Artist Interview: Chuck Sperry

Elizabeth Goings, Exhibitions Content Manager

Exhibitions Content Manager Elizabeth Goings sat down with artist Chuck Sperry, whose exhibition All Access: Exploring Humanism in the Art of Chuck Sperry, is on display at FWMoA through December 9th, 2018. Read or listen below: 

Goings: I learned that early in your career you worked as a cartoonist and double majored in art and journalism – which I thought was pretty cool. How did you make that jump from editorial cartoons to rock posters and fine art screen printing? 

Sperry: Well I was doing the editorial cartoons for my college newspaper, The Man Eater. It was kind of a satirical thing, but we did report the news. I was in the journalism school, and the journalism school produces a lab paper called The Missourian, and it was like a real newspaper that was delivered to doorsteps. I wasn’t the greatest reporter. It turned out that it was a harder profession than I ever imagined, and I just fell back on my art skills.

By the first or second week I was already doing two cartoons a week for Man Eater, and I was the first cartoonist that actually got paid! It was on the editorial page, everyone else drew a salary on the student newspaper, and I said, “Hey! What’s up?” The editors were just kind of kicking back and capping on things as usual, and I said they had to come with me to the student union and see what happens. They didn’t know what I was talking about, but I told them to just meet me over there in 20 minutes. They’re standing next to me and they’re like “Ok Sperry, what?” I told them just to watch everyone get their food and newspaper and see what they do. Everyone opened their newspaper and looked at the political cartoon first! So I got paid!

After school I almost got a job at the Miami Herald. It didn’t go to me, but what I learned from Mike Peters was that for political cartoonists, it was a lifetime job. You get hired, you’re the guy, and then the new guys have to wait for you to pass away. You just do it until you die at your drawing table! For a 21-year-old, that’s really daunting. I just went, “Oh my god, I’m gonna be a lifer?!” and I wasn’t really up for that.

So, I did what a lot of artists did and moved to New York. That’s where I met Carlo McCormick actually. I lived on the Lower East Side and got involved in the really vibrant art scene that was going on at the time. I had a political edge, and I got a little more extreme or radicalized while I was there. I worked with a group of illustrators who were doing work for The New Yorker, TIME, Village Voice, New York Times Newspaper, etc., and what they did on their own initiative was put out a comic book. So I got involved with that comic book. It actually had a funny connection to the art world. We would get shows in Soho at Exit Art, sometimes there was a gallery space called Bullet Space, one of the artists on the magazine had a space called Ground Zero and he was showing David Wojnarowicz, and right now David’s work is being shown at The Whitney. So we all had one foot in cartooning and one foot in the art world. There was this thing going on with Jenny Holzer and Jerry Kearns, where we were kind of on that continuum. We had Sue Coe involved, David Wojnarowicz, and James Romberger, and that’s where it started to meld between fine art and graphic art. I always just carried that forward.

Goings: I can definitely see the mix of graphic and fine art in your work with all of the different influences in the imagery you use.

Sperry: Yeah! I try to make it work on a popular level and also work where if you’re really informed about art the composition is telling you a lot of things. You can see all of the influences – Japanese art, Vienna Secessionism, Arts and Crafts, the floral wallpaper styles in the background are sort of a tip of the hat to the form of screen printing itself. Screen printing was almost an industrial tool in the beginning.

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Chuck Sperry, American. Dryad. Silkscreen on oak panel, 7 layers, 2016. Courtesy of the artist. 

Goings: Building off of that, you mentioned how if you’re educated in the arts you can see those influences. I’m an art historian, and I studied 19th century English and French art in grad school, so when I first saw your art I was like, “He’s got William Morris’s Strawberry Thief all over the place along with other wallpaper designs, you can see the influences of Art Nouveau in how the women’s hair is styled, and Austrian Secessionism and the compositions of Mucha.” What really drew you to these styles? Did you really like the imagery yourself and just wanted to keep making art in that style, or was there something more to it?

Sperry: A little bit of both, yeah. I picked up all of those influences over my experiences. My parents were both artists who went to art school. My mom was in advertising and she did the full-page ads in the 1960s with the figures modeling the clothes, and in the end she ended up being the vice president of regional advertising for Elder Beerman.

Goings: Your mom sounds like a real-life Peggy Olson from Mad Men!

