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An interview with artist Charlie Spear

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This is the second in my series of interviews with artists you may not know about, but whose work I find remarkable.

Charlie Spear is based in Peru, Indiana and the countryside and his landscapes never fail to capture a sense of place.  Most of his work has strong representational elements, but fused with a masterful abstract sensibility.  And, in a unique and wonderful way,  his work is strange, unexpected, and vibrant.

Twister painting by Charlie Spear

The first thing that struck me about Charlie’s work was that I’d never before seen anything quite like it.  The influences are there – Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso and so many others.  The difference between Charlie’s work and his influences is like the difference between a vintage milk chocolate bar and some crazy eye-opening chocolate confection with a smidge of bacon and a dollop of chili (and the weird one turns out to be the best thing ever).  There are undercurrents of wit and humor melded with an almost tangible humility and empathy in many of his pieces.  His figurative work is so very human and his landscapes capture the spirit of a place.  Subjects that other artists would render ponderous – a landscape after Cezanne for example – dance in Charlies hands, dissolving into a whirl of tight brushstrokes with odd references to pop culture subtly, seamlessly, and surprisingly woven in.

Couple Walking Dog on Lake Shore Drive

All of Charli’s pieces vibrate, they thrum, they dance as if so many colorful energetic somethings were caught and pinned into the painting before they could swirl away.  There are many moods captured in the staccato music of his brush.

He takes commissions for original works and for book illustrations .  He can be reached through the contact link on his website  (alternate website)

Philip Charles “Charlie” Spear

So, let’s hear from Charlie in his own words:

  1. Have you always lived in Indiana?

First, I want to thank you, Regina, for the interview. I have lived in Indiana all of my 64 years. I have been to most states in the USA visiting or passing through. My favorites are Colorado and New Mexico. I use New Mexico material from time to time. I tried to move to the Southwest several times but Indiana seems to be where I am supposed to be.

Big Boys by Charlie Spear
  1. What sparked your interest in art?

My interest in art I guess it began when I started to read. I would get books from the local library but would only look at the pictures, at first, then more and more only the pictures. I would take these back after a few days and get more new ones to satisfy my urge to look at pictures. I began making art as cartoons and free drawing from my early years. I have always loved to draw and paint but had no formal training until my sophomore year in college.

  1. Did you (do you) do anything besides art – either to make ends meet or as a strong interest?

My career in art has been split between art education in HS and Art History in college and my professional artist career. The latter began slowly in the mid to late seventies. I began to participate in local and state art exhibitions. I had a few one man shows and was in many art exhibitions but I stopped liking what I was doing artistically. I quit actively showing and decided to just paint. I have been very satisfied since just being an artist and creating art.

  1. I get the impression you also teach and mentor.  Can you tell us a bit about that?

My desire to share what I have learned in art has been a part of my art experience since my own high school years in a Benedictine seminary. I was part of a small art club started by myself and two other class mates. We painted every week on Saturdays, our day off. We used the theatre department canvas and paints as we were also active in the theatre’s props department. This desire to share my ideas with others I guess led me to teach and to learn along with my students. We were all learners while I was an art teacher. I worked right along with my students on whatever we were doing at the time. This mentorship if that’s what it was was a byproduct of my interest in joint learning.

  1. How has your location influenced your work?

Indiana has always had its artist and writers. A sort of Indiana homegrown interest in the “land” (as one writer put it) caused me to become interested in landscape painting from the beginning. There is a sort of solitude in being an artist in Indiana. Most people, who know that you are an artist, look at you as an oddity or rarity. This solitude is necessary as an artist. It is this aspect of being alone in my practice that has allowed me to operate freely and independently. They just usually left me alone to work.

6.   What life experiences and interests would you say have strongly influenced you style and choice of subjects?

That’s a tough one. What life experiences haven’t affected me? Stylistically, I admire eccentrics: Philip Guston, Henry Darger, Marino Marini, Georgio Morandi and Henry Moore come to mind. I guess it’s the desire to do what I want to do and go where it takes me. I may paint landscape for a while and then do a series of abstractions for weeks. It’s my learning of new interests that directs my work. I published a newsletter for a few years on Primitive Technology and wrote for another magazine. I made violins, dulcimers and flageolets for awhile. The list is long of new directions. To me they all seem to be connected. All the while I created art. These directions entered into my art in ways that I didn’t expect but cropped up nevertheless. This gives my work a richness that would be missing otherwise, a kind of mosaic.

Flowers in the Studio
  1. Where did you learn/study art?  Were there any mentors who were especially important?

