SEPTEMBER 2000 COVER STORY
Ron Arps is an artist. There's no doubt about it. He's riding a wave of popularity and financial success right now based on the fact that his paintings are selling faster than he can paint them. And yet in many ways Arps is the anti-artist. He doesn't dress in black chic, doesn't openly sport body art as a statement of trendiness, he doesn't chain-smoke, wrapping himself in a tobacco-induced aura of mystery and creative fog. In essence, Arps doesn't subscribe to the Warholian school of thought where the personality of the artist is flashier than the art, where the attitude of the creator is indirectly proportional to the talent, and where fifteen seconds of fame are eternally milked into a lifetime of sultry scandal and pompous prurience.
Arps, tall and strong, comes across more like an all-American icon from the fifties. Dressed in a stark white t-shirt and khaki trousers rolled up above his shins, he looks like the retro nostalgia so perfectly captured in the GAP commercials. As he sits down, legs crossed, he is the picture of self-assurance and confidence. Our interview took place in his studio, the top floor of a town house in Victorian Village.
And Arps knows that right now he is in a good place. A very good place. Following this year's Art for Life auction, benefiting the Columbus AIDS Task Force, where his painting was the most hotly contested item, selling for the greatest amount that evening, Arps's work is in great favor. At 32, Arps seems to have found his artistic groove and he is rocking!
Born and raised in Pataskala, Arps is the son of a carpenter from northwest Ohio and a mother from New York who held an interest in design, fashion and modern
savvy "all of which met with a little questioning in Pataskala." Arps's father was always around tools, having been forced into work at an early age. His mother would drive the family up to New York quite often and that for Arps was "a saving grace." His parents' genes and influences have given Arps an interesting mix of hard-working diligence and a flair for the finer things in life. He is happiest when working with his hands, whether that involves creating one of his dazzling and mesmerizing paintings or whether it means working as a carpenter turning lumber into functional structures and objects. In his family, including two half-brothers, Arps is "the family tightrope walker, the one who takes all the chances with everyone else watching."
As an artist, Arps has journeyed far and wide in search of his craft, acquiring experiences along the way that have shaped not only his work but also who he is today. Two days after his high school graduation, Arps embarked on a summer program in New York at the Parsons School of Design. He returned to Columbus to attend CCAD (Columbus College of Art and Design) and survived the first year there where the weeding-out process rigorously tries to make first-year artists quit. But Arps soon found himself alienated from the art of the academy: "I didn't really identify with the abstract art world in New York and I didn't feel connected to the art lineage." Seeing art reduced to slides and small images in textbooks left Arps feeling cheated; he wanted to experience art as it should be experienced - mano a mano!
In 1987, Arps traveled extensively for three months through England, Holland, Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece, Israel and Egypt. He came back exhausted and broke, but all the richer personally and artistically. I asked him to recount his most significant personal memory of that trip. "I met this woman in Germany who must have spoken all of four words of English and I had been unable to get to the banks before they closed and I had no cash," Arps recalled. "She bought me dinner and she told me that she had a son my age and that she would have wanted someone to look out for him as well."
I also asked him to recall his most significant artistic experience of that sojourn. Without hesitating he identified it as seeing Michelangelo's Pieta in the Vatican. "Never before or since have I seen something that gave me such chills," he said. "The skin, the creases where the arms met the torso, it was like someone painted white was sitting there waiting to move."
But that trip through many of the artistic meccas of the world also made Arps keenly aware of his distaste for mass consumption. Sounding like the lyrics from Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence," Arps said that in the museums so many people "look but don't see." He is referring to the hordes of tourists shuttling by the great works, quickly snapping pictures, hurriedly on their way to the gift shop where Monet's water lilies float atop large umbrellas and where Rodin's masterpieces in bronze are reduced to refrigerator magnets.
However, Arps knows all too well that the hype machine runs the creative world and the media empires. "I know I am riding one of those waves right now after the Art for Life auction and it's neat to capitalize on it," he admits, "but I know it's temporary. Who knows when it's going to dry up," he asks rhetorically. "I know that I am not going to be the favorite son forever."
After leaving CCAD, Arps took to construction work and carpentry. But the art bug was calling him, so he went off to SUNY Purchase in New York to pursue sculpture. And the travel bug was also coursing through Arps's veins. He became what Douglas Copeland labeled the "poverty jet-set" in his seminal novel "Generation X."
"I had the travel bug," Arps acknowledged, "and I needed to placate that. So I used to spend little, save, and travel." SUNY Purchase afforded Arps the opportunity to go to France and study at the Lacoste School of Art. Living in the South of France in a cobblestoned village in Provence started Arps off on his career as an artist. "After I finished school at Lacoste I had the opportunity to be an assistant to a drawing professor," he explained.
What is true of most art schools today is that while they train men and women in the skills of painting, sculpting, print-making or ceramics, little or no emphasis is given on how to build and maintain a career as an artist. Arps found this to be true of his academic experiences as well. "It took me ten years to have any idea of how to have a career because we are given no training in the practicality of living as an artist," Arps said.
