John Ballantyne is a splendid artist who lives in Quebec with his wife, artist Liz Davidson. His work www.johnballantyneartist.com totally speaks to me. It has a monastic sense of serenity and yet, it's very accessible and easily relatable. Here’s our chat, but first a quote from John …
“I feel that when a painter is honest, their work has to be totally personal. It is only when we paint for the market and not ourselves that our work becomes empty.”
MICHAEL: Hey John, Okay, where do I begin with you? When I look at your work, I see Shaker architecture along with work that dwells in the beauty of structure, light, space, form, aloneness and Hopper-esqe solitude. As I look at these paintings, I ask, "Are these spaces less valid because we see no people in them?" Then I realize that what I want is quiet time to contemplate with these works. That's what your work is about for me. What does it mean for you?
JOHN: Okay, they mean very much the same thing to me. I come from a troubled background and have spent the last forty years trying to paint the world that I would have liked to have had as a child; a place of order, peace and harmony. A place where a benevolent sun turns the darkest corner into something wondrous. I have known the Shakers since the late 1950s. I fell in love with their buildings, their order, peace and harmony at a very early age and return to their Villages at every possibility. To misquote Louis Kahn, art exists at the threshold between silence and light or as he wrote 'at the meeting of the measurable and the unmeasurable'. Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth are my two cornerstones. They opened my eyes to what I wanted to do and how I hoped to do it. As Hopper wrote to Wyeth some years ago, "Andy, all I really want to do is paint how sunlight hits a white wall." In that I can agree 100 percent.
MICHAEL: I love that. Isn't it funny though that the world seems so obsessed with clutter and busyness? I think many people consider order, form and even harmony, boring, but aren't they the foundation for practically everything? Even great abstract painting has order and rhythm. Maybe I'm wrong.
JOHN: I will take that statement as a question. The 'BIG' art world likes to think of its self as a sort of self-contained utopia, but underlining every human activity is the order of the universe and it is this that I explore in my own, small, holographic way. My source material is Brome County, Quebec and the Northeast of the U.S., as I live ten minutes from Vermont. What captivates me are the structures that give voice to human aspirations. I seek out, what we humans have built with our hands and then I watch what the sun contributes using the sun as a source of light and also as metaphor for the great unknown. All artists follow some personal path, ordained by the time and place of their birth. There is an order in all of our undertakings. No one would confuse a Rothko for a Braque.
MICHAEL: When you are actually involved in the process of painting, is that process intellectual, emotional or spiritual? What are you bringing to the canvas that results in a finished product?
JOHN: The process is almost totally intellectual. But in smaller words, it is more trial and error. I just keep trying things until something works, kind of like trying all the keys on your key ring until the lock opens. One has to keep working until the emotion starts to come out. As Hopper wrote, "Much of every art is the expression of the subconscious." Like him, it seems to me most all of the important qualities are put there unconsciously. His words also: It is up to me the artist, to learn from the canvas and follow where the un/semi-conscious is taking me and not try to enforce some outdated scenario of what has to be or ought to be.
MICHAEL: Do you also think of your work as architectural or does it just so happen to be paintings of structures that you see or imagine?
JOHN: No, I do not consider my work architectural. The subjects you see in the paintings are my environment. Now then, am I drawn to the architectural? Yes! I live in a house built in the 1860s. I love every brick and window. I am probably the seventeenth man to care for and repair this house, clean and remount the storm windows and feed its stoves with fire wood during winter. This history is in every nail head in our floors, this is what I paint, this simple human story around me.
MICHAEL: That's fantastic. So, your home is really a living journal. That makes your paintings extremely personal. I sense a great deal of soulfulness in the paintings even though I only see bare walls, floors and seemingly empty spaces. There's an absolute presence in the emptiness. What is it? What are you saying?
JOHN: What it is, I do not know, but when I touch it I know I'm touching it. When I capture it, people know, they feel it too! I feel that when a painter is honest, their work has to be totally personal. It is only when we paint for the market and not ourselves that our work becomes empty. Funny, there is a great market for empty work, because the deeply personal frightens us.
MICHAEL: You know, the art market seems to be this "evil empire" that looms over the heads and hopes of artists who want to avoid "selling out" or not creating "true art." Is it not possible to be a true, gifted artist who is wildly successful and follows only his/her creative impulses without selling out?
