"I think there is a stigma that if you’re an artist you're supposed to be strange and aloof and not be able to relate to everyday things." -- John A. Clapp
John Clapp is a self-taught artist who lives with his family in Tennessee. After stumbling upon his website, www.jclappart.com and reading one of his blogs, I knew I had to chat with him. Like many artists, he doesn't live a monastic life in a fancy studio where he paints 24-7. Also, like most artists, he's interested in other things, not just art. In short, John Clapp has a life ... or perhaps I should say, “full life.” Either way, read on and find out why.
MICHAEL: Hey John. Thanks for talking with me. First of all, I'm stunned to learn that you're a "self-taught" artist. Your still lifes are quite classical and textbook. You've had NO formal training at all?
JOHN: Nope. I’ve had no formal training. I loved to draw as a child. I was the youngest of four children and my siblings were much older so I occupied myself by drawing among other things. I think the “artist” gene runs in the family, sometimes skipping a generation. My great uncle, Bob Brown, was also a self-taught artist. I visited him when I was 15 years old and was amazed by his landscapes. So, I went home and asked my mom to buy me some paints. When I was 22, my girlfriend (now wife) saw the painting that I had done at 15. She said, “Is that a postcard?” (looking at it from across the room) I told her that I had painted it when I was 15 years old. She encouraged me to paint again. I had never given up drawing/sketching. So, I bought my first easel and a bunch of oil and acrylic paints and started my “painting” journey. I entered a few art shows and won some people’s choice and best of show awards. Seeing people’s reactions to my paintings has kept me motivated. People have mistaken my realistic style for a photograph, but then they walk closer and realize that it is a painting. It is my greatest encouragement for people to enjoy my paintings. My middle son, age 12, has got the “artist” gene, so it didn’t skip a generation this time. I have a fellow artist in him to bounce ideas off of. All my training comes from hours and hours at the easel trying different things.
MICHAEL: You know, a lot of people think that having a God-given talent means that you don't have to work at it. You seem to be saying the opposite.
JOHN: What God gives you is the talent, urge, or spark to follow or pursue an interest. You still have to work at or refine your skill. This is true of everything….painting, sports, a musical instrument, singing, or cooking. Take a professional football player… a pro-quarterback doesn’t sit around his home until he hits 22 years old or so and gets off his couch and goes out and leads an NFL team to the Super Bowl. He plays football in his neighbor’s backyard then in high school and on to college to refine his skills, talents, gifts or whatever. And then he is drafted to the NFL where he continues to refine his skills. The more you practice or challenge yourself, the better you get. That is what I like about painting. You can continually challenge yourself by exploring new subjects and compositions.
MICHAEL: As of this writing, I've acquired a few of your still lifes which are very elegant. What do you like about painting them?
JOHN: I have painted several different types of paintings; landscapes, wildlife, portraits, and still-life. Over the past several years, I’ve zeroed in on painting mostly still-life. That may be in part to my wife’s increasing collection of antique silver, as well as, being able to set up a still-life setting whenever the urge strikes as opposed to going on a field trip to capture a landscape or wildlife subject. I like the challenge of painting reflective surfaces like silver and the transparent qualities of glass. Another thing that I like about still lifes is the almost endless variety of composition that you can come up with. My compositions can range from a cropped view of a game board to a more classical look of a piece of silver with fruit and anything in between. I guess to summarize what I like about still-life (and I try to capture) is the simple beauty in an everyday object with the help of the arrangement, lighting, or cropping.
MICHAEL: I know several artists who like to paint everyday objects. That's what I write about: everyday art experiences. This totally goes against what many people have been conditioned to think about art. Most people who know little about art treat it as mysterious, precious and locked away up on a high pedestal. Yes, we should revere art, but can't
you find reverence in everyday things and experiences?
JOHN: I agree with your comment about people treating art as mysterious. I definitely don’t think it should be that way. Even if you think an art gallery is intimidating or that you might not be able to afford the art, it shouldn’t prevent you from going in and getting enjoyment from viewing it. If you’ve never spent time viewing art, I think you are missing an opportunity for inspiration. You don’t have to be an artist to feel that inspiration. Just looking at the art may make you wonder who the artist is who created it, what inspired them to create it, what technique they used. Or the artwork itself may take you to a different place … another time in your life, a place that you visited, something you’ve done in the past or want to do in the future. What I like to do when I paint (like I’ve said before) is capture the simple beauty in everyday objects. I think we all should take time to enjoy the beauty of simple things … like enjoying your morning coffee, the multitude of colors in a sunset or the way light dances on an object and casts shadows.
MICHAEL: Didn't I read that you're a big football fan? Tennessee Titans? Some people might find it hard to reconcile an elegant still life painter with someone who is also a big football fan. What do you think?
