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Mark Soppeland, an Ohio based painter, sculptor and designer, has shown in over four hundred exhibitions around the world in addition to creating sixty community and public art projects. A Distinguished Professor, he has taught for thirty six years at the University of Akron.
Mark Soppeland’s Palace of Wonders and Mysteries, Visionary Objects, Extraordinary Images opens at the Columbus Cultural Arts Center Friday, February, 17 in Columbus, Ohio. The exhibition of light sculptures and paintings continues through March 24, 2012.
Recently I had lunch with Mark Soppeland. The meal and conversation refreshingly filled me with a renewed faith about walking the path of the struggling artist. Learning that results do not come to the surface all at once and that we may experience delay are important lessons for young artists to understand because we need to learn to be content growing quietly and steadily. One can win what cannot be forced if one is willing to cooperate with circumstance. I agree with Soppeland’s statement, “I am coming to believe more and more that every person I met has some lesson for me and they are important to aiding in my insight and growth. “
KL: You have often described yourself as a magician, care to elaborate?
Soppeland: I aspire to be the artistic equivalent of a magician, exploring the potential of some of the illusions of theatrical magic, as well as the showmanship. I am looking at people like Houdini and Thurston the Great. Part of me is very impressed with the skillful show of illusion in traditional stage magic. Like these magicians, I am working with lights, surfaces, time and space, sometimes even smoke and mirrors.
The transformation of the object through systems of faith, as in medieval times with the collecting of relics and their miraculous attributions also talks about a certain kind of magic. I am very interesting in the aesthetics of reliquaries, the elevation of the common and the narrative.
There are things I want to control and that I do control in my work, but I’m also a big fan of the happy accident. Louis Pasteur suggested, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Placing one’s self in such a mental state to take advantage of the opportunities of unforeseen accidents is also, perhaps, a form of magic.
KL: Do you consider your creative abilities as a divine gift?
Soppeland: That’s a complicated question. It depends on the day. I find myself moving through a variety of philosophical positions, from traditional Western religious beliefs that allow me to believe in things like a divine path; to being a pantheist trying to appreciate diverse global religious views, many of which also suggest the potential of a divinely inspired path of life; to also being very much a product of Western scientific investigation, which suggests that much of our lives are genetically predetermined. Whether that is part of divine fate, or simply a happenstance, is unknowable. Depending on my mood, I can believe anything from an existential view, that our existence is a curious accident, to the other end of the spectrum that our lives are a part of an elaborate divine plan.
KL: What is one of your fondest memories regarding your artistic career and teaching career?
Soppeland: Well, the two are defiantly intertwined. I am an artist, but a major part of my identity is also as a teacher. In the last twenty years, I have done a tremendous number of projects where my artistic activities become intertwined with my teaching activities. I try to involve my students with real life experiences, to create opportunities for them to participate in my projects. Like my wife, I tend not to be a favorites person. The difficulty is that my attitude is continuously shifting. As an artist, one of the ideas that I am very excited about is that there seems to be what I call, “moments of improbable coincidence.” Those events where several things will come together at a moment in time and space that defies the logic of the standard probability, and they come together to allow a creative experience that is remarkable. When I am in my more mystical moods, I see these moments as a gift from the forces of the universe reassuring me that I am on the right path. Those are the best moments, when you recognize that you are given these gifts, that you are at the right time and place, allowing you to live the fullest experience, to create things with the aid of the universe. Those are always great moments, and I do think the same thing happens as a teacher. There are these same moments with students when a combination of things come together to allow them to experience a new level of insight that is extraordinary because it is beyond the predictable of the norm.
KL: You have made a successful career and life for yourself as an artist and professor, any advice for someone just starting down this road?
Soppeland: I know I will get home and think of fourteen things I wish I had said. One of my great regrets (which is always a good potential interview question) is that I am not an instantly clever person. I usually have to sleep on things and let my subconscious roll information around. Most of the best pieces of art that I end up making are made through a very slow process. This relates to the question because I think you just have to have faith in yourself and keep going. Life might not be brilliant every day, but if you keep at it, more and more brilliant things (or a least better things) will reveal themselves, and more and more solutions. What I tend to notice from the many people I went to school with was that many of them were smarter and more talented than I, but I had a lot more perseverance. Most people take themselves out of the game. I am one of the few still making art. One way you can guarantee failure is to quit. Also, choose your friends well. Friends that will help you, be positive, reinforce the best you can be, that won’t drag you into dangerous and unproductive activities. Choosing the right people with whom to associate is very important.
KL: You have often spoken about playing the role of the eccentric artist. Do you have two distinct personalities? Are you acting for your career or is the eccentric artist really you?
