Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: As the artistic muse drives Peter Poplaski of Green Bay, Part 2

Critic At Large

Versatile visual artist

Peter Poplaski poses in Aster Park in Green Bay. (Warren Gerds)

GREEN BAY, WIS. (WFRV) – When talking about a topic, visual artist Peter Poplaski speaks in panoramic landscapes.

Sometimes he’s dabbling at an edge, sometimes in the sky and sometimes in a crevice.

An abstract picture is there somewhere.

Your brain has to put together the images and thoughts that ride on ripples of the speaker’s humor.

For me, it’s nice to know that Peter Poplaski hasn’t changed in the 50 years since I first interviewed and wrote about him. This is how that article starts:

“He once wanted to film ‘Hamlet’ but ran into a problem. ‘We couldn’t find an Elsinor Castle in Green Bay. But we found a junk yard, so we made a science fiction movie’.”

At the time, Peter Poplaski was an 18-year-old freshman art student at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

1970 feature story on Peter Poplaski in Green Bay Press-Gazette.

Today, he’s an art student supreme and an artist whose life-mural is a cyclorama – one you can’t see all at once but eventually can somewhat take in as you keep turning and turning.

He speaks in a stream of consciousness.

Ask him a straight-forward, straight-on, black-on-white question, and he answers with a circle – a pinwheel at that.

Below are large chunks of an interview with Peter Poplaski that give a glimpse of how his creative mind works.

There are no straight lines.

I threw a dart at my transcribed notes and will start here:

What determines whether you work in the comics realm or the fine art realm?

“It’s basically the same. I drive around or we (he and partner Rika Deryckere, also an artist) go on hikes and stuff and I see rocks or cliffs or I’ll see a distant perspective. Depending on the lighting or whatever, if it talks to me, if I go back and look at it again, then there might be something there. Then I kind of study it. Then I might do drawings of it. You know, the important thing of any plein air painting is you’ve got to stand there and look at the shadows because the shadows will animate the whole thing, and it will tell you when something is the strongest or when it’s going to speak to you. Then a lot of times I combine a landscape with a still life. So I have to have an object which talks to me.

“And one of the things that I like to do is every now is a bread painting. Now, I’ve sold every bread painting I ever did. But I don’t do these in a mechanical way. It’s like one time that I wanted to do a bread painting. Rika was doing a printmaking class in Montpellier, France. We stayed with friends. We got up for breakfast. The lady had come in, and she had bought a baguette. I said, ‘We can’t eat this. This baguette’s talking to me.’ So I took it to my studio, and then I looked at it for practically a year. Now it was a petrified bread. It didn’t really lose its color, though. And I just looked at it. And I knew what I kind of wanted to do with it because in France we have a nice old apartment and we have a turret. The city ramparts have two turrets. We have a small one which you can sit out and have dinner on and stuff, and it’s great. And I wanted to do something like that. In fact, I’m working on the painting now so I can show it to you. It’s a view of the city with the view of baguette on the rounded turret. And because of the way the sun always shines, the turret part with the bread is in a blue shadow but the city is in sunlight and looks like Athens or something – like a special-effects thing. So that painting’s coming along nicely and a lot of detail with it. Since I know a lot of people and which windows are their house, I try to make it pretty site-specific. So that’s the kind of way I work. Again, the important value of having a sketchbook and putting things down.

Baguette painting. (Warren Gerds)

“I’m working on other projects because when I come back to Green Bay from France, I have a routine. Every 90 days, I’m either in America or I’m in France because that’s the only way to get a cheap round-trip ticket. So Rika is sad that I’m gone. We try to come up with a ticket, and then she comes and visits me here, and then we do a tour. And by tour it’s I grew up in Illinois when I was in first grade to sixth grade and I still have friends who I see there. And my interest in Zorro brought me to Chillicothe, Illinois, just north of Peoria, which is the birthplace of the creator of Zorro (Johnston McCulley). And my whole thing about Zorro is I’m studying what is called the nature of protest in the fact that Zorro is a character who dresses up and fights the evil governor and the military from the common people so to speak. What’s interesting to me is that this was such an explosive idea from 1920 and thanks to Douglas Fairbanks and silent movies, it became a global thing. And then from that it sparked all the kids who turned around and played Zorro, which then slowly evolved into drawing and making comic books, and now it’s a billion-dollar industry with Marvel and DC doing new versions of the superheroes. Some of them are really good. You know, it all starts off with kids wanting to play the hero.

