Baltimore’s Spoon Popkin: Inspired by Pets, “Playboys,” and Princess Leia

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Baltimore-based painter Spoon Popkin often makes art from images she finds in life — like, for instance, the amateur, and often pornographic, cell-phone-cam self-portraits she surfed at Guys with iPhones (site contains mature content). Characterized by Popkin’s playful, free-flowing (but masterfully controlled) line, her recent “guyswithiphones” paintings (see two below) transform mundane men-in-undies pics into complex studies, which spur a dialogue that points Film 101’s “the gaze” toward fresh territory… And might also spur you to say, with a grin, “This came from that?”

“In the case of the ‘guyswithiphones’ series, the subject and photographer are the same person with images shot mostly in bathroom mirrors,” Popkins says. “These images are shot in an intensely private situation with a very specific concept in mind of whom the final viewer will be. ‘The gaze’ goes through the mirror, the cellphone lens, to the computer, to the artist and finally to the viewer, that’s quite a modern journey.”

guyswithiphones-1

guyswithiphones-2

If you don’t know Popkin personally – with her light pink hair, her blue glasses, her impish, little-kid smile, and her 2,187 Facebook friends (I’m a recent addition) – you probably know her Popkin-brand portraiture from browsing funky boutiques/galleries like Minás in Hampden or one of numerous art spaces dotting the Mid-Atlantic region. For 25 years, the 1990 MICA grad, now 44, has been turning out skillful, painterly portraits of people and animals, too, which capture a certain spark of personality better than an ordinary photo could — though in keeping with her fondness for found pictures, she does most often take inspiration from photographs plus key life details scribbled down.

“When you send me your images to work from, you’ll tell me the small details to be included that make your pet special: a white whisker, freckles on his paw, or her favorite toy,” Spoon tells visitors to her Popkin’s Pet Portraits website. See below her photo-to-portrait process with her own beloved Pug, Perogi – Perogi and Pierre the French Bulldog are her “constant studio companions” and “muse,” by the way.

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I talked to Spoon about her name, her love of animals, and her creative life past, present, and future.

How did you get your great name?

I chose my name to work as one piece — I love alliteration and onomatopoeia.

What other arts training have you pursued?

I graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts in visual arts [for] high school…and attended the Glasgow School of Art and the Chautauqua Institution.

With whom have you studied most happily?

My most influential painting instructor was Deborah Rosenthal at Chautauqua. At MICA, I really enjoyed my time with Jane Hammond and Barry Nemett.

Were you an artist at age five?

I was!

When did you know you wanted to do this professionally?

I never really knew any other options were out there; my mom was an artist, my father a musician. I always knew I would follow in the family occupation. It seems natural to me.

Who/what are your important influences?

In keeping with my GFA background, it’s all over the place. I’ve always had a fascination with the German Expressionist painters of the 1920’s, especially Max Beckmann. In opposition to that, I have always loved artists with sense of humor to their work: Red Grooms, Alice Neel, Alexander Calder. The Japanese Sumi-e brush painting tradition has taught me a lot about minimalism, taking away what is unnecessary and leaving only what is needed.

How would you describe your style in your own words?

I paint in a loose, fluid style, spontaneous and expressionistic. Working from found images, I will often use the same image repeatedly seeing how many variations and interpretations I can bring from it. The most compelling element of the found images for me is exactly where is “the gaze.” Traditionally, the figure is seen and interpreted directly by the artist. Using found photographs blurs this. The connection is now between the subject and the person who shot that image. Now the viewer of the artwork is placed in the position of the image taker, becoming that person: brother, lover, mother, bff.

How often do you change gears as an artist?

I was a General Fine Arts major at MICA, and that has been my path ever since. Being able to study ceramics, welding and oil painting simultaneously left me with few boundaries! There have been times when I concentrated more on performance art* or more on painting, but I have always felt free to switch between mediums whenever desired. (*Her “Apologies by Proxy” project is ongoing, with partner Lee Sinoski, in case you’d like to request a free apology for anything at all!)

Where do you make your work?

I have been at the Load of Fun since 2005. Currently, I am working at the H & H building downtown.

What’s the most challenging aspect of animal-portrait painting?

The textures are the best part. Humans are all fairly similar, slight fluctuations in skin color, nose size or eye color, but animals have drastic variations. Short hair, curly, kinky, long fur, long snout, smush face, bug eyes, wrinkles and bald spots, whiskers, giant floppy ears — every pet is a new challenge.

What is that full process like?

For pet portraits I request a photo from the owner. I could take 1000 shots and never get or recognize “the look” that it gives its owner that’s so special to them. From there, it’s fairly standard: [make] a quick sketch, paint a ground, and start in with oils. I also do live drawing sessions (see below). For these, the pets come roam around my studio while I follow with a pad and brush sketching madly for an hour.

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Are you engaged in helping homeless animals/animals in need?

I try to work with a variety of human and humane groups: Pugs for Pinky, the Maryland Animal Sanctuary and RescueMaryland SPCA, Chase Brexton, A Moveable Feast, Kid’s Unlimited in Ohio.

What is the best thing about living in Baltimore as a working artist?

The affordability has always been a key factor in being able to survive as a self-employed artist here since 1990. The diverse talents of a community willing and eager to work together on projects of purely artistic merit give Baltimore a continuous element of surprise.

Do you have a favorite Maryland food?

Smith Island cake.

Favorite bar?

Joe Squared, right across form my studio. Not just handy, it’s delicious, and they’ve got great beers on tap.

Favorite building?

Maryland Department of Public Safety, on Joppa Road — it’s a giant red cube that’s mysterious and awesome.

Any art shows in the works?

This last year has been mostly concentrating on building my business of Damn Good Doormats so that I can stop all of my other freelance gigs. Now that I have it moving forward steadily I can get back to making my own work.

Brag about something!

Princess Leia [Carrie Fisher] herself ordered a Yoda doormat from me this holiday!

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More work by Spoon Popkin below:

"Guitar Player," oil, 30"x32"
“Guitar Player,” oil, 30″x32″
"Wedding Night," oil, 30"x32"
“Wedding Night,” oil, 30″x32″
Wet Dreams:  The works in "wet dreams" are based on images from a 1974 Penthouse magazine. The women here, with their incredibly dark tan lines and full pubic hair, have become beings of total mystery, almost abstract in the stark graphic patterns of their skin. Painted with rain, the stained effect recalls my early memories of finding Playboys in the woods of NC. The pages soaked and mildewed, we would pull them apart to hang on the trees until we were in a fluttering forest of flesh.
“The works in ‘Wet dreams’ (above) are based on images from a 1974 Penthouse magazine. The women here, with their incredibly dark tan lines and full pubic hair, have become beings of total mystery, almost abstract in the stark graphic patterns of their skin. Painted with rain, the stained effect recalls my early memories of finding Playboys in the woods of NC. The pages soaked and mildewed, we would pull them apart to hang on the trees until we were in a fluttering forest of flesh.” -Spoon Popkin



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