Studio Tour: James McNeill Mesple, Artist

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Record-breaking cold temperatures marked the day I visited artist James McNeill Mesple’s Logan Square studio last week.  Not cold.  Cold – an exotic cold many people go their entire lives without feeling but which Chicagoans are well acquainted.  It was the kind of cold that causes the much reviled new credit card parking meters to malfunction, locks to freeze and cars to stall.  I loathe sunshine when it’s that cold – it hurts to look at it, especially when the snow cover reflects it.  I prefer my winters dark and depressing, a condition that encourages my contrarian nature to kick in and make the most of it.  So it was just my luck that there wasn’t a cloud in the sky when I visited James.  To be fair, my sour spirits were more likely caused by my relative lack of productivity during the prior week. Writing felt impossible and pitching to busy editors at magazines with no budget felt pointless.  On the other hand, my flannel sheets had indeed gotten softer the longer I’d slept on them, and wrapped in their warmth, I’d enjoyed finally reading at least some of the large pile of magazines that had piled up in (and next to) the vintage stainless steel basket next to my bed.

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My friend, artist Michele Stone had referred James and said wonderful things about him and his work, so I strongly suspected my outlook would improve when I met him.  But as I drove south on Western Avenue to his studio, I cursed myself that I’d chosen to take Western Avenue, which is possibly not only the longest but also the ugliest Avenue in Chicago.   When I arrived at James’ studio, I accidentally parked two blocks away (on a block with an operational parking meter) and spent an agonizing twenty seconds running from storefront to storefront before diving back into my car’s relative warmth.  I finally realized my mistake and drove the two blocks south, but my mood somehow felt even gloomier.

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It’s a cliche, yes, but within minutes at arriving at James’ large, warm studio I felt better.  James invited me to sit down for a chat, and he gave me a large manila envelope with my name printed on the front and stuffed with a thick stack of articles he’d photocopied because he thought I might them find useful or interesting.  James’ act of consideration acted as a multiplier on the many things already making me happy about the space: the vibrant colors in his work, the jars of powder he uses to mix his own colors; and the many books and objets d’art, and of course, the environment – the warmth and the diffused natural lighting.  After chatting for a bit, the artist started playing Vivaldi: Concerto in C on his flute to mark the completion of his painting The Color of Cardinals, a collaboration with poet Jeffrey Levine for the Chicago Cultural Center’s exhibit The Poetic Dialog Project, which featured works by artists and poets.

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Playing a song for the painting is one of James’ traditions, and I was honored that I was able to witness it.  Faced with the choice between peacefully enjoying the moment and taking photos, I chose the latter and quickly snapped a few photos.  But it was the first time I’d been engaged by anything all day, and I was pretty happy to be happy and interested in something other than celebrity news and political gossip.

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James

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James’ card says simply ARTIST, and indeed, that’s all he’s ever been.  Some of his earliest memories are of drawing and painting as a toddler, and other than stints teaching art, he’s never made his living any other way.

“It’s something you wouldn’t want to do with family or children to take care of,” says James who attributes his success in part to the fact that he’s continually planting seeds: guest lecturing, doing art shows, teaching workshops and even giving his work as gifts.  He’s learned that people will call years later and ask about a painting they’d seen here or there.

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But planting the seeds takes discipline as much as it takes talent.  On an average work day, James starts working near the window at 7 a.m. to take advantage  of the beautiful morning northern exposure.  He breaks at 6 p.m. for dinner and then he’s at it again until 10 p.m. when he calls it a day.  Of course, James say it doesn’t feel like work.  There’s nothing he’d rather be doing, and he appreciates that he has the freedom to create art.  As I drove home, I realized how lucky I’d been to have been afforded the opportunity to make money doing what I love.  After that, my productivity problems improved, and so did my mood.

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I believe sometimes, perhaps always, the universe makes sure people are  exactly at the right place at the right time with the right person, and I believe that was the case the day I visited artist James McNeill Mesple’s Logan Square studio.  I suspect I got more out of the visit than he did, but planting seeds is part of James’ job; perhaps one of you will forward this along and James will get a commission.  If so, I hope he’ll allow me to be there when he plays the flute once again.  But in the meantime, I have work to do.  Thanks James.

