It was a love for the wilderness that first brought John Springer to Jackson Hole. In his mind, the Tetons were the “Grand Jewel” of the lower 48 and a perfect place for him to start his life after graduating with his degree in Natural Resources. In searching for a job that combined his love of wilderness and teaching, John discovered Teton Science Schools. In the winter of 2013, he was accepted as an AmeriCorps member where he joined the Field Education team in leading residential youth programs.
“[The experience] was hitting every different area of pedagogy, exposing me to really cool teachable moments, and taking advantage of an outdoor classroom to the utmost potential.”
After a brief stint as a field instructor, John moved on to teach with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), instructing backpacking trips in the Wind River and North Cascades Mountain Ranges, as well as skiing trips in the Tetons. Throughout all of his post-graduate work experiences, John was painting, using the outdoor landscapes he taught in as inspiration for his art. Now he’s painting full-time and is widely known as Springer the Artist. We had a chance to talk to John about how his connection to place inspires his work and why inspiring the protection of earth’s precious places is the ultimate dream.
TSS: Tell us about your current work. How did you fall into painting as a career? What inspired you? What is your background and experience in the craft?
John: I’ve painted since I was young, but never really planned on pursuing it as a career — I didn’t even study it in college. I knew that I had some talent though and when my buddy here in Jackson mentioned showcasing some of my art at his coffee shop, I was intrigued. It was right around 2013 during my AmeriCorps service at TSS that I started working on a few paintings and by 2014 I had produced enough work to have a show. The show went pretty well and I sold some stuff. At the time, I was instructing for NOLS and was like “Well, I’d like to keep working with NOLS and paint at the same time” so that’s sort of the hybrid life that I was working towards. It was the dream at the time. Over time, painting became more of the main focus — I had more shows, started getting a following and had more and more people wanting commissions. I guess eventually I got tired of being outside as a teacher and really wanted to focus on painting. My work has always been 100% associated with my love for the wilderness. The more I did it, the more I fell in love with it. In a way, life as an artist has really given me an opportunity to continue my exploration of wild places, just in a different way.
TSS: What does your day-to-day look like as a full-time artist?
John: If I can sum it up in a few words it’s business survival and artwork. Creating the work is only half the work (and the best part of it), but the other half of it is the business side — networking, budgeting, marketing. I do a lot of forward planning in order to be sure I’m creating a consistent cash flow. No matter what though I try to do a little painting or sketching every day.
TSS: When you arrive to paint at a new place, what does your process look like? Is it straight into painting or do you have any rituals/routines that you move through prior to putting paint to canvas?
John: Generally, I’ll get to a place and know what I want in it, but it’s a matter of finding the perfect spot that will have all of the elements I want in view. A lot of times, when I get to a place, I’ll spend the first 30 or so minutes walking around just getting a feel for the environment where I’ll be painting. Sometimes you’ll see me crouching down looking for different angles, sometimes I’ll move my easel forward and back to play around with distance, most of the time I’ll look for a place that has some shade to protect myself from the elements. Honestly, there’s a lot of nervous energy right before I start to paint and it’s really easy to find anything and everything to stop my from actually starting. Once I’ve found my spot, I’ll take a moment to sit quietly, maybe sip my coffee,
and just stare and breathe it all in. Sometimes I’ll sketch out what I want to paint, but a lot of times I’ll just jump right in to painting. Once I’ve mixed colors and have my palette ready I know I’m ready to put paint on the canvas.
TSS: How does a connection to place inspire or influence the work you currently do?
John: I think my connection to place is everything in my painting. That’s what I want to convey in my work. It’s even written in my artist’s statement:
“Through en-plein-air painting and drawing, I explore place identity and the personal experience associated with the subject matter. I utilize color experimentation and suggestive lineation to accentuate the motion of the space and the sensations produced within my present environment…I strive to initiate the viewer’s imagination with a loose and unclosed style that is relatable yet personalized to my own experience.”
For me whenever I go anywhere I want to be able to feel like I am where I am, immersed in the environment. Like “Oh, there’s this raging waterfall so I’m going to go stand in front of the spray and get soaking wet.” It’s about being present. Whether it’s painting in a city street in Paris where it’s really busy or in a really windy spot in the country where I have to stake my easel into the ground so that it doesn’t blow away, I want to convey every little aspect of that place, and what I’m experiencing, in my painting. I just want to express what it’s like to have a connection with these places…It’s more than a photo.
TSS: Did your experience at TSS or your background in natural resources have any influence on your work?
John: Totally. I mean, it all really starts with knowing the terrain. If I’m going to paint a mountain range I want to know how they erode and where the valleys are and why. Knowing those things can give a painting so much more depth. Likewise, knowing what I know about phenology and seasonal changes is almost like having a little secret I can include in my work. If I’m creating a fall piece, I know the places in the Valley where the patches of aspens will likely be changing color and what wildlife might be around. When you really know a place and how it’s working, you can convey its essence in a much deeper way than just showing up and painting it on first glance.
TSS: Recent studies have shown that students today are struggling in the arts. Why do/don’t you think arts education is important for students today and in the future? What has it meant for you?
John: I’ll start with a story. I was in New Orleans painting in this really beautiful park that had all of these really cool, wide oak trees and there was a Montessori school next to it. I was painting a house for a commissioned piece and was there for a few days. When school would get out, the elementary school kids would swarm me — asking me questions and sitting on my lap — and were so enthralled with the idea of an artist. Most of these kids won’t be artists, but they were super intrigued with the painting going on. This scenario happens a lot. Most of the first people that stop when I’m painting are kids. I think there is an inherent love for the arts within our children (and therefore within everyone), but a lot of times it gets lost as we grow into adults. I think art goes so much further than our typical creative arts. When I think about what art is about, it’s really the passion in finding your unique style and applying it to the greater good. It’s more obvious for the visual and performing arts and writing, but really anything can be an art and it’s imperative that we keep the arts as part of our education system.
TSS: What has been your most rewarding moment since embarking on your journey as a painter?
John: I think the most rewarding moments are when I’m painting outside amongst people — getting compliments and having conversations with the people passing by. It’s an accumulation of a million little things. Most recently, though, I applied for the Jackson Hole Art Fair and had one of my pieces selected for their annual poster! When I reflect on it, it’s pretty cool to see how far I’ve come on this artistic journey. In 2012, I was just getting started with my painting and now my work is being featured on the poster for the biggest Art event of the year.
TSS: What are your biggest dreams for the impact your work will have on the world?
John: Thomas Moran was able to use his artwork to raise awareness for the beauty of our natural world and protecting natural areas. I think it would be really cool for my work to inspire people to go find beauty anywhere and remind them of how precious our world is and that we need to protect it. It’s a dream of mine to be able to paint all over the world and lead workshops that not only bridge the worlds of art and nature, but bring communities together in really powerful ways.
TSS: What does place mean to you?
John: Place means the present. When you can identify with a place, you’re truly experiencing the present moment. Like you’re touching the universe at that one moment in time. I see that as the ultimate connection. When you truly feel a sense of place it’s like the “om” factor — once you’ve felt it, you know the feeling. Anytime that you connect with a place, you’re in a sense connecting with your best self and it’s kind of like you’re home.
You can learn more about John’s work at www.springertheartist.com