Encountering the work of John Paul Thornton was a mixed experience for me. I immediately felt some empathy, anxiety and sadness. But, I'm prone to such things, and the cynic in my head started grumbling and screamed an insult or two before going off to sulk in his corner...that's how I knew I was on the right track. This may be the first time that I've witnessed art in an online setting that was trying to communicate something from the artist, that didn't have anything to do with the artist. John Paul's work is self-realizing without being self-involved. Please come and experience his work, and hear his inspiring story. He even silenced the cynic in MY head, for awhile.
First off, will you tell me a bit about your Vacation? I understand that you were in Haiti and enjoyed a wonderful experience!
You have to imagine what Haiti was like. It is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Now, visualize a refugee tent-city of 55,000 people, living in tiny shacks made only of wood, metal scraps and tarps. Hundreds of thousands of people lost everything they owned back in the January 2010 earthquake.
The poverty and lack of food, power and employment is still staggering, but the Haitian people are incredible. They are so filled with emotion and warmth. Oh my god, I swear I am still reeling from my trip! Just talking about it makes my heart pound!
I am grateful because I am living out my dream to be an artist-activist and I am so humbled by the circumstances that brought me to Haiti. The United Nations Foundation provided funding for me to work with a team of amazing artists and educators in the tent-cities of the capital, Port au-Prince. We were invited to create a new social art program to inspire young girls into taking on leadership roles in their communities and breaking through the barriers that come with trauma and poverty.
We slept in tents through two weeks of tropical rain, trudged through miles of sticky mud and created a make-shift “art center” out of a leaky, 20 x 20 foot tent. It was really magical, creating art with the participants and helping to awaken their own true voices. That was the wonderful part! As far as being a ‘vacation’... let me just say that I am thankful I didn’t get malaria from the armies of mosquitos! I am grateful for warm houses and electricity. I lost ten pounds eating only small portions of rice and beans...although I did sneak out to try some Haitian goat stew one night! That goat stew was heaven.
Please tell me a bit about the Missing Children project, what got you started on this path, and where do you intend to take it and why?
The missing children paintings have become an obsessive part of my artistic life. Right out of school, I got a job teaching art to at-risk kids and few months into it I learned that one of my students had been abducted. She was a really awesome little freckle-faced girl, a real sweetie. I was emotionally impacted and it got me to see the world differently. I started noticing fliers for missing kids in a totally different way. The flyers were everywhere but I had never bothered to look at them before. I began collecting information about missing children.
My girlfriend thought it was a bit crazy when she opened the kitchen drawer and saw my stack of missing children flyers. She was like, ‘ uh, John Paul, what are you going to do with these?!’ I didn’t even know, until one evening, late at night I spread them out on the floor of my studio and looked at all of the tiny little faces printed on these disposable cards. I became overwhelmed with a sense of helplessness. "What could I do to honor these kids?" I was just a painter. And so, I began doing the only thing I knew how to do: I began painting their portraits.
Each painting is still an emotional journey. I hold the flyer in one hand and try to follow my intuition. The color, texture and forms emerge over time and become a permanent way to remember these children who are missing. Since I began, I have painted hundreds of these portraits. I have had the chance to meet some of the parents and even some of the children I have painted, who have since been safely recovered. I get requests to paint cases from all over the world.
My exhibitions often include volunteers carrying the actual paintings into public spaces, carrying the portrait over their hearts. They have been shown at the Lincoln Memorial on the national mall and in front of the white House in washington DC. Now, I am interested in having participants set up set up intimate exhibitions of the paintings all around the country. I call this the ‘Guardian Angel project’. I love the way the paintings seem to take on a meaning of their own, even beyond the face of the child. They are paintings of hope. My new vision is that all four hundred of the paintings end up as the core of a memorial chapel in a museum dedicated to art with humanitarian themes.
The museum doesn’t exist yet, but I can see it in my mind. I can feel how this museum would be different from any other in the world. It would attract visitors hungry for pure emotional impact. It would feature exhibits of international artists working with the motivation to tell the truth about the human experience. That is a big goal, a crazy goal. But I believe that these paintings are connected to big, healing energy. They are bigger than me and they point directly to the future. I still paint missing children, every day.
What mediums are you well versed in?
I started off doing pen and ink, watercolor and then worked as an acrylic airbrush artist. When I finally picked up a real paintbrush and filled my nostrils with turpentine fumes, I was an instant oil paint addict. I found that everything I know about real painting translates into digital painting. But, I am sooooo old school. I am working on a series of realistic digital portraits that are about light and subtle colors...the same things that excite me about oil paint.
What is your opinion of digital art and the way in which it is presented in online communities?
I love how digital art has gone from exotic and expensive to common-place and accessible to everyone. Every artist here on Shadowness is old enough to have seen the massive leaps that each year brings to the field of digital art. It took teams of programmers working with virtuoso artists to wring anything warm out of the medium, and they had to do it pixel by pixel. Now, even my six-year old daughter can sit down at a wacom tablet to paint gorgeous digital images which are so spontaneous and creative.
Digital art was born from the entertainment industry. One of my oldest friends from high school is Paul Lasaine, (Maybe best known for his work as designer and background painter on the ‘Lord of the Rings Trilogy’. He is a phenomenal digital artist, but the thing that makes him so brilliant is his solid knowledge of light, color and composition. He knows how to communicate. Same with my friend Dan Caplan, who does the digital storyboards for “Tru Blood.” The technology is second to his knowledge of story-telling. That’s why he is in demand.
Well, it works the same in fine art. The digital artists that turn us on take risks with the medium but have a grasp on traditional graphic design and communication. I think of digital art as a perfect tool of possibilities; but, a simple concept or theme based upon communication will always be the digital artist’s best weapon.”
