A SPECIAL CONVERSATION – John Rodak

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A SPECIAL CONVERSATION – John Rodak
John Rodak describes himself as an “instructor, illustrator and graphic designer.” Those who know him, however, might simply describe him as an “artist,” a word that reflects the creative approach he brings to all his occupational endeavors.  His creativity is well captured in the latest Wynne Home art exhibit, “Pointillist Illustrations,” consisting of more than 30 of the artist’s works. The exhibit illuminates the influences of his upbringing, his travels, and his wife, Lan-Hsi Nancy Wen.

 

The Early Years

How did you get interested in art?

I was drawing from an early age.  I didn’t do a lot of art in school, but I did participate in art classes outside of school.  My grandparents were immigrants, and I was the first person in my family to go to college.  I was able to go to Catholic school for K-12, and the focus of my parents and educators was to ensure I learned the basics—good literature, math, writing.  My teachers and my parents also emphasized discipline, good behavior among the students.  My parents stressed education and encouraged us to do and be our best, but they never pushed us in any specific direction.  But by my senior year I was able to take an art elective, and I also took a drawing class in Cleveland.  So, I would go there once a week to do art.  I haven’t spent much time thinking about how it influenced me, but perhaps more than anything it provided me with the discipline and focus to succeed.

How did college influence your art?

I went to the University of Cincinnati, where I studied art education, so I was able to pursue art.  Interestingly, my final semester in college, I needed three more hours—completely unrestricted hours—just to be a full-time student.  The department chair allowed me to create my own curriculum, and that was great.  I tried art with dots—pointillism—and I still have two of my drawings from that time, believe it or not. But it was great to try something different, and it stuck.

Pointillism

The “invention” of pointillism is generally credited to Georges Seurat, who is most famous for Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The work was originally derided, but through the work of Paul Signac, Maximilien Luce, Camille Pissarro, and others, the style came to be much admired and (literally) dots the walls of the world’s most famous art museums.  Few of these artists, however, employ the black and white favored by Rodak.

Were you influenced by Georges Seurat or Paul Signac or any of the other notable pointillists?

I was doing art at the age of five, but I wasn’t studying a lot of formal art history.  I was drawn to the illustrated comic books, guys like Joe Kubert, Russ Heath, and Jim Steranko.

Some people distinguish between illustrators and artists.  Is that a distinction you make?

No, to me they are both groups of artists. It’s just a matter of how the artists choose to channel their energies and talents.  Back then, illustrators used a tape that was known as Zip-A-Tone, and it was a gradation of dots.  Using it could be expensive, and I thought there might be cheaper ways to do it.  For me, that way was to draw the dots—to incorporate a pointillist technique into the illustration.

Most pointillists are known for their vivid, even artificial color schemes. The eye allows the multi-colored dots to bleed together, producing new colors never applied to the canvas.  You, on the other hand, use black and white, which produces the challenge of conveying almost endless tonalities of gray.


I prefer black and white. To me, it’s a particularly sincere way to approach art.  Many forms of painting are forgiving.  You can cover up a lot of mistakes with layers, and I don’t think that’s as true for pointillism.  I was taught to take a perfectionist approach.  If I made an error on an illustration, I threw it away and began again.  This combination of black and white and pointillism was a good combination for me, and it’s what I prefer. It is a unique way of capturing the image that exists in my mind.

Working in Art

Rodak began teaching in 1972, working in Cincinnati public schools until 1995, when he moved to Houston.  He taught in Houston until 2012.  Throughout this period and beyond, he also taught private classes, while also pursuing art commercially.

Tell us about your teaching.

I taught for decades, really until COVID put a pause to that.  But I taught for four decades in public schools, and I’ve taught private classes, and I taught everything.  This is especially true in the private classes, where you might have 15-20 kids in the class, ranging from six-year-olds to high-school age.  They are doing different work, different styles, and they have different abilities.  I focused on the individuals’ strengths, whether it be in ceramics, drawing, or painting.  I tried to help them get to the next level.

You are also doing commercial work at this time?

Yes.  I was also performing music in various venues, and sometimes I would do art for those venues.

This led to a big commission.

It did. I would sell art to bars or other venues where I played my music, and it caught the eye of a notable Cincinnatian–Kenny Anderson, the All-Pro quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals.  He called me, and I didn’t believe it was him; I actually hung up on him twice, thinking it was a friend of mine playing a prank.  The third time he called, he said, “John, this isn’t a prank.  Please don’t hang up.  I want you to do a commission for me.”  And I did.  It was as large as the piece could be in those days, and it’s him in action taking the snap.  He gave it to his parents as a gift for helping him go to school and encouraging him in his athletic pursuits.

What other commercial work were you doing?

I would get freelance illustration work and other jobs. Around 1983 or 1984, I began doing commercial design.  I had a talent for writing, and this put me ahead of some other artists or studios.  I was able to get work because I could do the work and the writing.

The Wynne Home Exhibit: “Pointillist Illustrations

In March, the Wynne Home opened an exhibit featuring 35 of Rodak’s works, all in black and white, all pointillist, but reflecting a diversity of subjects and locations.