After Lacoste, Arps found himself "trying to find happiness in a zip code, searching for Perfect Place, USA." "But I soon realized that the transitory life is lousy for a painter," Arps concluded. His ailing father was the final impetus in bringing Arps back to Ohio. "I intended to stay, ride the whole thing out through my father's illness," he said. Today, a few years after his father's untimely demise from renal cell cancer, Arps still has "no intentions of leaving Ohio."
His father's death at 62 was a "wake up call" for the younger Arps. "My father never retired," Arps explained, "he worked, got sick, recovered, and went back to work." Arps's father missed going to work the most during his illness. From his father, Arps learned that "you gotta love doing the work." Thinking about his own retirement, Arps said that artists don't retire. Instead, he astutely observes, "we die working and then everyone else becomes rich off of our work."
Should he choose to retire, Arps is still a long, long way from his golden years. And by his own admission, he is just coming into his own as an artist. His current oeuvre is a series of paintings that are mostly a combination of the figurative and the decorative arts. He arrived at this combination roughly five years ago after "making many mistakes and realizing what doesn't work." Arps said that many of his paintings have at least one other painting underneath the most recent layer of paint. It is always hard to destroy one's own work, but getting too attached to it can also be an artist's Achilles' heel.
Currently, Arps has a lot of pressure to produce work. He has a solo show opening at A Muse Gallery on September 8. After having been "treated so poorly by so many gallery owners in Columbus," Arps has found his own gallery muse in Karen Peterson with whom he has a great relationship.
Arps keeps coming back to the 2000 Art for Life auction where his piece sold for a record fifteen thousand dollars and was bought by Tina and Tom Grotte of Donato's Pizza. The bidding was fierce and heated all the way through and by the "end of it I was in tears," admits Arps. The gallery value of the piece was roughly at $2,800 and Arps was "nervous and ready to pass out" as to whether or not the painting would sell at all, let alone beat out Dale Chihuly's piece at the same auction - a fact that Arps beams with pride about. "The painting is a part of you, it's wrapped up in your identity and there are people putting a number on you." He marveled that someone spent more on his painting than he has invested in his car. That experience put "the wind in my sails," Arps admits.
But meeting with success has also meant that Arps has met with criticism. Quite a bit of it from his peers who accuse Arps's paintings of "being pretty." If that were the worst criticism that had been leveled against Monet's paintings in his day, Monet would have died very rich. But "prettiness" is deemed an insult in the postmodern world of art where angst, irony, and cynicism have become the hallmarks of "great" art.
Arps's paintings are pretty, even beautiful. But they are so much more than that. As a painter, he is schooled in the world of the great symbolists and art nouveau artists of Europe from Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele to Edvard Munch, Toulouse-Lautrec and Amadeo Modigliani. Arps says that he is as influenced by the Renaissance masters from Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci to Michelangelo and even the religious iconographers.
The colors in his paintings are almost always vivid, a sea of colliding colors fighting for space and meaning on the surface. There is a hypnotic and mesmerizing quality to many of the ways in which his female subjects gaze out at the viewer. They stand there nude returning the gaze of the viewer. The figures move in and out of the patterned surfaces fluidly where object and environment organically mesh into a dazzling whole.
There is an immense amount of detail in each of his paintings, from the way in which the light hits the women to the application of color and texture in the patterned worlds that the females inhabit. Arps also uses a lot of gold leaf, letting his paintings hearken back to the religious icons of the Renaissance. Arps takes a lot of pride in the fact that he has worked hard at refining his skills with precision and diligence. And it is obvious that all this is paying off for Arps.
Arps decided that he needed to focus on honing his skills, when he came to the distinct realization that many of his peers in art school and the real world were underskilled. There are many artists who try to sell art more through their own personas than through any level of skill or talent. These artists are relegated to what Arps calls the "Barbizon School of Art." And many of these painters deem selling a painting as something bad, viewing commercial success as selling out to the system.
Arps bristles at these self-crowned bohemians. "We never tell doctors to go through med school and ask them not to expect making a living at their chosen profession. Why then do we expect artists not to make a living via their profession?"
Arps also doesn't buy into the stereotypes of the artist as a depressed, disturbed, cosmically engaged individual. "There's nothing wrong with being in a good mood," jests Arps, "and I get depressed when I am not producing art." Arps has changed a lot in the last five years. "I want to make a living doing this and I have lost some of my romanticism about what it means to be an artist."
Arps lives by the adage "ASSUME THE ROLE," something he once read at an artist's studio. That is to say that one must take on one's role in life, whatever that may be, and carry it out to the end with confidence, panache and chutz pah! However, Arps is also deeply grateful for the "privilege to do what I want. I wake up every day without an alarm clock knowing that I am a very lucky guy."
His success today is appreciated more because Arps believes that age and realism have helped him cope better with his newfound success. "Five years ago, if this had happened to me, I would have been an unbearable asshole," he admits with simple candor. In a world that is ephemeral and full of chimeras manufactured by the hype machine, Arps's philosophy is that "none of this is owed to me; I have worked for it and will have to continue to do so." Arps says that he constantly works at being levelheaded, humble and grateful. And at being one of the most sought after artists in Columbus these days. Ron Arps, it seems, is in art for life!