Peter Poplaski drawing featuring superhero creators’ hometowns.

“And so because there’s so many people (creators) in Illinois who are connected with the Lone Ranger and Zorro, Superman, Popeye and Dick Tracy, I kind of have a route that I take where I go to the museums. We do something every spring, and then I go down and visit people at the Popeye museum (in Chester, Illinois) because they get together three-four thousand dollars and then send the money to China and somebody carves a Popeye character in granite. They ship it back and have a party in the second week of September, and that seems like such a pseudo-religious routine and the fact that it’s like Easter Island. They have 16 granite statues of different Popeye characters in the town, and they don’t really tell you where. You’ve got to go online and see a map and then you’ve got to drive all over and look for it. It’s like a hide-and-seek game. It’s so amazing and whacky, you know. And it’s kind of a kids thing. When I wanted to promote this Zorro museum (he had a show there last year), I thought, well, I’ll do a coloring book to hand out to kids. But then kids only know Zorro if there’s a movie or there’s toys or something they saw, and I figure it’s better to connect it with a Superman museum and a Popeye museum and talk about Illinois in general because the Lone Ranger and Tarzan, it all comes from Chicago. I’d be doing Wisconsin if a lot of these action characters came from Wisconsin.

“So when I go to France, Rika and I are working on paintings and things. I’m also working on my Zorro project and then she is always has two or three sometimes pretty big exhibitions going on. So that’s always really amazing because she has a lot of work, and she works on a large scale and so we really take over some towns, you know, becomes a big deal. So that’s always fun. I like staying in hotels and eating in restaurants.”

Poster of recent Rika Deryckere exhibition in France. (Warren Gerds)

Another dart, another question: How did France happen?

“My Europe trips started because I was an art student at UWGB. William A. King, my painting instructor, had lived eight years in Europe teaching art classes in the military, for the Army people who were living over there. And so he wanted to get back to Italy and was thinking of buying a house after he retired there. His excuse was to take a group of students over. And again I think the LES, other country experience, was very clever because they chartered – UWGB had their own plane, and it was Alitalia to Zurich – and the Spanish students all went to Madrid and the French students went to Paris and the political science students went to Moscow, the drama students went to London and the art students went to Florence, Italy. I went the first time not knowing what the heck was going on because I wasn’t going to speak the language very well – so how do you get around? But, it turned out to be more fun and easier that I thought. And again with all the artwork that was in Florence in all the churches and the museums and it was really inexpensive.

“So when I dropped out of college because I was called in by the advisor who said, ‘Well, you’re really good and got all A’s and stuff, but it’s time to start taking educational classes so you can teach high school and you have a deficiency in photography.’ And my reaction was A., my interest in photography is in making homemade silent movies and animated movies, and I really don’t want to teach high school. I need to know how to work my way to New York City and get a gallery and sell paintings for $50,000 apiece. How can I do this? The lady said, ‘Well, we really can’t help you that way.’ And I said, ‘Well, I might have to take a break and try this a whole different way.’ My parents were sad, of course, that I dropped out of school, but that’s why I moved to Milwaukee because my idea is go to Milwaukee for a while and do some work and then try to find a gallery in Chicago and from Chicago try to work your way into New York somewhat. And again, Milwaukee was okay. I did tour the galleries a few times in Chicago, but it’s always difficult. And then the thing with galleries in Chicago they have a good art community, but a lot of it is tied up with university professors. They have a group and to join the group you’re basically watching their paintings and running their galleries and then after two or three years you’re allowed to show a painting in a group show and then you graduate into having a one-man show every couple years or something. I thought that’s too long and I’m basically working practically for free for somebody else. So I just figured, ‘Keep on moving,’ so to speak.

“And so that’s where the trip to Italy inspired me for saving up enough money and taking January off when it’s cold and work is slow and all that stuff and with the Krupp Comic Works it was easy to work this out with Denis and have January off and go to Italy. So I went a second time with UWGB, and I took an etching class in Florence and went to operas and stuff. And I’d come back broke, and I’d work on comic books and things like that. I also would be doing commercial work because Denis would also be getting jobs a subsidiary of Krupp Comic Works, which was the Cartoon Factory.

