Jeffrey Sparks Interview

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I first met Jeff Sparks several years ago at a workshop I was teaching in Arkansas. Even then I was impressed with his approach to learning and his giving nature. He not only took copious notes, photographed some of the teaching materials, but compiled all this material  to a CD…and generously shared this with each student participating in the workshop. Jeff continues to grow as an artist and his many talents and gifts continue to be used to bless others.
604 - Jeffrey Sparks

At the time we met, Jeff was working full-time for LifeWay Christian Stores. Since then he has moved with his wife Julie to Kansas City, formed the Missouri Valley Impressionist Society, and continues to work toward becoming a full-time artist. If Jeff is anything, he is a serious student…hungry for knowledge, thoughtful in learning and decision making. 

What has sparked (ha, ha) my current interest in what he’s been up to is a fabulous group of quality teaching videos he has produced and posted on his website. I really encourage you to check them out. You will discover quite quickly the quality and depth of my friend, Jeff Sparks.

As he continues to transition toward becoming a full-time professional artist, I thought you might be interested in how he’s approaching that, the kind of commitment he’s made to achieve it, and his opinion on other art related subjects.

Journal entry for  Paige – Orchestra in Umbers 
Palette notes for Whiskey River Rapids. Typical of journal notes Sparks keeps on each  of his paintings
Typical of the piles of notes Sparks has made, which will later be compiled, edited and refined into high quality teaching aids (shown below). Here we see his notes on unequal division of space, based on teachings of Andrew Loomis

You will notice in this interview, even though Sparks is currently employed full-time, his mindset is that of a full-time professional artist…critical to success.

What art training do you have?   I would say I am ‘self-taught’ but I know that can mean anything. What I mean by ‘self-taught’ is finding help. Seeking a mentor. Rigorous and academic tenacity, copious research, (I mean crazy dissertation-level research), on learning. The bottom line is, I lived most of my early fine art life so fearful of not being good enough, (that ‘self-taught’ label haunted me you know), that I spent considerably more time researching and studying than most might endure. I’ve also had workshops – one of the best from you, John – and had the pleasure of being mentored by artist Rick Howell…until his passing this past November. 

Sphere Study – 8″x 10″ – Oil
Strange City Series “Demolition” – 18″x 24″ – Oil

When did you begin painting full-time?   I live, eat, and breath fine art easily 40 hours a week. Full-time. My other full-time job is at Half Price Books.

Then you haven’t fully transitioned from employed to self-employed as yet?   I haven’t made that transition yet. My friend, Todd Williams, gave me some incredible advice. He said to be 100% ‘debt free’. An artist without debt is an artist who can survive the lean times by storing up reserves in the days of plenty. Until I am debt free (and my wife and I recommend Dave Ramsey and Total Money Makeover), I will work both full-time jobs.   

What was your former employment and how has it prepared you for what you’re doing today?   I wanted to be an artist since I was young, but felt a calling into the ministry and so went to college and seminary to study for pastoral ministry. Although, at times, I find myself wishing I had known about the various training academies of fine art scattered around the United States, I do not regret those many years of rigorous, classical, education. Instead of ministry, I went into retail management at LifeWay Christian Stores for many years and there found an entirely different education in leadership, management, hitting targets and goals, and perseverance. I came to fine art only recently, and I know this is a profound phobia for many who, later in life, begin to pursue fine art.

Fall Umber – 16″x 12″ – Oil

What is the value of having a mentor?   I could write a book in answering this question; such is the role of a mentor. Let me step aside from strictly fine art for a moment to say that in all areas of essential importance to one’s life, (often just in contemplating life itself and how to live it well), I believe the role of a mentor is life-altering. There are a lot of successful artists out there who provide mentoring services, but I would say this is more along the lines of coaching, and so would like to distinguish that from authentic mentoring here. A mentor is different. As human individuals, we can share what is ‘personal’ to a coach, or a teacher – but to a mentor we share that which is ‘private’, for an endeavor to which we commit our life affects each and every other part of our life. For this reason, may we choose our mentors wisely; and be a mentor yourself, but also wisely.

How difficult is it to enter the fine art field today and what have/are you doing to overcome those difficulties?   Every gallery is, in essence, a retail store. Worse, they are specialty retail stores. We, the artists, are their suppliers. If our paintings don’t sell, they don’t pay their rent. I wish it could be more glamorously said, more poetic, but it is the stark reality – with the New Medicare tax resuming (the 2% hit we are all feeling come off our income as of this week), unemployment high, and uncertainty, old paradigms really ought to be examined today when it comes to entering the art field. What I am doing is painting, building inventory, and working at improving. This can either be a woeful time, or a time of renewal and strength-building. I will choose the latter.

A Fall Winter – 18″x 24″ – Oil
The Whitening Pond – 18″x 24″ – Oil
Through Trees – 16″x 20″ – Oil

What are the three most important lessons learned since beginning your fine art career?   1) “Set your expectations, don’t back down from them, and let the chips fall where they may.”…from my mentor, Mick Houston, at LifeWay Christian Stores. It applies to fine art, and all areas of life. 2) “You already know what you need to know.” This counsel is from my friend and master artist, Todd Williams, Siloam Springs, Arkansas. When you are largely self-taught, you build your dream of fine art from the clouds down. The basics do not take long to master. 3) From a great man in my life right when I was beginning fine art, “Don’t worry about awards and recognition; don’t chase juried shows. Instead, focus on the quality of your work – I have found that when you do this, the awards and recognition come all the same.” T. Allen Lawson, during a cold February visit to his studio over the span of a couple days.