Where did you receive your formal art education? Who were your greatest instructors? what did they teach you?
My first art teacher at Otis Parsons was Daerick Gross, who was a Marvel comic book artist. He was also an artist’s model and enjoyed teaching in the nude! I mean, he was a nudist. Really! He would be walking around the class naked, giving drawing crits and often scolding our figure models for not taking dynamic-enough poses. Then he would take the stand himself and pose for us to emphasize a certain muscle group or foreshortened view.That was memorable to a young kid like me!
So was meeting all the nude models who worked the circuit. I was fifteen when I took my first figure drawing class and everyone else was older. The gorgeous female models Daerick booked were heavily tattooed and covered with extensive body piercings. They would always try to make me lose my focus by slyly draping their legs over my easel, or positioning themselves inches from my face. Otis was fun and crazy... a real party. But I had a desire to get into a really serious world of study.
I transferred to Cal State University, Northridge (In Los Angeles) because I had heard about the legendary mad-genius, Professor Saul Bernstein, who was teaching there. With Saul, art school became incredibly, intoxicatingly passionate. Saul Bernstein actually helped pioneer digital art in its early days, but was an expert at analyzing the old masters, like Rembrandt, Velazquez and Peter Paul Rubens. Learning about these artists, (not just copying their styles but learning about how they thought) was a life-changing experience. He taught classical painting, but infused it with a demand for emotional investment. Classes were standing-room only and his lectures were stunning...almost evangelical. Saul taught that art was powerful and could impact people’s minds and hearts in transformational ways.
Then, I worked with the famed Hans Burkhardt, the last of the the great Abstract-expressionists. Hans had known William De Kooning and shared a studio with Arshile Gorky. He was an old man when I worked with him, but he had this amazing way of playing and experimenting like a child. Hans also was working on a series of powerful anti-war paintings which showed me how art could link to social issues. Most importantly, in school I met a group of like-minded fellow artists. As students, we drew and painted each other, taking turns being each other’s models. We wrote delusional manifestos and formed our own movement on campus. We held radical exhibitions and studied until we were in a state of frenzy. And can tell you that I had plenty of run-ins and conflicts with my professors! I argued and over-stepped my boundaries with increasing regularity as art became my religion of choice.
What other projects are you involved in currently?
In painting, I am re-addressing the human figure in a social context. I have done a lot of art projects in Mexico and was really impacted by the culture. To symbolize the victims of the drug-war in Mexico, I am creating a series depicting a candle-lit night procession. The final installation will contain about one hundred life-sized figures and be over thirty meters long. This year I was invited to create work for an exhibition in Tokyo to reflect the resolve of the Japanese people after the triple earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters.
My book, “Art and Courage:Stories to Inspire the Artist-Warrior Within” is selling steadily and I am beginning a new lecture series to promote it. There is discussion of further U.N. Foundation projects in Haiti and Central America. Lots of possible International adventures!
What is your opinion about how society, government and popular culture influences art?
It is no coincidence that when a fascist government takes over a country, the first people to be killed or imprisoned are the dangerous artists. It is artist’s JOB to be dangerous enough to be worthy of imprisoning or executing. Yet, in our society, many brilliant creators never tap into their true power. Society has turned gorgeous, vital, artistic traditions into predictable, entertaining, reality TV scenarios. Think of it: we have cut-throat cooking competitions, cut-throat dancing and singing competitions, cut-throat clothing design shows... So much of art is wrapped up in cut-throat entertainment right now! Art has become the entertaining court jester of our times. But, we know that visual art is also a powerful component for the advancement of the individual voice.
Body art and street art are the two hot flavors right now...because they cannot entirely be controlled by the market. They are still dangerous. And Government support? It is so slight and so unreliable these days. Imagine if the American government today had “works project” programs to employ architects, muralists, sculptors and designers like we had in the great depression. Think of how a simple national arts program budget could impact the identity and economy of an entire people... of an entire epoch! Of course, there is a dark side: artists who are supported by governments can get lazy and obedient. So maybe it is best that we all find our own private ways to thrive. The best thing about art is that is never dies. It never can be finished. New generations refresh the waters.
Do you have any particular pre-creation rituals or elements that have to be present in each piece that you create?
No. I find myself working in many incongruent conditions and varied states of mind. I am happy with a painting when it scares the hell out of me during the creation process. I appreciate a state of crisis that must be overcome, or embraced.
To close, please tell us a bit about your experience on Shadowness and anything that you'd like to tell your readers.
The brilliant art-Goddess Snowmask invited me join. I have been happy to meet many creative artists here, and I am really impressed with the quality of the work online. From the beginning, I sensed that it was a warm and serious community.
Shadowness is elegant and free from distracting bells and whistles. Art is too important to be wrapped up in distracting games. I am glad that Shadowness keeps the focus on art and the development of artists. As a final word to you all, i would say that you should always trust your gut. Trust. Your. Gut.
Thank you once again!
Thanks for the opportunity to share!
One of the most intense interviews I've ever read .. JP is not only doing great art he is so much involved in this project and he deserves every help he can get.
Beautiful and outstanding interview Joe .. wipe some tears from the eyes now .
So inspiring and interesting.
I agree with you Jurgen about the most intense. A good interview needs a good subject and a good interviewer.
@Snow, I really like to read the conv you have between you 2, and he opens my mind too.
Brilliant interview! It has made me more aware of the social impact art can have. I found it very interesting to know some of John Paul's back story; it brings new light to the heartbreaking and hopeful portraits he paints.
Wow...I've seen him on DA, and have known of his work for years, but this interview really puts it all in perspective and it's just...I'm speechless. It's so heartbreaking and he's such a wonderful human being.