By Norman Kolpas
Perhaps the best way to describe Scott Tallman Powers is as an artist on the move. It’s easy to see why when viewing a wide array of his paintings, which visitors to Tucson’s Settlers West Galleries can do when his major one-man show opens there in mid-March.
One painting might capture a bustling market in Xizhou, a Chinese village about 100 miles south of Shanghai, where shoppers and vendors haggle over fresh produce as they have for centuries. Turn around and you come face to face with an old Guatemalan peasant, his eyes shimmering brightly with a lifetime of memories. Another work hanging nearby might well take you to a tranquil urban street scene in Chicago, where pedestrians stroll past storefronts on a spring morning. Each is rendered with a keen eye and an expert technique that, according to the artist, “blends realism and impressionism, resulting in a type of naturalism.”
Such a disparate variety of far-flung images may well lead you to pose a variation on a question first popularized in the 1990s through the computer game character Carmen Sandiego and kept alive in the public imagination by Today show host Matt Lauer’s annual weeklong globetrotting exploits: “Where in the world is Scott Tallman Powers?”
The briefest, most accurate answer would be: hard at work, seven days a week, in his 1,500-square-foot studio at the corner of Division and Halsted streets in downtown Chicago. An admitted workaholic, he has a hard time tearing himself away from painting in the third-floor loft he has filled with ethnic fabrics and exotic antiques gathered on his travels. “I know I should take days off,” he admits, “but I feel weird when I’m not working.”
But leave the studio he does, sometimes for weeks at a time, combining travel and work to visit the places he loves to paint, an itinerary that has grown with his success in recent years. “I’ve always been curious about different cultures,” he explains. “My first priority and what I love most is painting people. When you paint everyday life, there are so many stories going on, and integrating those people and their stories into my work is my true passion.”
Both art and travel were ingrained in Powers from an early age. His father, Rod Powers, worked as a medical illustrator, executing finely detailed drawings for projects ranging from textbooks to exhibits for malpractice cases. During his early childhood years in Birmingham, AL, young Scott took his inherited talent for granted, “playing around” with his dad’s watercolors and creating cartoon-inspired, pencil-and-crayon rocket ships and outer space characters. “Drawing was something that I really loved to do,” he says. “It made me happy.”
His parents split up while he was still in grade school, and at the age of 10 he was legally adopted by his stepfather, David Tallman, an executive in the electronics industry. As his stepdad was promoted or transferred, the family moved frequently, “from Birmingham to Atlanta to Cleveland to Houston to Chicago,” says Powers, attributing his wanderlust in part to the ease he developed at discovering and settling into new places. His stepfather also instilled in him a strong work ethic through an enormous amount of chores. “When you’re a kid, that stuff sucks,” says Powers. “But it makes you into a stronger person and gives you the discipline you need to do whatever you want.”
What he wanted to do as a high school student in Lincolnshire, IL, was pursue a career as an athlete. “I played catcher on the baseball team, but by my junior year, my knees couldn’t take it,” he says. He also was a running back on the football team and achieved success in track and field as a pole-vaulter.
But his lifelong attraction to art gradually took a stronger hold, nurtured by teachers Chris Franken and John DePinto. “They really instilled in me a deeper love of art and told me that I could have a career as an artist,” he says.
Franken, in particular, urged him to attend Chicago’s American Academy of Art, renowned for its highly disciplined approach to studio-style fundamentals. But Powers felt he had some growing up to do first, and after graduating from high school he worked for three years as an electrician. “I needed to regroup and focus,” he says of that period, during which he kept sketchbooks and “drew as much as I could” after coming home every day “physically exhausted from digging trenches and laying pipe and pulling wire.”
Finally, in 1993, he entered the art academy, ready to apply himself to his true calling. “I was never tired in art school,” he says. “And I gave myself more homework than we had in our classes.” To that end, he began spending evenings drawing and painting live models at the Palette & Chisel Academy of Fine Arts, an institution founded in 1895 by students from the Art Institute of Chicago. “Professional artists worked right alongside me,” says Powers, “and I would learn from them.”
As his high school teacher had predicted, the art academy suited him perfectly, thanks especially to his life-drawing instructor Dr. John Trapp, oil-painting teacher Ted Smuskiewicz, and fundamentals teacher Robert Krajecki. “They were more than just my teachers, they became good friends,” says Powers. “And as my skills evolved, they got more philosophical about art, taking me further than I thought I could go.”
After graduating from the art academy in 1997, Powers took a job as an illustrator with a design firm in Chicago to pay the bills on a downtown loft where he lived and at night worked on his art, sometimes pooling money with other painters to hire live models.
“But after four years my frustration was slowly building, and I knew I had to move on,” he recalls. He quit his job, taking on occasional freelance illustration work to make ends meet and often subsisting on little more than rice. “I was dirt broke,” he remembers. “But every night, I would go to sleep thinking about new ideas for paintings. I just knew things would work out.”
His own initiative began to fulfill that reality. In September 2001, he spent a month in Europe, painting in Italy, Spain, and France. Back home, he began participating in plein-air painting events, and his work began to sell. In 2003, he started teaching portrait and landscape painting at the Palette & Chisel, where his work was spotted by a local gallery owner who gave him his first one-man show. That same year, Powers founded the Plein Air Painters of Chicago, a group dedicated to outdoor painting in and around the Windy City. Membership in the prestigious Oil Painters of America soon followed, and more galleries began showing his work. “I started realizing that I could make a career out of this,” he says.
That first trip abroad stimulated an urge for more, and traveling to foreign countries has since become an integral element of his career. He’s twice visited areas in China with small groups of American painters, and he has gone to Guatemala and Mexico on his own. On every trip, he packs a portable easel and oils for painting on-site, along with ample sketchbooks and a digital camera to take photos for later reference.
When back home in Chicago, he plunges back into work in his downtown studio, a quick drive from his small apartment on Lake Michigan. There he’ll combine all his drawn, painted, and photographed source material, along with artifacts he collects on his travels, to compose his scenes. Often intricate, the compositions may involve multiple figures, and he sometimes hires Latino or Asian immigrants from the Chicago area to pose for him. “This city is loaded with people from all over the world,” he says. “And I have a big network of friends.
“Depending on how complex a painting is, especially if it has many different people, it could take me a month or two to complete,” Powers continues. “I’m usually working on about five paintings at a time, all at various stages.” The canvases on the easels in his studio could well depict places as diverse as Guangdong Province, the Guatemalan town of Chichicastenango, the French Quarter in New Orleans, or maybe a sidewalk just down the street.
Seeing such far-flung scenes in close juxtaposition, whether in his studio or in a gallery, a deeper meaning gradually emerges that goes beyond that first impression of Powers as inveterate globetrotter. In his collected works, the artist tries literally to gather the world together under one roof, to portray human experiences that transcend the particulars of nationality or culture.
“I want my art,” he says, “to be an equalizer, to find the similarities and commonalities among cultures. It’s easy to look at the differences between us. It’s harder to paint our similarities.”
Settlers West Galleries, Tucson, AZ; www.scottpowersfineart.com.
Masters of the American West, Autry National Center of the American West, Los Angeles, CA, February 6-March 7.
One-man show, Settlers West Galleries, March 13-20.
Featured in January 2010