“And so Peter Loft is a friend of mine who lives in Ghent, Belgium, married a nice Belgian girl and I see him every year in my travel loop. He’s the main Milwaukee character from that period that I see a lot in Europe.

“But once I dropped out of school, I made a vow that all things are in books and the main thing for an artist is to see every great work of art in the original. And this is what I kept to for 50 years. I’ve still got to make it to Norway and see the originals of Edvard Munch, and I’ve still got to go to Moscow. I should go to Japan, I suppose. So I have a list of places I want to go, but I’ve seen most of the originals, a good percentage of them, and that includes when I’m back in America. If I drive out to New York, I stop and visit Toledo, Ohio, or I stop in Cleveland. The frustrating thing is when I’m driving up the Eastern Seaboard and it always seems to be raining but Rika and I are on some kind of time crunch and we have to skip Philadelphia and we’ve got to skip Baltimore and these have, you know, great museums so I want to spend a couple days in. So, next trip, you know? So it ended up I did like four years in a row, every January. Then I was broke for a while. Then I went back in 1980, and by this time I had linked up to the Crumbs. And at one time the Crumbs were thinking of buying a farm in Wisconsin and moving out here. And the one they liked they couldn’t get, so then their other option was they’re going to try to move to France. And, you know, they have a lot of friends who showed them a lot of places, and, you know, you just fall into a place. And so they got a place there. What’s nice about the Crumbs is they not only have a lot of places around but also they have an apartment in Paris. And so, you know, they’ve loaned that to me for 25 years. To have a free place in Paris is like having a free place in New York. Suddenly, your money goes to seeing the museums and having some nice food instead of everything going to the hotel. The fact that I have people who are friends like Pete Loft in Ghent, Belgium, and the Crumbs in France.

Collaboration with Robert Crumb of underground comics repute.

“Through the Crumbs I’ve met musicians and other artists. A wild, whacky Italian guy who got me a lot of Zorro posters for my poster project has musician friends, so I have friends in Genoa, Italy, who I can go and stay with and then get on a train and hit Rome and spend a few days on tour.

“That touring is always fun, but it’s always amazing to re-confront a lot of the great masterpieces. That’s how you get radioactive. It’s like when I go to the Sistine Chapel, it’s pretty crowded. You get a lot of people talking, trying to take photos, and then the guards are telling everybody ‘Shut up.’ My trick to get the Sistine Chapel to talk to me personally is I slowly back out, I am the last guy in the Sistine Chapel. As I walk backwards looking up and the guards kind of talk to each other about what they’re having for lunch or something, and a couple of those paintings start talking to you really suddenly – get the perspective and get how this thing is all worked together. And that’s where the real inspiration comes – that moment alone. And I’ve had moments alone like that with the Sistine Chapel or with like with Masaccio’s (‘The Tribute Money,’ a fresco) in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. I was there in 1980 when at Easter all the hotels were full, you could not get a cheap hotel, so I ended up in the train station and at 5 o’clock in the morning, they kick you out. They’ve got to wash down the floors and everything. It was raining, and I ran over to the church of del Carmine and they had an early Mass at dawn. And it’s dark and there’s just some old ladies there and I’m in the dark and I’m trying to look at this famous chapel. At that time, you just walked in, they didn’t have guards, they didn’t have Checkpoint Charlie you’d have to go through. They didn’t have a clock stand – You’ve got 15 minutes, you’ve got to go. It was just there. So I’m looking at it in the semi-darkness, and a hand comes out of nowhere and plugs the whole thing in. And for 30 minutes, I had all the lights. It was like being in a movie set and I had the painting to myself. It was magical, you know. And then at the end, Mass is going to start, and they go back to the candlelight and they yank off Hollywood lighting. That was amazing. It was raining out, and I didn’t even care. I can’t believe that I had that moment alone with such a great artist.”

Another dart, another question: What about getting back to France?

“Right now, it’s just a waiting game. I have no idea how travel is going to change. I had a return ticket. I was supposed to fly Chicago-London-Paris. I could get to London. If England wasn’t so expensive, I might have thought of going there because as an American you can stay there for six months for your visa and travel around instead of France, which is a 90-day thing. But it wouldn’t be fair really to Rika, just hanging out on the Thames there and not being able to get into France with she not being able to get out of France. So I just stick home here.”

You have been separated from Rika all this time?