Soppeland: I don’t do much acting. I think if I were a clever artist I would put on much more of a persona. This is pretty much me. A lot of times people are disappointed. When they know the work and then they met me, many want me to be more eccentric, strange and costumed. I have done what I can. When I first arrived at the University of Akron in 1976, realize the 60’s had happened. I was working to be a radical young artist, long hair, somewhat wild clothes. I walked into the faculty dining room and it was a sea of white shirts, flat tops and pocket protectors. This was basically a 1950’s engineering school. It was as though the two decades of the 60’s and 70’s never happened. So the fact that we have been able to bring it along to this stage is pretty exciting. I have to say, this it is very much to their credit that they accepted me and didn’t send me packing.
KL: How has Ohio treated you?
Soppeland: I was a child with very limited economic opportunities. Graduate school was my only ticket out. Art was my ticket to a middle class American life, and The Ohio State gave me a full fellowship. I couldn’t have gone to school without it; none of this would have happened. Akron hired me, took a chance on me as a young artist. I didn’t even know where Akron was. I got on a bus at night and I showed up in this city. Ohio has been very good to me. I like the people, the changes of the seasons and Akron has been a wonderful city. For an artist there is enough culture, there are more things to do than one can do. Artists can get almost any kind of supplies they want because it is an industrial city. It has supported me emotionally and financially. As a found object artist, this community continually generates objects that I can transform into potential objects of interest.
KL: Why are you teaching painting and not sculpture?
Soppeland: Part of me is delighted that I teach painting and drawing instead of sculpture. A group of eighteen year-olds in a room full of power equipment, what could go wrong? – not to mention the dust, the loud noise. I love sculpture. I love drawing and painting. I teach painting because of the fates. When I was in my last year in graduate school working on my MFA at Ohio State, I applied for every drawing, painting, and sculpture job in the country. Akron made me the first offer, and I took it. I decided when I was sixteen that I wanted to be an artist and teach college. It seemed to be a path to allow me to be both an artist and pursue my interest in expanding knowledge and the sharing of ideas. I viewed teaching as a stable system of support that would allow me to do radical investigations in my art.
As I was finishing graduate school I made twenty sets of slides that were continuously being mailed as part of job applications. It was incredibly tedious work, a major chore, but I got a job. I had to spend three hundred dollars on slides when that was a month’s paycheck. I was gambling on the future, assuming if I invested in myself I would get a return. I am teaching drawing and painting because that is the job I got hired to do, and I am happy to do it. I would have been just as happy teaching sculpture.
KL: What is art?
Soppeland: Art, for me, is many things but perhaps most importantly it is meditational. Art is all about becoming self aware, seeing the potential in your work and in yourself, using that work as a mirror of your own psychological state to work through issues. It is this act that we do for our own psychological and spiritual benefits. Then there is the public side of art, its ability to communicate ideas and emotions. I want people to have the opportunity to see my work, to enjoy and hopefully respect it.
KL: In academia they encourage us to live in a secular world, but we do in fact live in a society heavily based in religion. What would you say to people who declare artists, especially with work like your Guardians, are making false idols?
Soppeland: I live so far from that world that I find the suggestion that my work is somehow involved with making false idols bizarre. I was once accused of that though. Twenty years ago I did a very large public project in a small town and one of the ministers accused it of being a false idol in a local paper and went further on to say that it celebrated the “false religion of feminism.” I really have no idea what he was talking about, probably off his meds.
I have had run-ins with people who assume that everything has to be seen through the lens of religion and that if you are not one of us you must be against us, and if you haven’t conformed to all our dictates then you are clearly must be doing something bad. Religious ideas can be really complicated. Most days I am not really thinking about it. Most days I am thinking about my next body of work, my next show. I think people who would make that accusation of false idols are taking it way too seriously. I think all great religions have lessons of value to teach us, but I’ve never been much of a joiner.
It might be amusing to create a new religion, but I don’t think my current work would be very suitable for its imagery. I think if I wanted people to be worshiping my artwork, I should be doing something else. In the last thirty years no one has ever left an offering.
KL: Who have you been influenced by as an artist?
Soppeland: I have a pantheon of influences. I was fortunate to go to very good schools, which rally means I had great teachers. When I was in junior high school, we had a whole section on Picasso doing cubism. We were discussing the most cutting edge art of the day. One of the most radical art pieces that happened in the 1960’s was a performance piece by Joseph Beuys. He carried a dead rabbit around the gallery, telling visitors, “This rabbit understands more about the art then you.” The newspaper article that covered his performance was hanging in my high school. I don’t thinking people are talking about cutting edge art in most high schools anymore. Maybe they never were and I was just in lucky place.
Author’s Note: Mark Soppeland would like the readers of this interview to be aware that everything is complex and we have only touched the surface.
Please join Mark Soppeland for a special presentation called Conversation and Coffee, Thursday, March 1st Noon to 1:00 p.m. at the Columbus Cultural Arts Center.
Columbus Cultural Arts Center
139 W Main St.
Columbus, OH 43215
Kaitlynn Lane is a student and writer based in Akron, OH. View more articles by Kaitlynn Lane.