Sperry: That’s what I’m saying! It’s so cool! And she was working in that exact same period. She started in the early 60s and ended up being vice president by 70/71. So she had to put up with all that stuff. And if you’ve ever seen Mad Men, it really does portray the sexual politics well. I think that’s where my interest in portraying women in a positive light comes from – my mother.

Goings: There’s another connection where a lot of the 19th century artists you admire did that as well.

Sperry: Yeah! Getting back to the question! My parents always put art in front of me. We had a whole library of art books and I just poured though it all, and some of it stuck. If you’re an artist, you like some stuff and you don’t like others, and the 19th century art is what I always gravitated towards.

I started touring in Europe for rock poster shows. It was me and my partner Ron Donovan, and we did it sort of like a band – we would do like 25 shows in 2 months and go town to town, just staying a couple days. We had that luxury to stay in the towns. With a real rock band, they just go town to town, a day apiece, so they never really see anything. We would stay in band rooms with the bands and we’d go “Oh so you were in Berlin! Did you see the museum?” and they’d just be like “Are you kidding me? We saw the inside of a club and then the inside of a tour bus.” I just thought it was so dumb that they didn’t get to experience anything, you know? So I got to absorb a lot of culture.

After doing it six, seven, eight times I started getting really exotic in my sight-seeing. I wanted to find Sati’s house, where Steinlan lived, Toulouse-Lautrec’s first studio, his second studio, the Black Cat. One of my favorite museums in Paris is the Museum of Montmartre. It’s three floors and it’s where Renoir painted the scene of the woman on a tree swing. You can do that if you want, they have the tree swing! It’s really cool! But each floor is different. They have the far eastern silhouette figures in one room, all the old posters by Toulouse-Lautrec for Aristide Bruant. It’s like aaahhh!

Goings: I also find it interesting that you’re influenced and inspired by these artists who also created art that was on one hand very graphic, but is also regarded as fine art as well. It’s like your work is a continuation of what they were doing.

Sperry: Right! I’m trying to sort of put my foot in the door that way, and I think it’s interesting to see if it’s possible to update. I think it was Vallotton who did one drawing of poster collectors following the guy who’s putting posters on the wall, and there’s a couple who are looking closely at them with their glasses on, there’s another person in the back who has one rolled up under his arm and he’s kind of running away! It’s a lot like the scene last night!

Goings: It is! I mean, obviously you have the kind of following that Vallotton illustrated. At what point did you realize that your posters were becoming coveted like that and that you were making a name for yourself?

Sperry: There was a change in the business I guess, but it’s not like I was a businessman. You do have to feed yourself though and buy ink! So there were poster dealers and they had mail order catalogues. There was Art Rock and a few others. They would buy your posters for $5-$10 each, and they’d buy like 10 of them so you could make $500-$800 from just one poster. If you met that person every couple months you’d get a sizeable paycheck, but it didn’t seem like the kind of money that was appropriate. You’d see your work marked up to $50-$60 each, and that’s why I started touring Europe and selling my work myself. We’d get the 25 dates, get retail on the posters, meet all these cool people and show them around, and the tours just kind of grew and grew. I’d come home with a few thousand dollars and live off that.

Then the internet came along and I started selling direct. I started building up good business because my shipping was rock solid. If people got something and it was damaged, I immediately addressed it and sent a replacement. People come to rely on that. The collectors started to grow and respond positively to it.

Then I started having a hybrid approach and worked with a gallery. Like, I don’t always have to get retail, but in doing a gallery split we create an event, promote from the event, and I also get the endorsement of a tastemaker. That attracts art magazines, collectors, etc., and that’s really how it grew.

I started to do more shows and get lines that wrapped around the block! It was like oh my god, what’s going on?! And the funniest part is that the way things happened, the last place that I ever had that happen was at home. We finally did a show where all of the hometown collectors from San Francisco could show up. We were like, “Yes! We scored!” Then we took it on the road to Los Angeles and New York, and I started doing just one or two shows in Europe. I was getting the same reaction over there! It didn’t matter where I went – there were going to be collectors and people who had seen my work through the Internet and connected to it. It just grew from there.

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Chuck Sperry, American. Worlds Within. Silkscreen on birch panel, 8 layers, 2013. Courtesy of the artist. 