JOHN: Oh yes, it is! But one must be very strong, with a clear idea of what one wants in life. I worked in an artist's studio in Toronto back in the 60's. Clement Greenberg was there one day giving advice for an upcoming show. He basically changed the entire show we were preparing. The artists went along with everything Clement said, changing every painting. I thought Clement was a shit and the artist were weak. The show sold well in New York! Later I found out that said artist was dying of cancer and needed money for his family. So, who is to say? Each of us must do as we must and try not to judge those who we think have sold out.
MICHAEL: A lot of people are suspicious of contemporary art. They feel like they must have some advanced education or knowledge to understand it. What do you think about this? Also, is it okay with you if people just like your work for what they merely see on the surface without understanding your motivation?
JOHN: All of us have the right to be suspicious of 'Contemporary Art.' When someone hangs a clothesline across a gallery space and then tells me it's a commentary on the state of sexual dysfunction in the modern urban society, what is one to say? Then, to insist that one is somehow not very educated is pure crap. Having said that, let me also say that we have wonderful people producing work that is contemporary. I lay blame for the distortions on our art schools, which are by and large found in universities, where all the emphasis is placed on concepts and not on the teaching of the artist métier. I saw a program on PBS on a school in Los Angeles where the students were dissuaded from exploring such mundane things as technique. Would you visit a surgeon whose education was pure theory and no hands on technique? As to the manner in which my paintings are viewed - All paintings must work as an image unto themselves. This is true for mine as well, so I must make sure the images are receivable for what they are. Many of my clients want to leave it at that, no background, fine! Maybe they see something else that I have not thought of. If so, that is as valid as my thoughts or intentions. Often I have learned much from these clients about our lives.
MICHAEL: The art world and the world in general also spend a lot of time focused on art as commodity and collectable, but somehow the whole point of art gets lost amid all of the commotion. What do you think?
JOHN: One can maybe say that on one level. Certainly the one percent have turned everything into a very expensive commodities market. I used to think of my collectors in three groups: one third bought because someone said it was acceptable to own my work, the second group bought because of the hope of financial gain, and the last gang bought because they really liked the work. So be it. Bring on the collectors, because I need to sell in order to live. I'm not so sure there is only one point to art. Maybe art is like life, a little different for each and every one of us. Each generation reinvents its needs and on it goes.
MICHAEL: Even though your work is serene and solemn, I do get a sense of urban hipness from it. Perhaps that's my own bias. Are you guys (John and wife, artist Liz Davidson) close to Montreal? Does the city or city life inspire you at all?
JOHN: This one is easy. No. We live about one and a half hours from Montreal. I have lived almost fifty years in small towns and find all my inspiration out here. I enjoy visiting cities and am envious of what is found in them: restaurants, museums etc. But I need to be out here to work.
MICHAEL: Your "Sunday Morning" painting is clearly a tribute to ... or dialogue with Edward Hopper and his "Early Sunday Morning" painting. What is it with Sunday mornings and light and doorways? These paintings are like church ... without the actual church service.
JOHN: Okay, this one is a little more mundane. Sunday Morning and Early Sunday Morning” are titled that way because the old Frizzle house was about to be gutted on Monday morning and I was given the weekend to take all the photos I could. It just so happens that the photos I used were from that Sunday. So, for my part, I don't see the connection with Hopper's painting, but having said that, one way or another, I am entwined with Edward in all my work. Sunday is easy to explain; of the seven days, it is different. For six days we toil and then on the seventh we, we used to go church, now we relax or whatever, watch football or go to Walmart. But still, for me, Sundays are different. They are different, a time for contemplation, reflection or solitude. I like the quiet time of Sunday morning out here, so probably did Hopper.
MICHAEL: Well John, I could go on and on, but I'll make this my last question. What do you want people to see and feel when they look at your work and what does your work mean to you? Let's not give art scholars the last word. What you say is most important because it's YOUR work. What's the message behind all of your work ... thus far?
JOHN: I would like them to get something. I would like the paintings to be important in their lives. What each person feels, I leave up to them. I hope only that the images have touched them. I will leave the message up to someone else to figure out. The work for me is an ongoing expression of my journey, my passage through this life we all share. The images are personnel, but hopefully universal at the same time. Thanks, John.
MICHAEL: Thank you John. Loved the chat.
Check out John Ballantyne at www.johnballantyneartist.com.