Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Interview with David Spear

David Spear, University of Missouri--Red Campus (left panel), 2008, oil on canvas. Photo credit:
Emeka Anyanwu.

I recently approached local artist, David Spear, to solicit him for an interview about his work at the Student Unions—he was nice enough to oblige. If his name or aesthetic rings familiar, it is likely that you have seen his work around town (Wabash Bus Station, Boone County Hospital, Memorial Union, Sophia's, Addison's, Roots & Blues posters, etc). Spear's University of Missouri triptych can be seen in the Memorial Tower Lounge. The following interview has been edited for length. Changes to David’s text are noted with ellipses and brackets.

1.         Your paintings are staggeringly intricate. How long, if you recall, did it take to create the triptych in the Memorial Union? What is your process like?

               “It was a rather long process… I usually start out with a lot of rough drawings… Through this process I decided that I would make a triptych with Memorial Union in the center with students walking and two overviews of campus…it took about a month or two of planning to get the rough drafts completed, finalized, and approved…
               “I wanted the two main landmarks of campus, which I considered to be Jesse Hall and Memorial Union, to be separate and in the middle of each composition. Due to the way that they’re situated on campus this was a little difficult. I finally realized by looking Northeast at Memorial Union and Southwest at Jesse Hall I could put each landmark in the middle of the composition and at the same time keep the landmarks separate in their own painting. In the process I conveniently divided campus into white campus… and red campus…

               “One of the owners from Addison’s, Matt Jenne, has a pilot’s license and we flew over the university a couple of times and took about 200 photographs to use as reference material… These landscapes were tricky to work out because the perspectives have to be distorted in order to include the sky in each painting… I had to blend and manipulate perspectives without the composition becoming jagged or oddly disjointed. 

David Spear, University of Missouri--White Campus (right panel), 2008, oil on canvas. Photo credit:
Emeka Anyanwu.
               “Painting Memorial [Tower] was a bit of a challenge… I remember one day when I went to look at Memorial there was a fire truck parked on Hitt Street right in front of Memorial [Tower] and they were giving free rides on their fire bucket. I rushed back to the studio, grabbed the camera and then went up the fire bucket to get a closer look at all the Memorial Unions details…
               “The painting took around 2 months… the two landscapes on the sides were bolted together and I worked on those as one long painting instead of two…

2.         While you’re at it, I have to say that your bird’s-eye views are really stunning. Can you expand a bit on how you create those scenes? In envisioning them, were you influenced at all by nineteenth and early-twentieth century bird’s-eye prints of the American urban landscape?

               “Those drawings and paintings are an influence on my landscape work. By recreating the tradition of those old fashioned aerial paintings, it exposes how complex and crowded our society has become over the last hundred years or so. I’ve always been drawn to those early town/map depictions, there’s a lot of similar work inside Jesse Hall, which has a wonderful collection on their walls by great artists like Fletcher Martin.

               “However, those are not the first bird’s eye view depiction I remember. For me it was when I was about five and my father took me to Worlds of Fun and pulled out a map of the park. I genuinely identified with that fun, creative little map. Perhaps it was the first time I actually knew where I was. Consequently, we have maps and globes in our house that we refer to often when talking to our kids about happenings within the global community…

3.         The central panel has several figures in the foreground. Were the models for those figures actual Mizzou students?

               “Yes, many of the models were students that were just passing by. The main couple on the left side I saw walking down Hitt Street one day and I stopped them to ask them to pose for me. I still see them from time to time. Some of the students sitting at the table closest to the viewer I met at a multicultural fair in the Quad…

David Spear, University of Missouri--Memorial Tower (center panel), 2008, oil on canvas. Photo credit:
Emeka Anyanwu.
               “Normally I use people I know as models; it’s just more convenient that way. This was the first time I sought out models or asked strangers... Honestly, it’s awkward… I took photos of about 50-70 people to use as reference… In the end the painting is meant to illustrate diversity of the University.
               “Of course, the background is Memorial [Tower], a building dedicated to the Missouri soldiers who died in Wars for their country, an undeniably patriotic backdrop for a country that has traditionally received refugees and immigrants with open arms.

