John Sousa – painterly photographer

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I had seen John Sousa’s work online and wanted to know more about it.  When I saw that he was to be included in a show at the Ohio Arts Council’s Riffe Gallery I decided it was time to pay him a visit.  The exhibition is called “Go Figure – 13 Ohio artists explore the human figure.”

John lives and works in his home in Springboro.

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As soon as I entered I saw one of the pieces that will be shown in the Ohio Arts Council show.  John told me he tends to work in series, and this piece is part of a series he refers to as Theophanic Angels.

 

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Looking at John’s work online, I thought some of the texture I was seeing might have been created in photoshop.  But that’s not the case.  The photographic image is printed onto a highly textured surface.  That’s more evident in the image below which was also hanging in John’s dining room.

 

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Before I learned about John’s work process, his wife Peg gave me a tour of the house so that I could see some of John’s older works.  I especially liked the black and white piece shown below.  It is called Fragment 10 and was made about 20 years ago.

 

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“I’ve always had a love / hate relationship with photography,” John told me.  “I love the creative freedom, the ability to transform images in endless ways.  But I hate placing that creative image on a boring, flat plane.  So I work at presenting the image in a creative way.  I think of it as trying to make photography more painterly.

“Another thing that is true of much of my work is its focus on language.  That’s evident in this work, and to a lesser extent in my angel series where I use many words with biblical connotations.  I find words to be fascinating yet very inadequate. They have a magical quality and work on us in ways that are unknown. I am not looking for how language is built up; I am more interested in language as it breaks down – for then we discover more about language and how our minds work.”

Before we looked at John’s work process, we made one more stop to see his eraser collection.

 

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“I have been collecting erasers since I was a young art student.  Unfortunately I’ve discovered how easy it is to use EBay to add to my collection.  It takes willpower to keep this collection from soaking up too much of my space and my money.”

John’s work process starts in this converted garage space where he does his silk screening.

 

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“I silk screen using inks that have a puff additive.  When I heat the silk-screened cloth, the inked areas raise – puff up.  Then I cut the cloth into shapes to use in a collage.”

 

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“I glue the cloth shapes onto aluminum honeycomb panels.  This is a light material that will never warp or sag – a perfectly flat surface.  When the work is done I mount it using a French cleat, so the panel “floats” and adds to the overall sculptural feel.

 

“After I glue cloth pieces onto the aluminum sheet, I paint everything flat white.   I use brushes to do this, not spray, because I want to preserve the sharpness of the silkscreened image.  That’s one more way that my work is different from that of most photographers.  They worry about the sharpness of the photography.  I worry about the sharpness of the details on the substrate on which the photograph will be printed.”

 

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Looking at this completed collage, the shapes may look random.  But I’m placing each piece of cloth knowing the dimensions of the image that will be printed onto the collage.

 

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The last step is to print the photo onto the collage.  Printing onto this irregular surface is difficult, and John tries to be present as the picture is printed.    Even with the printer and John paying close attention, things sometimes go wrong.  When they do, John needs to repaint the surface before making another effort at printing.

 

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As I left I saw two other angels.  Both were headed to an exhibition at a gallery at the University of Cincinnati – Blue Ash.  John told me that “one of the reasons for creating this angel series is my interest in the concept of “pareidolia,” a phenomenon in which one perceives meaning in abstract stimuli – for example seeing the face of Jesus in a piece of burnt toast or images in a cloud-filled sky.”

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