“Yeah, but we Skype. I have a computer, and we Skype. And we set it up so she’s got it setup in the studio, and she’s pulling prints and I’m working on different art projects. Right now, I’m working on a Flash Gordon Sunday page, which is for some anniversary of Flash Gordon. So that’s one thing. A guy in Green Bay commissioned me to do a ‘Legion of Superhero’ adventure cover. So I’m doing that. That’s a crowd scene. That’s got 20 characters in it. And then I’m working on this coloring book, which is 120 pages. It’s all the Illinois superheroes. And that’s another project that’s always there because I’m changing pages. I do the visual stuff first, and then I go back and have to do the lettering and rewrite stuff. That’s always interesting but not as important as having the visual nailed down for me.”

Rika Deryckere in Peter Poplaski sketchbook. (Warren Gerds)

This may be blasphemous. So much today is done by computer. So much artwork is done by computer. Do you use a computer?

“It’s in my coloring book: ‘This is a low-tech project.’ (chuckles). I’m Mr. Low Tech. I know there’s a lot of great things on computer, and I have fun with computer by finding all the old silent movies by Buster Keaton or something I want to see that’s hard to find. Or European or Turkish Zorro movies. I use a computer to make these little animated movies, like the Dale Kuipers movie – 25 to 30 minutes. (Dale Kuipers was a Green Bay artist with expansive talent who was best known for monster film special effects. He died in 1996. There is a Facebook page for him). My only problem is I’m not a good enough technical geek to try to figure out to, you know, you’ve got to flatten these and export them. I had a friend who was a good computer guy, and I could be able to make a disc from them. But I’m not that tech savvy to do it myself. That’s one of the reasons I want to work with a museum or something because they should be up on all the high-tech stuff, and they might be able to know how to do this. That’s one of the reasons for working with a really good museum like West Bend or Neville Public Museum.”

And plein air and computer do not go together.

“They do not go together. I have 42,000 photographs in my computer that went down and will have to pay to retrieve. I take photos to make sure to get the timing to a painting. But I may look at it to look for accents because one of the things that holds a good composition together is the darkest darks, the lightest lights and how these are balanced. So taking a couple of shots with your camera is always good for re-looking and something in a slightly different way. But once you go out and stand there again, the conversation with the brush – I’m borrowing that from ‘conversation with the blade,’ which is fencing – all kinds of things happen, you know, the weather changes, the wind blows a tree down, the bugs are biting you. But if you persevere, you’ll end up with a good painting.

“Again, I like my own work. I’m not working for reasons of getting into a show or thinking about how much money I put in, how much money should I make, you know. I’ve had friends who could never… I mean, technically they were good, but they always worried more about the time spent and not challenging themselves on a different larger scale. And you don’t always do a large painting then. Do a long painting, you know, do a panorama. But, you know, you’ve got to keep flexing your muscles and challenging yourself. And that way a magic and a surprise behind what you’re looking for, or what’s going to happen while you’re painting is going to be there. I think that’s what made a lot of the great old masters go. I mean, first of all they were all really broke at some point, but they’d keep going, even if they were borrowing money from each other. At some point, enough of their work got out that then other people noticed them. Nowadays, you’re in competition with the electronic media and everything on television. I find that’s probably the thing that drives people’s eyes as far as seeing something in a new way, you know, because we see many great and amazing locations and special effects, and it’s hard to get, by yourself, in a similar kind of situation that excites you that way.”

Another dart, another question: When in the presence of masterpieces, what are you looking for?