Goings: So now you’ve got this devoted and passionate fan base. Has their devotion and fervor ever surprised you?

Sperry: Oh it surprises me every time! In fact, Brian and I got in the truck to drive here – Brian produced some of the blotter art in Litmus Test – we were driving and I was like, “I don’t know Brian, do you think anyone will show up?” And he just busted up laughing! He was like, “Dude, you have no idea.” I just didn’t know! I hadn’t had time to look online to see if people were excited. I mean, Widespread Panic – a band that many of Sperry’s fan’s follow – is playing in St. Augustine, maybe people are going there instead!

Goings: If you can tell, what is the craziest fan experience you’ve ever had?

Sperry: Okay, there’s a couple. In April, Ken and I did a blockbuster show that opened on Saturday, and people started camping out on Wednesday. Then it started raining. But the line just kept growing and there were tents that went up the block, Ken had to make arrangements with the police, all in the middle of this terrible Spring storm. I mean, they were saying that it was the worst Spring storm we’d had in years. But they kept coming! I felt like we should buy them pizza or something.

I try to go and visit folks who line up like that. I feel weird just driving by and being like, “Hey! There’s all my folks!” You know, the thing is that I see what we do, we all have a role when we have a party like we did last night – I’m artist guy, you’re organizer person, they’re fan-people, but really we’re all the same. So, I try not to get too much of a big head about it. It’s about my work, and me, I’m just hanging out here too.

Okay, back to crazy fan! In that rainy line, there was a guy who introduced me to his daughter named Sperry Anne. I was a little…I’m ambivalent about that…

Goings: Wow, I mean, what can you even say in that moment?

Sperry: Yeah! Like, Oh! My head is reeling, and I’m like, she’s cute…good work…? I gotta go and think for a moment. I was just really taken aback! That’s weird! Anyway, it’s a thinker.

But last night, the guy who bought Thalia is really fervent. I would say he and about 25-30% of my fans are also fans of the band Widespread Panic, and I originally did Thalia as a poster for that band. The idea behind using an image like that is that you can get it out there and use it for a purpose, and it has words on it so it kind of burns itself into peoples’ consciousness. Then if it works as an art piece when you take the words off, it’s a known quantity and starts to gain meaning from different contexts. I’ve put this piece in all different sorts of contexts. This panel also comes from a show I did in Italy – sorry, this is a little stream of consciousness! – but I put the piece in a chapel with a few other panels for the show. Thalia was the altarpiece. We put a pedestal under it and filled it with flowers and candles, and kind of made a shrine out of it. It was like introducing the feminine principle in a chapel setting and making it look sort of like a hippy/pagan short of chapel. It was kind of neat!

So that piece has all of this provenance. That fervent fan got it last night and his ticket number was 777. I was just like, oh my god, all this luck! That same fan flew to Paris to see a show, showed up the day of the opening, came up from the airport through the metro at Place du la Republique just as the police were firing tear gas at these strikers who were demonstrating! He just got completely hit with the tear gas and he showed up at the show a complete mess. I was like, this guy, wow. But he got what he wanted. I said to him, “Jeremy, dude, as least you have like four days to shower, wash your face and see Paris, right?” He just goes, “No, I gotta fly back home and see Widespread Panic tomorrow night!” But he got Asemolie, that time he just had to fly to Paris to get it! I was like, he flew all the way over here to do that?

I’m not trying to start a cult! So, people, do not name your kids after me! Please! I’m a normal guy! 

Goings: A couple questions about the work. Greek muses and the women of Greek mythology feature heavily in your work. What is it about them specifically that draws you to them?

Sperry: Well, first of all I thought it would be cool if I could have pieces that would work together thematically. And there’s no better tried and true theme in Western art than Greek mythology. For me, whenever I see fine art from the past, like the Renaissance for example, there seems to be two strains. There are pieces commissioned by the Church, or by people who are really inspired by biblical themes, or Greek mythology. I’ve always been interested in that, starting with Botticelli. His whole career is really interesting from that perspective. You can tell that he had all of these humanistic impulses early in his career, and then he had a sort of religious conversion. He seems to be at the center of Western art debate about thematic elements.