Who have been your most important creative influences?   Honestly, illustrators.

What would be your definition of art?   Visual search for, and when found, exploration of beauty and truth.

Jade Jar and Melon – 12″x 16″ – Oil

How would you define your role as an artist?   We can’t take anything with us when this life is through. So it is with utmost respect for Fine Art and our Fine Art Traditions when I say that if my paintings are my only legacy, however beautiful or however extravagant the awards, I lived a poorer man. My role as an artist is, as I see it in my own life, not about art at all, but about the journey in life that best provides to me a way to utilize God’s gifts in my life, while also showing others in my world some of that wonderful beauty that is also truth, and therefore live a much richer man.

Is it important to set goals as an artist?   It is important to set goals in life. It is important to set “To-Do” lists which honor those goals, and even more important to set “Not-To-Do” lists!

How important is it for an artist to have an individual style and (if so) how is it attained?   Yes, it is certainly important. And, it is attained through theft – sort of. (When we take ideas from only one artist it is theft, when we take ideas from many artists, it is individual style).

What do you look for when selecting a subject?   Design, only design.

What role does one’s personality play in the type of work they produce?  Actually, I think you can read a great deal about the artist’s personality in their painting. Personality also has a lot to do with selling the work they produce, so we can all improve in how we sell our work and ourselves. I know I certainly can.

How important is all the social media stuff to a contemporary artist?  Probably more important than I understand it to be, but it clearly moves too fast over too many access points – like Facebook, Twitter, Feedburner, et al – and these access points are constantly being replaced by newer, cooler ones. The question may not be how important it is to the contemporary artist, but how important it is to the contemporary buyer of fine art, (and if it is important to our clients and patrons, what is the best, cleanest way for them or their gallery to find us)?

What’s been the most exciting development in your art career during the past year?  Having a gallery call me out of the blue, having seen my work, and offering to carry my work.

If you could hang out with three artists for a day, past or present, whom would they be?  1) John Singer Sargent (if it was a day he was painting)  2) Edgar Payne  3) William Wendt

If you were stranded on an island, what three books would you want with you?           1) The Bible  2) The Army Survival Guide  3) A Shepherd Looks at the Twenty-Third Psalm

Tell us about the Missouri Valley Impressionist Society (MVIS).  In April of 2011, I posted a notice on Facebook declaring this crazy idea I had come up with to start a plein-air painting group in the Kansas City metro area. All of us who painted would go out to paint only to learn that, had five or ten other people heard about it, they would have joined us. So I posted this and fielded responses over the next several weeks. I found three avid Facebook artists in the area, invited them to join me in this crazy idea, and I couldn’t have done it without them. We went live January 1, 2012. By the end of the year we may be nearing 80 members, (which is pretty good), we’ve had three shows, one a juried exhibition that met rave reviews, lots and lots of paint outs, a workshop by Denise LaRue Mahlke, and spread the MVIS into Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, with a few members in other states.
All we wanted to do is organize paint outs. What we found is that we arrived at an agreeable time in the Kansas City art scene, and have been welcomed by the community of all artists. As we’ve grown, many other smaller art groups and painting clubs connect with us, small groups that might do one or two paint outs each year, and so we try to find them and partner with these small groups so we always have paint outs on our schedule all around the area.
Also, we wanted to get away from a medium-only club format (pastel, oil, etc) and allow anyone working in any medium who work more representationally to join us. Our membership is $35 and we invite anyone interested to join and then start an MVIS chapter in their community as well.

Whiskey River Rapids – 14″x 18″ – Oil

You are a thoughtful, creative writer and are now writing and producing a series of short teaching videos, what is the purpose and motivation behind all these efforts?  One thing I do every year, around July, is take an exhaustive personality inventory. Every time I do this, my #1, #2, #3, and #4 ‘gifts’ are Teaching, Speaking, Writing, and Artistic/Creative. Depending on the test or the year, these four, whatever order they come, are always present. So I am motivated because I love creating projects that employ these natural gifts in order to help others in some way. These videos, free tutorials, came from this desire.

Organization of some compositional research into simplified, clearly stated visuals.

What are your future plans for the video series? Any other projects?  In fact, I have a very specific plan for these videos laid out in some detail: I will continue to produce free tutorials – learning how to refine the process with each one – and will continue providing these throughout the year. I believe they are quite helpful to many artists, or can be, and they are certainly helpful to me. My plans include a new website that is more accessible than either my own FASO website or YouTube for video content. If I can achieve 40 to 50 of these per year that would be ideal; the new website will begin to categorize these videos into themes, cross-referencing them as well. I had not anticipated getting this much into video, but I have discovered (for my way of thinking) my exhaustive research over the years has provided a library of books, files, thoughts, interviews, meticulous investigations, and the occasional rare or obscure reference. The videos, if done well, begin to link this library of fine art thought into accessible learning modules.

Thanks, Jeff, for a great interview. Your dedication to learning and your willingness to share freely what you have learned with others will be a significant inspiration to many who hope to one day become professional artists. I expect before long your name will be found among some of the most respected painters. 

Jeffrey Sparks blog

Missouri Valley Impressionist Society

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