Artist Insights: James McNeill Mesplé


I first met James Mesplé one day several years ago, when he stopped into the Chicago Gallery News office after visiting Printworks Gallery. He dropped off a catalogue from his upcoming show and shared a first hand explanation of his conceptually loaded work. Since that visit, and on many others, I’ve been pleased to gain knowledge and history from the congenial, insightful Chicago artist. 

Mesplé’s intricate paintings link the past to the present through portrayals of historical imagery, mythical figures, and surrealist landscapes; fine details and vibrant, saturated colors fill his canvases. References to pop culture and modern themes dot his work along with the occasional glimpse of the artist himself. 

Mesplé studied painting at the University of Missouri in his home state, and following his move to Chicago in 1968, graduated with honors from Northeastern Illinois University in 1970. He has taught art at various Chicago institutions over the years, including Francis W. Parker School, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Mesplé lives and works in Chicago where he is represented by Printworks Gallery, and his work is included in numerous public and private collections. - LM

Image shown at top of page: James Mesplé, Calliopé, Muse of Epic Song and Poetry, multi-media collage on paper, 2013-14, 7 ½” x 9 ½”

LM: How long have you lived in Chicago? 

JM: I’ve lived in Chicago since 1968. I was 19 when I moved here, and I’m from a small town in the Ozarks called Nevada, Missouri. I had visited my brother in New York and my sister in Chicago in previous summers, so when I decided to leave the University of Missouri to finish my education, I chose Chicago. 

Tell me about your recent summer exhibition, Mythic Faces & Figures, at the Chicago Cultural Center and your upcoming fall show, Muse, at Printworks Gallery. 

Mythic Faces and Figures at the Cultural Center included my larger canvases in egg tempera and oil, a mixed technique of painting that I originally learned from Thomas Hart Benton, whom I met through my teacher Fred Shane.  This process gives luminous, brilliant color, which I very much like.  

Muse, my Printworks exhibition, is a series of 33 new collages, made with a variety of water-soluble media, including ink, watercolor, gouache, casein, and acrylic painted over paper collages. Most of the works are small and intimate. The Muses inspire us in the diverse arts. Many people know about the nine Muses but few know their names or attributes. I hope everyone will stop by the gallery, see the exhibition, and pick up the free catalogue, which is really a small guide to the Muses. Once you know their names, you will see them pop up in works by writers as diverse as Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, and James Joyce. The Muses can take you on a journey to both the past and the future.

I always enjoy hearing your stories. Can you share a noteworthy memory about a triumph you’ve encountered throughout your years as an artist?

In 1987, I was commissioned by Chicago City Ballet to create sets for Chicago!, a new ballet to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the city of Chicago. The premier was at the Chicago Theater on State Street. I couldn’t miss the chance to put a monumental image of a golden Venus on the top of the Sears Tower (now Willis). It did not go unnoticed by the critics. This led me to produce a painting with similar images, which was included in my first international invitational exhibition at the Queens Museum in New York in 1988. The title of that exhibition was Classical Myth and Imagery in Contemporary Art. In the art world it is certainly true that “one thing leads to another.”

Your work is loaded with vivid representations of classical figures, and nods to historic symbolism. Can you elaborate on your interest in mythology and historical subject matter?

I have always been interested in the narrative in my painting, and in my music as well. My preference is classical music. I like a beginning, a middle, and an ending. For me, it is rather like sex—the foreplay, the act of pleasure, and the climax. Remove any one of these three parts and something is definitely missing. Sometimes, in narrative painting, the story is only suggested and the viewers complete the action in their minds. These stories have as many different endings as there are viewers. We get out of a painting what we personally bring to it. 

I love mythology because the narratives are always open to various interpretations. Often multiple meanings exist simultaneously, both mundane and profound; exoteric and esoteric. My interest in mythology began at an early age, encouraged by my grandfather, who shared with me the stories he learned from his father and grandmother. I find many similarities between his Osage (Native American) stories and the Greek Myths, since both deal with the forces of nature, the sky, the earth, and the creatures that live upon it. Carl Jung, of course, would claim archetypes exist in all cultures.

What do you find unique about Chicago’s art community? 