I studied art at Purdue University: 1970 B.A. Art Education and M.A. Painting when the country was in flux with the Vietnam War. My teachers were all practicing artists and were at the top of their game. Al Pounders, Arni Kwalen, Tony Vevers, Curt Stocking, Bill Hachhausen, Brent Crocker and Steve Rose were the ones that standout in my development. Pounders, Vevers, Crocking, Stocking and Hachhausen seem to have laid the groundwork for my interest in drawing, painting, and Art History. They instilled in me many things such as the Gestalt of drawing. The principle maintains that the human eye sees objects in their entirety before perceiving their individual parts. The gestalt effect is the form-generating capability of our senses, particularly with respect to the visual recognition of figures and whole forms instead of just a collection of simple lines and curves. The design and composition, principally the relationship between the parts and the whole of visual experience, a love of form, and a sense of art history and the poetic.

  1. How has your style evolved over time?  Were any changes gradual or do you see distinct “periods” in your work?

My work is always evolving. My early work was somewhat more representational, a “learning stiffness” and leaned toward a conscious or ‘learned design.’  What has changed over time is my desire to allow the work and media to develop together as a process. I try to keep my thinking consciousness at bay and allow my inner artistic voice the freedom to respond to subject, materials and creative urges at the time. More and more, the action of painting becomes the guiding principle. This is not ‘automatic action painting’ but rather the innate sense of the artist mind to act and react involuntarily and trusting its choices. One thing that I am fascinated with  the uncontrolled marks of the hand made without the eyes control which always seem to be balanced perfectly in the overall design. Children do this naturally.

  1. Who are your 3 favorite living artists and why?  Favorite 20-21 Century artists?  All time favorites?

Philip Guston for his change of direction to speak his voice albeit questioned by most of his friends, Gerhardt Richter for his ability to move freely between ideas, techniques and subjects and Richard Tuttle for his free willing attitude towards art and its reality as a philosophical concept, are my favorite living artists.  My all time favorites are Goya, Picasso and Cezanne. Goya’s virtuosity of brushwork, Picasso’s unbridled creativity, and Cézanne’s understanding of color place these three at the top of my list.

  1. A lot of your painting blends elements of abstraction, energetic brushwork, a certain sensibility reminiscent of widely acknowledged great painters plus odd cartoonish elements.  It all works, but how did you develop this very unique style?

It’s hard to explain how these disparate elements are fused. Much of it has been added little by little as I became aware of those elements in others work that I was and am drawn towards. I am always looking at art and these elements filter down into my psyche. I suppose it’s an accumulation of differing qualities which are constructed into a kind of personal stylistic ‘visual architecture.’ My work must have spontaneity about it, a freedom of color use and unpredictability about it.

Chicago Sunset by Charlie Spear
  1. It seems like you’ve been living outside the heavy urban zone and all the little art colony areas (correct me if this is wrong).  How has this helped you, created challenges, or allowed you to look at things a little differently as an artist?

In a way, living away for any art center even as close as Indianapolis or Chicago has kept me from ‘leaning forwards’ in respect to what is being done and whose work is in vogue. I look at current subscriptions but am not in the fray. I 2007-07 I spent a lot of time in Chicago and going to galleries. It was fun but it hurt my work. I even spent time in some Chicago galleries speaking to their owners about my work. What I came away with was an ambiguity which affected my work. These galleries wanted a slick formula work which is not me. Getting out of that has returned me to my roots and honesty about me and my work.  It is what it is.

  1. Think about the internet as a tool for artists.  Love it?  Hate it?  Or do you find it provides a mix of good and bad?

The Internet is a great tool for getting out of a small community and interacting with the entire world. It gives artists the freedom to concentrate on his/her personal art and still permits the sharing it with others. This community for the most part has been amiable and helpful.

  1. Are there important messages and themes that you want to communicate in your paintings?

Humor, a sense of place, process and serendipity come to mind.

  1. Do you have any upcoming events to share?

If I do I am not aware of it (:>{ ).  I have come to terms with creating art whether or not I am noticed. I see online and in books all kinds of programs and plans for artists to maximize their exposure and status. Teleseminars are available which give a set of guidelines to create a market the ‘hopeful’ have always wanted. This isn’t who I am. If I do have a market it will be because my work speaks on its own.

Last Big Game by Charlie Spear
  1. Do you have any advice for artists just starting out?

Actually, I do. DO NOT  go to an Art School. Spend that money on room and board. Find artists in your region and go talk to them. Find the ones you “fit” with. Then offer them your services for free. Do whatever they ask you even if it is walking their dog. Ask about their art. Talk to them when possible about art and their philosophy of art (don’t be a pest). Gradually you will under the apprenticeship discover if you want to be an artist or not. Do this for several years working odd jobs to support yourself. And don’t bitch ever to the teacher …just learn. That’s’ your best schooling. Don’t stay in the same place move around find other artists. Apart from that, you are on your own. Don’t rush the process (4-6 years).

Charlie’s contact information

Philip ‘Charlie’ Spear


GOOGLE: Charlie Spear 
Contemporary-Humor-Figurative-Abstract Painting
Now Doing Book Commissions:ART
Commissions on Request via:phone contact or email