5 Questions: Musician & Artist John T. Upchurch

Stoup | Pine, red oak, walnut, rope, steel wire, tin, leather, brass, found objects, shellac, wax, chalk | © John T. Upchurch 2018

John T. Upchurch spent time in the nineties as a musician (most notably with The Coctails) and as a printer/designer at Fireproof Press before a long spell in academia at Columbia College. Several years ago, he returned to the studio and his work as a sculptor. Constructed from primarily salvaged materials and found objects, his work suggests patent models, specimen collections or curious tools. He received his B.F.A. in 1990 from the Kansas City Art Institute and currently lives and works in Chicago.

His current exhibition, Like This, But Different, can be seen at the gallery of a+c architects in Skokie, IL through February 27th.

An artist’s talk accompanied by a screening of a couple of short documentaries about Marcel Duchamp will be held at the gallery on Saturday, February 8th from 2-5. For details and RSVP

Spotify link for The Coctails
Spotify link for the children’s record John made with fellow Coctail, Mark Greenberg.
Instagram feed of John’s sculpture 
Instagram feed of John’s readymades

Exhibition view | © John T. Upchurch
Exhibition view | © John T. Upchurch
Exhibition view | © John T. Upchurch

1. What’s been keeping you up at night?

What used to keep me up at night: 
Chronic work-related stress/anxiety.

What keeps me up nowadays: 
Occasionally, I’ll worry about my kids (as all parents do), or mull over regrets (unlike Sinatra, I’ve had more than a few) or wrestle with an existential quandary or two. Mostly, though, while lying awake I think about what I’m going to do the next day and sometimes get so enthused about it that I get up early to get started.

What wakes me up at night: 
The cat.

Sift (detail) | Ebonized walnut, mahogany, thread, aluminum, found objects | © John T. Upchurch 2020

2. What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen or heard lately?

Mika Rottenberg’s Easy Pieces at the MCA. This show kept me in that sweet spot where things flutter between making sense and seeming inexplicable. It felt a bit like what I imagine white water rafting to be like: moments of calm followed by moments of confusion–all with a sense of logic below the surface. Flow and chaos at the same time. Some music does the same thing for me (hatis noit’s “Anagram C.I.Y.” comes to mind).

That super hi-res shot of the Sun that was just released from that Hawaiian solar telescope is pretty awesome, too.

Scope (detail) | Ebonized lauan, red oak, steel rod, brass, wax, shellac, graphite, thread, aluminum, found objects | © John T. Upchurch 2020

3. What’s the most exciting thing you’re working on right now?

I’ve been wrestling with working at larger scales which introduces a number of technical and aesthetic concerns that I think will lead in some interesting directions. I’ve tended to work at a relatively small size–”pedestal scale” or smaller–which I enjoy because it’s fast and establishes a certain relationship with the viewer. 

One of my creative strategies is to pointedly push myself out of my comfort zone and habits. There’s an anecdote about Charles Mingus, the jazz bassist/composer/bandleader, where he would intentionally write in non-standard keys so that his musicians couldn’t fall back on muscle memory, but had to actively think about what they were playing. Switching between tools, techniques, materials and preferred forms keeps me in a mode where I’m usually learning something new–and figuring out how those discoveries relate to or modify my understanding of earlier work.

Some people have said that my smaller work can read like a maquette. That’s not how I see them, but I think using that as a jumping-off point might prove fruitful. Working at human/monumental scale will switch up much of what I think I’ve started to figure out. Hopefully, any insights will spark new ideas for the smaller pieces, too.

Rear | Charred ash wood | © John T. Upchurch 2017

4. If you could add anyone, alive or dead to your team, who would it be?

I’ve been pretty fortunate with the collaborators and teammates I’ve had–in the Coctails, the folks who worked with me Fireproof Press, any number of colleagues at Columbia College and, of course, my wife Lori and our kids. I like to work with people who are excited by wrestling with the problem, unpacking all the inner gears and suggesting unconventional solutions. 

I learned about this concept called something like the “orchid theory of personality” wherein an individual will thrive in very specific circumstances and whither in others. For collaboration, I’ve certainly found something like that to be the case in terms of the overall alchemical blending of a team. I don’t know how much one can really plan to achieve that sort of relationship, but it’s magic when it happens.

My studio practice is a pretty solitary affair. I need time to be alone, lose myself, get weird, etc. In a recent set of collaborations with Rebekka Federle, we sort of “ping-ponged” the pieces between our studios which, I think, allowed us to follow our own, solitary processes and sort of surprise each other in the same way one likes to surprise oneself while making art.

Dialogue | Antique print material, wood, sheet metal, string, steel wire, found objects | © Rebekka Federle & John T. Upchurch 2019

All that said, if I’m supposed to pick someone from outside my own circle it might be someone like physicist Richard Feynmann–complicated though he may be. Endlessly curious, capable of taking big leaps across disciplines to make connections, dedicated to “the pleasure of finding things out” and managing all that with a good measure of humility. Listen to him explain what fire is–hear the simple explanation blended with a sense of wonder–and tell me you wouldn’t want to work with him on something.

Lull (detail) | Pine, steel wire, paint, wax, paper, shellac, found objects | © John T. Upchurch 2020

5. When the movie of your life is made, what will it be called?

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.

Readymades | © John T. Upchurch

Process notes

I work with primarily salvaged materials or found objects. This gets me past that ‘blank canvas anxiety’ as I’m immediately given something to respond to. Making a sculpture is a bit like an improvised musical piece and the developing artwork is sort of like the other musician. It presents me with something and I need to determine what it needs to take that next step. This back and forth continues until the piece feels as though it’s gained its own identity and is no longer asking for anything. As with any improvisation, there’s ample room for missteps and, when made, a little less room to correct or incorporate those less-successful responses. I’m happiest when I catch it just at that edge of becoming something–just as it starts to come into focus.

Lode (detail) | Ebonized walnut, string, wax | © John T. Upchurch 2020

Thus, there is rarely much in the way of plans or drawings beforehand. A rudimentary sketch of what will become a component or perhaps a note about a combination of materials is often more than I start out with. All that will likely have to change as I start working at a larger scale.

Glyph No. 10 | Steel wire, wood, lead | © John T. Upchurch 2018

Flout (detail) | Ebonized mahogany and walnut, reeds, aluminum, thread, copper rivets, enamel paint, wax, chalk and found objects | © John T. Upchurch 2019

Churn | Red oak, mahogany, lead, thread, paint, shellac, wax and found objects | © John T. Upchurch 2019