Now he's an assistant professor of painting in UNF's Art and Design Department and one of eight painters from across the country to be featured in Get Real: New American Painting, opening Sept. 13 at MOCA Jacksonville. The exhibition-which also features Haley Hasler, Andrea Kowch, Bryan LeBoeuf, Jenny Morgan, Kevin Muente, Frank Oriti, and Kevin Peterson-provides a snapshot of the current landscape of realist painting in the United States and explores themes such as narrative portraiture and social, psychological and magical realism.
“The Museum has the promotional ability of a great gallery, but it has the educational side of a university,” he said. “In that way, it really is the best of both worlds.”
He said it's difficult to predict what exhibitions will help promote his work.
“But I think MOCA is definitely something you can bank on having a lot of energy coming out of it.”
John's work has appeared all over the United States, including solo exhibitions in Cincinnati, Ohio; Lubbock, Texas; and Ventura, California. In 2012, he was inducted into the Museum of Realist Art in Boston. His paintings have appeared on the covers of magazines and have been featured in many art journals.
MOCA Jacksonville, a cultural institute of UNF, is one of many reasons he moved to Northeast Florida. After receiving a BFA in painting from Kutztown University and an MFA in painting and drawing from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, he taught at IUP for a while before joining UNF.
“When I came to Jacksonville, I just kind of fell in love with the school and the city,” he said.
John said he gives the university and department leadership high marks and appreciates the faculty and staff camaraderie. He also described the cross-discipline teaching in the Department of Art and Design as innovative. However, with a steady stream of high-caliber students coming from Douglas Anderson School of the Arts and other locations, he said they need more space and facilities.
“We have so many students, but our classrooms are filled morning to night,” he said “so there's no time for students to get in and work.”
He said teaching influences his art more than anything else.
“You're constantly telling students they have to push themselves and answer to their work,” he said. “I always have to go back to my studio and follow my own advice.”
And if he doesn't?
“My students will call me on it,” he said. “It makes me think about what it is to be an artist.”
He said his students drive him to keep up with what's happening in contemporary art. He applies the same analysis and filters he uses on student work to his own creations.
“Some art teachers think students lower their standards, but I think the opposite. I think they bring me up.”
Although some students might research his artwork before they take his classes, he said most sign up because of what they know about his teaching ability.
“I wouldn't want my students to depend on me for my art,” he said. “I want them to depend on my teaching.”
Although he will help students with technical questions, he said he doesn't believe in training students to paint like he does.
“I always think it's important for them to find their own voice as painters,” he said. “I don't want all my students to paint in a realist way.”
He usually doesn't use his own work as examples in class, although he will work with some independent studies students on Get Real, especially in the studio he will set up at MOCA Jacksonville during the exhibition. He will create a painting throughout the exhibition, providing visitors a peek at a working artist's space and the possibility of catching him in action.
“My art is what I do when I'm not teaching,” he said.
John's paintings reveal his masterful realist technique broken by fissures of dripping paint. Figures with inscrutable expressions balance precarious cardboard headpieces and hold awkward poses as fruit, flowers, and abstract objects swirl around them.
When discussing his work, John often focuses on three central themes: identity, space and composition. All three are wrapped into the helmets his subjects wear, which he calls veils. Inspired by his passion for history, the headpieces are fashioned after Viking or Roman helmets. In his research, he learned that Vikings would appropriate visual elements from the villages they conquered into their armor, essentially destroying one thing to create another. He constructs them from cardboard and packaging, which often contain telltale symbols of their origins from Amazon or other shippers, adding an element of found art.
These veils obscure the original identity of his models, allowing them to take on new roles. In addition to painting close friends, John often hires his students based on attributes he's looking for in a painting. Although some models balk at wearing the veils, he said many relish the opportunity to adopt new characters.
“A portrait is a great way to capture someone during a stage of identity,” he said.
He's not asking them to do anything he hasn't done himself. It's amusing to imagine John trying on these veils, modeling them in the mirror as he maps out his paintings.
Designing and building a veil is the beginning of a two-to-three-month process in creating a 40 X 40-inch canvas with one figure. After the veil is finished and a model is chosen, John hires a photographer to shoot reference pictures. He used to take his own photos, but he has found that the quality of lighting and poses improves greatly when he can concentrate on directing the shoot. He'll choose a few frames to output life-sized, high-resolution prints for reference. He draws the first layer on canvas, linen or board with a pencil, then draws over the pencil with waterproof india ink markers, which hold the graphite and don't mix with the paint. He adds a layer of quick-drying acrylic paint, allowing him to see his color values. Then he uses oils, sanding and scraping between approximately one hundred layers to knock down the texture and give the paint more transparency, especially in the flesh tone areas.
“I work on them until I can't take them anymore,” he said. “The problem with painting is it never ends up where you want it to be. Sometimes it's a little better than you envisioned; sometimes it's worse.”
Despite digital image technology that can put almost any art technique at people's fingertips, John said new generations of painters continue to breathe life into realism. He's particularly excited to view the work of fellow Get Real artists, such as Hasler, LeBoeuf and especially Morgan.
“She's part of a new group of artists that aren't interested in the traditional methods of realism,” he said.
“The most interesting side of realism is what you can do with the technique that challenges technology. What would make this medium and this form of art actually relevant to today?”
Every summer, John accompanies UNF students to Italy, which is ground zero for realist painting.
“Why are Michelangelo, Vermeer and Caravaggio so important to art history?” he asked. “There's a space that these painters created that remains fresh and contemporary.”
Many of the artists in Get Real use classical art techniques as John does. He said understanding art history informs his work, even if the inspiration might be more subliminal. Sometimes he pays direct homage to the masters, such as basing the composition of his Birdboy on Flemish Baroque artist Anthony Van Dyck's Self-portrait with a Sunflower.
“Some artists refuse to pay tribute to what has been done. It shows in the work,” he said. “If artists are informed, they'll make informed work, which will make it good.”
He chose to paint the human figure after studying at an atelier, The Waichulis Studio (now called Ani Art Academies) in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, that focused on still lifes. He remembered a teacher told him, “Kid, you can't paint the figure. If you can't paint it, you should stick to the still life.”
“When I came out of school, I started painting the figure, and I just never stopped,” he said. “There's something in the painting to hold the viewer in a way that I didn't think that objects could.”