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See James’ exhibit Aurora, Apollo and Others through January 2, 2010 at Aurora University’s Schingoethe Gallery. Dunham Hall. Randall Rd. and Marseillaise Pl. Aurora, IL. 630-844-4924

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This Venus de Milo reproduction was produced from a cast taken from the original.  James found the piece at an antique store that had reduced everything by 75 percent.

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James says his work has been influenced by his Osage Native American heritage as well as Greek and Roman mythology.  According to his bio, The common theme of the battle between good and evil , the “battle of the Cosmos,” inspires many of Mesple’s paintings.

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The powder used to create pigments comes from clay, which is dried and smashed into powder with mortar and pestle.  “Clay is ground up minerals,” explains James.  “Disintegrated rocks.”  James uses a “mixed technique,” which combines egg tempera and oil paint.

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A self-portrait of James.

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James keeps the valuable materials in a locked glass case.  James grinds the blue rock, lapis lazuli, which comes from a blue mountain in Afghanistan.  Blue was once considered much more rare and expensive than other colors simply because it was more difficult to make.

In related news, chemists recently made the serendipitous discovery that one of their chemical’s had left behind a rather useful powdery byproduct – a new chemically stabler shade of blue (maybe the best blue yet), so keep you eyes open for the new hue.

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James recommended the following books to me during our visit:

Aristotle and the American Indians by Lewis Hanke.

What Painting Is by James Elkins

Colors From the Earth by Anne Wall Thomas

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12 Responses to “Studio Tour: James McNeill Mesple, Artist”

  1. Wonderful! I love your profiles of artist’s studios.

  2. It’s always interesting to read about such talented people. James is certainly one of them.

  3. James’ work is very beautiful and inspirational. It was a joy to re-visit his studio through your photos and comments. Whenever I view his work, I see something more and the visual story becomes richer in meaning. A visit to his studio leaves one with a sense that all is well with the world!

  4. phil wicklander 25. Jan, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    Jim, Thanks for the visit to your studio. Hope the exposer brings you some well deserved sales. Also nice to see you at the Union League Club’s celebration Friday night.

  5. Thanks for updating me on your new project in the thompson center’s illinois state museum. I will always love your work especially the vivid colors you use and the mythical concepts are just so imaginative.I wish you could be exposed to the entire world.The world doesn’t know how really wonderful you and your talent really is. karen

  6. Thank you for the wonderful virtual tour! Of course one relishes the traditional classical themes in James’ work and his impeccable craftsmanship, but even in these photos, one can also feel an enchanting, mystical quality in them: viewing his paintings is like being initiated into the Eleusian mysteries.

  7. Diane my wife and I have known James since we were first married and went to a play on Belmont Avenue. In the lobby was an art exhibit. You could buy the art but the trick was you had to go to the artist studio to pick it up. Well you see his art visit his studio and spend time with him you are going to buy more and even better you will want to keep in touch with him the rest of your life…… and collect more!

  8. Charles Schneider 03. Mar, 2010 at 3:04 am

    Thanks for the great tour/pix of James’ space. He was a most influential teacher, and I am wearing a ring he made, as I write this. He is one of Chicago’s living treasures, that is for sure!

  9. wow – its great to see the walls covered with Mr. Mesple’s art. His work is so optomistic, fanciful, and bright. There is a mythos to it – an ancientness. I want to hang his work all over my house. Thanks for the link.

  10. julie de lara 05. Mar, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    Dear Jim,

    I enjoyed my virtual visit to your studio and am happy to find you well and busy as usual. Francois and I think of you often.

  11. Marette Mollet 11. Mar, 2010 at 8:41 am

    Could the bouncy, wiry energy in Mesple’s art be an inheritance from his contact with Benton and their shared Missouri landscape? His paintings seem to move beneath their surfaces, shooting lights like fire opals. How well his alchemy serves his magical vision.

  12. McGuire Gibson 08. Mar, 2013 at 5:37 pm

    A great exhibition of Mesple’s work is taking place right now at the Jackson-Junge Gallery.

    1389 N. Milwaukee Ave. Chicago, IL 60622
    Tel: (773) 227-7900
    You can view it on the Jackson-Junge website:
    http://www.j2gallery.com/