It’s clear that “Summer” is the best way to describe the prints of our latest Local Art Seen Here artist, Ryan Kapp. His pairing down of details in an environment of vibrantly mute colors creates a sense of leisure, that time truly does stand still.
Ryan, a painter and screen printer, hails from Columbus, OH. He has lived in Chicago since 2000, when he relocated here to attend Northwestern University to pursue his MFA in painting. Ryan completed the transition of becoming a working artist after teaching for the Harrington College of Design from 2002 until 2011 .
I recently had the opportunity to visit Ryan in his studio and talk with him about how he created the world around him. After I left I found myself with more questions, which Ryan was kind enough to take a moment and answer for me. His story is a great encouragement to any emerging artist who has been toying with the idea of tossing the 9-5 and hiking the path to being their own boss.
When you first started working for Harrington College of Design you were working part time, right? If so, what were you doing when you weren’t at work?
I did start as a part-time instructor at Harrington. I began teaching immediately after graduate school, so when I wasn’t teaching I was working on my painting. I moved into an apartment in Rogers Park that had a dining room large enough to use as a studio.
How was it for you to be at work after having the freedom of a student’s schedule for so many years?
It was crucial for me to have a job coming out of graduate school. There was definitely freedom during school, that also had a valuable sense of community and structure. I had classes to attend, classes to assist, and a shared studio house with my classmates. Coming out of that situation in a big city was a challenging transition for me, and having some sense of structure to design my weeks around helped keep me grounded.
How did you go from working part time to full time?
After a semester or two at Harrington, I was already teaching a full time load as a part time instructor. At the time, the school was going gangbusters because of the economy and the popularity of <interior design television shows on> HGTV. They were creating new full-time positions and since I was already teaching a full-time load, I applied and got the job.
Did you find working full-time fulfilling?
After teaching full time for a year I applied for the position of Program Coordinator for Foundations and got promoted to that job which I held for another two years. There were definitely aspects of working full time that were fulfilling. It really helped my confidence, it gave me a steady income along with benefits and it connected me to a community of like-minded individuals. Being able to go to school and spend time with students and other instructors in a learning environment was a nice contrast to working alone in my studio.
Sometimes artists find that working a standard nine-to-five is not only unsatisfying, but also suffocating. Do you identify with this? If so, how?
Eventually working nine-to-five did end up detracting from my ability to focus on my art career. The school where I taught is a for-profit institution and therefore the hours were much more in line with a typical business full-time schedule rather than a traditional educator’s schedule. I did have one day off a week, but I taught year round. No summers off to continue developing my art and such. Not only did the schedule allow little time for art-making, but the type of classes I was teaching had very heavy grading loads. Foundation courses require very clear and reasoned grading rubrics, and after teaching the same four or five classes for eight years and grading 100 of the same projects every semester, I started to burn out.
Was it a conscious decision to go back to working part-time? –Meaning, were you plotting out your future to work for yourself?
It was definitely a conscious decision to step back to part-time teaching. As I was working full time, I was continuing to develop my work and trying new things. I began screen printing and that made my work accessible to more people. As my art career started to have traction, I saw that spending more time in the studio could yield greater results. So the time seemed right to ease my teaching load since I was starting to burn out on the schedule and volume of grading anyway. It felt like a risk to give up the consistent paycheck and benefits, but I also believe that you don’t get anywhere without taking risks. Plus, my supervisors were very supportive and accommodating and continued to give me part-time classes to help with the transition.
Ryan signing giclees, which are sold exclusively at Artists Frame Service Lincoln Park
Once I made the switch, I never looked back. The new time and energy I was able to put in at the studio began to pay off and I was eventually able to step away from teaching completely. I taught at Harrington for about ten years and I feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunity. My colleagues were great, and it served as a valuable bridge from leaving graduate school to being a full-time artist. When I left graduate school I wasn’t yet mature enough to make use of all those hours in a studio that a full-time artist has at his disposal. Teaching in various capacities over that span allowed me time to grow and gain confidence. By the time I was ready to leave teaching, I had developed a focus and value for that free time in the studio. Now it feels like there isn’t enough time in a week to get to everything I want to get to.
What has been the hardest part about working for yourself or the process of relying on your art to be your business?
Probably the hardest part for me is the fact that I do everything myself. I don’t make enough to hire anyone, so I see a lot of potential growth going slower than it otherwise might. Hiring someone to help with the business end of things as well as printing, might be the next business risk I take.
Ryan's work in our Lincoln Park showroom
…how about the greatest part?
The greatest part is the fact that I get to go to my studio everyday and spend my life in pursuit of a creative vision. I get to play with colors and images and I still feel just like a kid. It’s also amazing to me that people like my images enough to spend money on them and hang them in their homes. The whole experience makes me feel very lucky.
How have you seen your style, your visual voice, evolve through your journey to being a working artist?
During undergraduate school, I was obsessed with mastering the skill of photo-realistic painting. I did a lot of still-life paintings that were technically competent, but didn’t really express my personality. I remember being interviewed for a local paper in Columbus, Ohio about some work I had in a still-life gallery show, and when I told the reporter I was influenced by skateboarding and skateboard graphics he said bluntly “really? I don’t see it.” His reaction was difficult for me to hear. I was holding onto a technique that was safe because it was easily recognized as talent, but it lacked the risk of putting my true personality into my work. I was on a track that served a purpose for a while, but had run its course.
I went to grad school with the challenge to break free of my conservative formal constraints. It wasn’t an easy transition, and it really took several years after school, but the seeds that I planted in grad school are the concepts that I still explore in my art today. Deep down I knew what I was interested in, but my voice couldn’t reach full expression until I removed any trepidation that was diluting the strength of my vision.
Eventually I began to let myself loosen up and be more playful with the technical side of image making along with depicting more challenging subject matter. I started introducing abstract elements like large areas of flat color juxtaposed with small areas of realism. I became enamored with suburban neighborhoods at night and images of people interacting with their world in ways that speak to me – skateboarding, making music, hiking, etc. I made a deal with myself that no idea I could have would be too simple or invalid, and in that way I don’t self-censor anymore. And that is pretty much where I am today!
What kind of advice do you have for individuals that are just beginning the path you are on?
Probably the best piece of advice I can give is to be honest with yourself and to develop a group of friends and peers whose opinions you value who will be honest with you.
Catch Ryan’s work in our Lincoln Park showroom until September 2nd; you won’t be able to leave without one in hand!
Editor’s note: Ryan is actually from Columbus, not Cleveland.