I was always inspired by mythologically themed art. Five or six years ago I decided to just work in one theme and be really concentrated on it, that way when I did an art show in a gallery it would all hold together. I think a big problem for poster artists working from their poster art into fine art is that it threatens to be eclectic. A band asks you to do this, that, or the other, or you are inspired by another band, and your work can turn into a hodgepodge. So, I really stuck to my guns. There was a point about four years ago when these people who show up to all the shows were like, “Dude! Can you do something else?!” I was just like, “I’m working on something, you just don’t know!”

I’ve now made about 60 in this series and they all work together.

As I continued working on them I just delved deeper and deeper into Greek Mythology. I learned a lot. Right now I’m reading Jane Ellen Harrison, and she was a ritualist anthropologist from a pre-feminist perspective. Super cool stuff. She talks about how a lot of the Greek rituals were based on folk rituals, that they’re all actually connected, and that they’re actually a little darker than the high classical depictions that we’re used to – everyone wearing white togas and chanting very politely. It actually had a lot more to do with farming, fear, curses, fertility rituals, and matriarchal themes. So, I’m learning all about that stuff and it’s really interesting.

I’m actually flying to Greece at the end of this week with my girlfriend. I’ve been to Athens twice, and once I just went through quickly because my destination was Paros. But because Nancy will be there we’re going to go to Delphi, we’ll see the Acropolis or course, maybe Sounion, where Poseidon’s temple is. We’re also going to take a walk from the Dipylon Gate down to see where all the heroes are buried. I don’t know how far the Academy is from there, or if it’s even marked, but apparently they say it’s in an olive field about ¾ of a mile down the way and you pass Pericles’s grave, Melisandre’s grave, the Heroes of Corinth, etc. In fact, I printed out Pausanias and I’m like “Okay Nancy, read up!” It’s really gonna be something. 

Goings: One more question. We’ve talked about your panels and works on paper a little bit, but we have some textiles in the exhibition, which you haven’t done before! What made you want to explore this medium, and do you think it’s something you’d want to do again?

Sperry: I’m actually in love with this tapestry maker, Haimai Ashida. His family has been doing this for 50 years in Guadalajara. I actually flew down and met all of them – the dyers, weavers, stitchers – and it was a super cool meeting.

But the idea arose when Josef and I were in a Miami last year and we’d already been talking about the exhibition. I just kind of tripped around the fair and we went to the main fair, which is where I saw their work for the first time. It was a Damián Ortega piece with metallic elements in it, and it depicted a giant microchip as a tapestry. It was really textural, like these are, and I just thought, “Oh, I think these people could do it and we could figure out how to make it shimmer.”

I contacted them in January of this year and we started a discussion to find out if they would accept my work – they’re on that level. It was all very free for, and Haimai has a very poetical was of describing his work. I was sending him ideas and he told me how they use three different fibers for each thread and that they’re all hand-dyed. Then all of the fibers come together and make the color move whenever they weave it. I suggested that they put the metal fiber in with that, and he thought it was an interesting idea that they hadn’t done before. He talked to the master weaver to see if they would go for it, they did a little test and said yes! They thought it depicted my technique very well and that they were going to go ahead with the project. They were actually really excited and stunned with the effect! It really shimmers and sparkles. It moves and changes from your perspective.

But, why tapestry? Probably because it’s another page out of William Morris’s book. I saw that there was a connection that could be made between graphic ideas and tapestry. What I do as a maker is that I’m designing, color separating, getting films, exposing the screens, and I make my prints myself. I don’t just hand it to an assistant. I’m involved in the process. I saw tapestry as another kind of process art that, like silkscreen, it started as more of an industrial thing. Textiles have that same edge. I thought that my classical themes also worked with some of the history of tapestry. For instance, a lot of the early tapestries were either biblical stories or scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Haimai was interested in that aspect as well, that he was pushing his technique into new directions, yet at the same time it was harkening back to these that were already present in tapestry. It seemed like a really good fit.

Then there was a realistic concern. I was asked to do this exhibition at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, so scale was important. It would be nice to have a piece whose scale was equal to the wall and could really maximize its impact. And it worked! I never saw them in museum light before, and so much of what I’m trying to do with them really depends on that lighting. It has to be very well lit, and then the sparkle is just dazzling.

Come be dazzled by Chuck Sperry’s muses in his current exhibition at FWMoA, up until December 9!

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