4.         It is clear that much of your work bears a visual affinity to the work of Grant Wood and other American Regionalist painters from the 1930s. Is your use of this aesthetic, in your mind, connected to any Regionalist values—for example: the importance of land (or more broadly, place) to the identity of a given community?

               “The American Regionalists, such as Benton, Curry and Wood, have been a constant reference for me throughout my career. Having been born and raised in Missouri, I do feel a sort of affinity to those regionalist painters… Stylistically viewers are able to relate to it on a nostalgic level and therefore I have an opportunity, through the use of appropriation, to engage viewers with contemporary commentary along with keeping a sense of tradition. 

Grant Wood, Birthplace of Herbert Hoover, 
West Branch, Iowa, 1931, accessed from 
Grant Wood, Fall Plowing, 1931, 
accessed on Artstor.


                “I love the way that the Regionalist manipulated the landscapes, especially Grant Wood’s Stone City. In Stone City, along with other paintings like The Birthplace of Hebert Hoover, Wood creates a simplified landscape that is too bubbly and perfect, almost like a world of cotton candy… It’s easy to look at and at the same time there are little details that provide insight… The Regionalist weren’t just trying to create fantasy worlds; they were also commenting on and critiquing society…

               “As far as the Regionalist ‘values’ are concerned I might not be on the same side on all issues…I’d like to think I’m a little more open minded than the Regionalists but that’s due to my placement in time and the benefit of retrospect.
               “The Regionalists aren’t my only influences…I’m drawn to the Mexican Muralists, like Orozco and Rivera…[and] Wayne Thiebaud’s retrospect at the Kemper in Kansas City had a great influence on the way I viewed landscaped. He opened a lot of doors for me by breaking a bunch of rules, such as disregarding perspectives in order to enhance more formal elements…”

5.         On your website you describe Columbia as a “transient town.” You perhaps meant this to describe what the city of Columbia has meant to you personally, but I think it also encapsulates well the annual ebb and flux of student traffic. So much of your work has focused on Columbia—has your own experience of the town affected the views that you create of it?

               “As a college town there are a lot of people that stay in the town for a couple of years and then move on. The city breathes people in during August and out in May and it somehow rejuvenates the city. After living here for over a decade, I feel like I know the people and the town of Columbia well. I’ve been on top of every parking garage in town and I can make a decent drawing of Columbia from memory by now. Sometimes artists just paint what they know and for me Columbia is easy subject matter. There are ways in which I make commentary about the town in the landscapes such as showing the diversity of churches and mosques. There are other comments about society as well. For instance there is just one lonely figure standing in the middle of speaker circle in the MU paintings. This one little insertion has a specific meaning to me but can also refer to a multitude of implications to the viewer…”

6.         Lastly, if I may so impose, I have one more question about your personal biography. I know that you were (are?) a graduate student at Mizzou. You have also spoken in interviews about being a husband and father. As someone with so many loves and important responsibilities, is it ever difficult to prioritize your respective joys and duties?

               “Parenthood is about constantly shifting gears. For example one minute I might be thinking about Capitalist Materialism and its structure within the pastiche simulacrum of postmodern society and then my son will ask me who my favorite Star Wars bounty hunter is…
               “My wife, Lisa, has been very supportive throughout my career. She works as a yoga instructor and an elementary school teacher.  Luckily, I was able to take a leave of absence last semester to do a large painting for Boone Hospital. The painting took about seven months from the beginning to the end, but it allowed me to take a break from graduate school and spend more time with my family. Lisa and I were able to coach our kids little league games and it was just nice to have one job for a couple of months.  
               “Now I’m back to working on my thesis project, which is unlike anything I’ve done previously and has nothing to do with my own artwork or paintings.  I’m collaborating with another artist, named Harrison Bergeron, whose actually painting the artwork for my thesis. I’m taking the role of his director, manager and curator. He’s a very talented wanderer and I’m trying to keep him focused and on task to finish these wonderful themes he’s created. The themes are about the follies of man and the repetition of forgotten histories…The project incorporates sculpture, paintings, video and even a bit of performance…Right now I’m dedicated to working with him until…[we] defend [in] May.”

*** To read more about David Spear or to purchase prints of his work visit his website.

Interview by Niki Eaton, PhD Student, Art History and Archaeology