tour and we were where he loved to be, the “book room.” Every wall had shelves of books, books were then piled on the floor 3 stacks deep. Random sketches collectively piled in stacks then placed on stacks of books told the whole story. This was a gentleman that loved collecting for knowledge and inspiration. Now let's see how he holds up to the speed questions.

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