I find it a nurturing place to work because it is not market-driven. Art, whether a novel, a painting, or a symphony requires time, energy, and isolation in order to bring an artistic creation to completion. 

Chicago provides a wonderful cocoon in which art can develop and mature before it emerges and takes its flight from the artist’s studio. Other cities around the world have provided the same conditions for the development of art at different times, but the muse is fickle; she never stays in any one city forever. Chicago’s location in the middle of the country was in the past a detriment, but it is now looking more like an asset, as people move away from the edges of the continent. For many Americans, the Great Lakes, the Prairie, and the Mississippi are still terra incognita, but in the new century, this is going to change. What will the art of the new century look like? Only one thing is certain. It won’t look anything like work from the 20th century, which looked nothing like work from the 19th century, which looked nothing like work from the 18th century, etc., etc.

Are you in the middle of any big projects? 

I am starting a new series of egg tempera and oil paintings on panels, which incorporate gesso relief in both the picture plane and the frames. The nature of the subjects and narratives are top secret at this time. 

The twelve paintings will take me two years to complete. They should be ready for exhibition in the fall of 2016.

Do you have a favorite place in Chicago?

I love the conservatories at Garfield Park and Lincoln Park, and the Chicago Botanic Garden in Highland Park. I have been sketching plants in all these places since the early 1970s. At that time, when I was still teaching, I used to take my Francis Parker art students to the Lincoln Park conservatory to sketch.

What books /authors /poetry do you find yourself re-reading every so often? Any classics or old favorites that have really influenced you or your work?

Shakespeare, Edith Hamilton on Mythology, and Harry Thurston Peck’s Classical Literature and Antiquities. Elise Paschen commissioned me to create a painting for the cover of a book of poems entitled Bestiary (Red Hen Press). Her poems, which draw upon her Osage heritage, I found both provocative and powerful. I reread Bestiary recently and found that her poems release a torrent of emotions and images, which any artist could draw upon for ideas.

Tell me about your studio practice. What is the typical evolution of one of your paintings, for example? How long will you work on a piece, and do you have a set plan when you begin or do elements develop as you work?

My normal practice is to get up, have breakfast, go out for a good coffee, and get back to start work by 9:30am or so and I work until 6pm, with a 30 minute lunch break. Often I return to the studio after dinner and work until about 10pm. My works begin with small thumbnail sketches that get transposed into small drawings, which are then gridded up to canvas size. The large paintings usually take about two months from beginning to completion. As I work on the pieces, often my plans change and I add or take away elements in the composition. Sometimes, I move on to a new work, only to return to an older work.

Describe your studio. Is it Organized and tidy, or more of a hodgepodge? 

My studio fluctuates from being organized and neat to a hodgepodge, as I move to the completion of a project. 

What inspires you to produce work? Do you have a long list of ideas ready to go, or do you wait for a spark of some kind?

I have dozens, probably a hundred, sketch books full of ideas, quick sketches done on my travels to museums and intriguing places here and abroad. I refer to these constantly, and one sketch may inspire several works. However, I have come to the conclusion that I would need several lifetimes to make use of all of my sketches. Sometimes, ideas happen in dreams, and I get up and sketch them down before I lose them. Daydreams are easier. 

Are there artists, past or present, whose work you really admire?

An early influence was Ivan Albright, whose paintings I first encountered in the Art Institute when I visited as a grade school student. In Missouri, I gained much from two of my earliest teachers, Fred Shane and Thomas Hart Benton. In Chicago, I was inspired by the Imagists, especially the paintings of Ed Paschke, who later hired me to give egg tempera workshops to his students at Northwestern. And I studied under Karl Wirsum, at the SAIC. And, of course, I am influenced by numerous Old Masters, especially Botticelli, Piero di Cosimo, and Martin Schoengauer.

You have a history of teaching at various educational institutions. How was your experience with teaching? Any comments on how the landscape has changed in art education, or on the current state of art education?

I taught full time for ten years at the Francis Parker School, and part time at the studios in the School of the Art Institute.  I enjoyed both, but teaching never left me with enough time for my work.  I have been away from teaching for years, so I cannot speak authoritatively on the current situation.