JOHN: Yes, I am a football fan. I grew up in Illinois so I’m a Bears fan. I’m also a Cowboys fan. My dad was a big Cowboys fan, so I think it stuck to me. We just recently moved to Tennessee, so I haven’t really jumped on the Titans bandwagon yet, but they are definitely fun to watch, especially this season. As far as people reconciling me being a football fan and a still life painter, I don’t know what to think of that. I’m just a normal guy who likes everyday normal things. Some people may think about artists the way they may think of galleries as mysterious or different, but they shouldn’t. I would venture to say that most artists are everyday people like me. I like watching football, playing outside with my kids, spending time with my wife, having a cookout on the weekends, listening to my Ipod and a lot of other things. It’s kind of funny when I meet new people and they find out that I paint. They are kind of surprised. I’m kind of a big guy (I used to weight lift a lot) and for some reason, they don’t picture a guy like me as a painter. I can’t explain it. Just because you paint, you can’t lift weights? So I think there is a stigma that if you’re an artist you're supposed to be strange and aloof and not be able to relate to everyday things. That’s wrong. Just go to an art fair and start conversations with the artists hanging out in their tents. I’ll bet you’ll find normal people who may ride bikes, grow bonsai trees, like to bowl or maybe even lift weights.
MICHAEL: Perfect! I was hoping you would say that. I want people to feel that art is for and about THEM. Unfortunately, people have been so brainwashed into thinking of art in an elitist way. As you know, Shakespeare himself wrote for everyday people during his time, but unfortunately today, many people have an elitist view of him. You don't have to be an elitist to create or collect art and you can also have MANY different interests in life. It's not like we get to come back and live this life again. I once heard this character on a television show say ... "It isn't variety that's the spice of life. It's the variety of US."
JOHN: I agree that you should want or have variety in your life. Life is really pretty short … you should try to experience as many things as possible. Also, if you think of art in an elitist way, that mind set will rob you of art, making it something that you won’t experience. How many other things are out there that people are afraid to do or intimidated by that they don’t get to experience? Speaking of experiences, I am always encouraging my kids to explore and try different things. On a recent trip to the Smoky Mountains, we stopped at a roadside rest area and got out and walked around. We saw a stream running down the mountain. Encouraging my kids to get the full experience of it, I said … ”Let’s take our socks and shoes off so that we can walk around in the water and feel how cold the water is, what the rocks feel like … how smooth they are.” We got back into the car and I asked them what they thought. They told me that it was really fun. I told them like I always tell them after we try something new, “Okay, that is one more thing to mark off your experience list.” Just take that experience for example. If you wanted something to remember that by, you could buy a painting of the Smoky Mountains or a mountain stream and have something to remind you of that. I am just fortunate in that I can paint my own experiences. That is what’s cool about art. It can relate to so many different things. It doesn’t matter what you like or like to do, you can find a piece of art that connects you to that experience ... lying on a beach, enjoying a nice cup of coffee, collecting things or even walking in a mountain stream. What I am trying to say is ….go out and experience new things and live a full life … and hopefully art will be a part of that.
MICHAEL: I don’t think you can really be good at anything without being engaged with life. Surely, the best lawyers, doctors, teachers, artists or journalists are people who “have a life” outside of their chosen profession. They tend to be less narrow minded and more tolerant. Finally John, when people look at your work, is it more important to you that they understand your technique or your message? Is there a message?
JOHN: Both are important. I like to talk to people about technique. For example, I do most of my paintings on hardboard panel that I cut and prime myself. I sketch the subject on the board. And, usually, I start out my painting with an under painting of acrylic which tones the board and dries fast, so then I can finish and fine tune the details in oil. As far as the message goes … it is more of a feeling that I am trying to convey than a message … and I believe it’s the most important. It is a feeling, memory, or beauty of an object that I am trying to capture. But, it is my interpretation of a subject … and when someone else looks at my painting they might feel something else entirely. When I paint a silver teapot, I may be looking at the beauty of the colors reflecting in the teapot and the light reflecting in it, but someone else may look at it and think of their grandmother’s tea set and the moments they shared with her. Two people looking at the same painting can get totally different feelings from looking at it. Again, like I have said before, my goal is simple … to capture the beauty of everyday objects and experiences in what I paint and share it with as many people as I can so they can enjoy the painting for whatever it means to them.
MICHAEL: Thanks John. This has really been great. I love your work and wish you the best. Also, maybe the Bears or the Cowboys will make the playoffs next season.
John Clapp also writes a blog called, “Capture A Moment With Paint: Paintings by John A. Clapp. You can find it at www.jclappart.blogspot.com/