There are diverse subjects in this exhibit, but a few of them come from work you did in the 1990s featuring Ohio scenes.  Tell us about those.

In 1990s Ohio, you had people turning against farming, turning against a tradition that was central to the state’s history.  People didn’t want to be farmers, they didn’t want to live near farms—or, especially, farm animals. I thought, “perhaps we can help people be aware of farming and its history through art.” I spent a couple of years photographing Ohio barns, and then doing black and white drawings of them.  I wasn’t completely satisfied with the straight-lined drawings.  It didn’t capture the eye.  That’s when I began doing more pointillism.  In fact, I did 18 pieces featuring barns, helping people become more aware of the barns as structures, and their role in farming.

Many of your pieces seem to rely on framing as a composition device. In “Mail Pouch (Southeast),” for example, the barn side serves as a frame within the painting frame.  Is that a conscious device?

No.  I work from what I like, and it’s not driven by a conscious process.  Interestingly, when I did the barn exhibits across Ohio, the state was celebrating its 200th anniversary, and they hired a painter to paint the Celebration Logo on the side of one barn in each of the state’s 88 counties.  In preparation, he went to one of the last surviving barn painters in Ohio, and he asked, “What is your advice for people painting on the side of a barn?” And the elder painter responded, “Don’t fall.”  And that’s really good advice.

Who is the handsome guy embedded in this drawing, “House with No Name”?

That’s me. I figured it was about time for me to do me on a building.

There are many works featuring barns and other rural scenes, but there are also many pieces with Asian settings.  Does this have anything to do with your wife, Nancy?

Absolutely.  She is from Taiwan, and her mother and father are from mainland China.  Her parents were targeted by the Communists, so they fled the country in 1949.  Nancy and I have had the chance to travel over there, and we began taking a lot of photographs. You’ll see works featuring China, Taiwan, and Cambodia.

I would guess there aren’t many art exhibits featuring work on Asia and Ohio barns.

That’s true (laughs).

There are also many pieces with statuary as subjects.

Yes, mostly from cemeteries. I am a midwestern boy.  Give me a car, and I’m gone.  Nancy tells me which direction to go, and we head out.  For day trips, we might go to cemeteries and find interesting statues.  They make for interesting subjects.

Technically, architectural works are sculptures, three-dimensional art, just as statues are.  Are you attracted to these subjects because of their structural or sculptural elements?

I think so, yes.  In some cases, it is a combination of the landscape and the structure—or, how the landscape is taking over the structure.

How long does it take you to do a piece?

When I began doing pointillism seriously, it would take about 40 hours.  Now, I do the pieces in about 20-30 hours.

There are 35 pieces in this exhibit, how did you choose them from the total collection of your work?

With a lot of coffee and help from Nancy. She’s honest with me.  I’ll lay out the pieces in my home, and I’ll say, “Okay, I am thinking about this one.”  And she’ll agree.  And then I’ll say, “And this one.”  And she’ll give me a look or say, “I don’t think so.” So, I take it off.

That’s an intelligent process on multiple levels.

Yes, it makes for a better exhibit, and it’s good for peace in the family.

I ask Nancy which of John’s works is her favorite.  She indicates that, among others, she enjoys the pieces featuring canals.  “Sometimes, it’s the artwork and the memories it conveys to me personally.  It evokes our travels to those places and the good times we had while there.”

 

 

Nancy and Travel

John and Nancy met, appropriately, at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.  He approached her and said, “You have a pretty face. It would be a good subject for drawing.” Despite this questionable opening, she agreed to dinner with him.  That was in 2002, and they have been happily married since 2009.

When do you travel?

My son David is grown, and I am retired from public-school teaching, so I have the flexibility in my schedule to travel—whichmeans, we travel when Nancy has the time to travel.  She works for IT at the Texas Children’s Hospital.

Do your artistic preferences dictate your travel locations?

No. We go where we want, and we can always find places worthy of a good drawing. We’ve been to 40-45 states and about a dozen countries—several countries in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.

 

Lagniappe: A Little Extra

Has your style changed over time?

Somewhat.  A former student of mine indicated as much, pointing out that my “dots are different now than before; they have a different texture.”  I use different pens now, and these pens give me a little more flexibility with the dots.  It’s made a slight difference in the look of my works.

With pointillism, you use pens with different tip sizes?

Yes, the pen tips are measured in millimeters, ranging between 3 and 8.  I typically use between a 3 or 4, but I will sometimes use up to an 8.

Do you work from your own photographs?

Yes. I use color photos, and I mentally imagine it as black and white.  I think using a black and white photo would be a bit like cheating.

Many of John’s works at the Wynne Home can be purchased.  The originals range from $1,500 to $5,000.  He also offers signed limited editions, which can be purchased for $75.  Open editions sell for $50. The Wynne Home Arts & Visitor Center is open Tue-Fri from 10am-5pm and Saturdays from 10am-2pm. “Pointillist Illustrations” will be on display until June 3. 

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