“A lot of great painters always had assistants because they’re working on a bigger scale and they have a project and stuff like that. For instance, a painter like Reubens, there are paintings you know he did because everything is animated and strong. Then, say you’re in the Spanish collection in Madrid, you see the duplicates of certain paintings that he did for Philip II, and you realize that the assistants were copying the drawings, you know, laid out the cartoons and they are copying in them, and Reubens would go down and basically do the expressions on the face and the hands and stuff, but there’s a flatness and sort of a lifelessness to it that you don’t get when you see something that he did all my himself. I found that to be true in Reubens, then I found that to be true with Raphael with some of the frescos in the Vatican itself, then I found it to be true when my cousin and I went to Assisi for Saint Francis’s big day, and everybody at the altar in the basilica was wearing Renaissance costumes and they had music and everything. The place was packed and they had all the lights on, and you could really see all the frescos and I could tell certain ones were so strong and well-constructed that Giotto himself did – three or four of them – and the other ones he had help with various degrees by his pupils and assistants. And so those are the things that I go to see. As they say, it never lets you down, to see it and get something more of it and it’s just part of that feeling of in your own work what you’re doing is you’re on the right track, you can’t give up and you’re part of the brotherhood of the great artists if you just can maintain your balance and keep going. Because so many people get to a level of development, then it’s more about the money – they figure how much time they put on something. I don’t have a clock on any of my work, which might bug some people. Because I’ll go out and paint, and it might take me a year. Now, I didn’t know that when I started. I try to do sometimes do a painting in two or three weeks. Or I don’t mind doing a couple of months. But if it’s important, then I just hang in there ’til it’s over. And again, if you’re painting on something in Europe, you get interrupted, and you’ve got to go back to it and try to maintain a particular thread to that painting and I’ve got one that took me like a year and three or four months. It’s in my studio right now. It’s something that I’ve had in shows that never sold, but it’s something that I put a strong effort in. It’s got everything I like. (Laughs). You have to get back into that zone. And the lighting’s so important. And things change. I was once doing a painting from the studio at Kitchen Sink Press in Princeton, and I’m painting a dead tree, and then Denis’s brother went out there and chopped it down right while I was painting it. So it’s like, you know, the star of the painting is gone. I must have the painting rolled up someplace. But it’s like my interest in the landscape – I like the story because I think it’s funny, but I would rather have finished the painting, you know, and have something else that exists. It was hilarious. He went out there, took off his shirt, down went the tree. That will happen sometimes. For instance, I was doing a painting in Montello, Wisconsin, there’s a rock quarry and I would go and be painting that. And that’s one of my favorite paintings. And I managed to sell that same painting three times. It’s a painting I can never own. Every time I own it, I get it back because people really like it but when they go someplace where they can’t take it with them because it’s a slightly bigger painting, they always give it back to me because they know how much I like it. So I sold it three times. It’s just on a wall in our studio over the etching press and somebody comes in and says, ‘Can I buy that? Is it for sale?’

“I mean, you know, look, I’ve done a lot of Zorro self-portraits because I thought 20 years that the best way I would want to do Zorro books or I was doing a series of Naxos audio books on Zorro and it’s my idea still, but one of the jokes is I paint myself as Zorro so that I’m on the cover. And I had an idea. Again, you have to be patient. My idea was from 1996, and there was a great British actor – he’s a retired Royal Shakespeare Company actor – but he does books on tape. He’s great readings of all the classics. And I promoted the idea of doing Zorro books, which he was certainly up for, but at the time Naxos did classical books and Zorro was popular fiction. Well, when that guy retired and a younger guy took over who liked Zorro, then we did those. And then we did four audio cassettes and the covers are my paintings. So, you know, I had to wait 20 years, but it’s great. And I’d like to do some more, and I might. But I’ve got to get back in shape. If you’re going to be Zorro, you have to learn fencing and you have to take some horse-riding things and study a few tapes on cracking the whip and stuff. Then you’re into character. Then you know. That’s the only way merchandise can have something to it because it’s kind of a joke. Merchandise Zorro, imaginary characters, a lot of people have done it. Like Superman, if you somehow make it you and you’re the character, it’s like part of, maybe it’s part of your childhood, but anyway there’s either a seriousness or a quality to the painting and the product can be something different than just an audio cassette or a book cover or whatever it ends up being. But before, it’s me painting and again not with anybody giving me money to do it. I just did it, and I had a whole bunch of them. But one by one people see these and they just come and kind of, ‘Can I buy this? Is this for sale?’ ba da ba. So there’s several people in the south of France, including the Crumbs, who have just walked in and had to have one. I’ve put one in a show as a joke, and it was raining and not even that many showed up for the big show but this couple from Montpelier came in, saw the painting, went right back out and then they came back a few hours later after they had gone to all the money machines, the wall machines, so they could have a thousand euros to give me for the painting. And then they hung it in their little boy’s room as like the guardian angel (chuckles). Ridiculous idea. (chuckles). But they still have it, and occasionally Rika and I are invited to dinner so I can see my painting again. But the funny thing is I own the rights to it. So when a publisher in Florida managed to reprint all of Johnston McCulley’s short stories, with help from myself, of course, I let him use one of my paintings so that I could be the cover to Volume Five. So I like having one of my Zorro paintings as a Zorro book cover.”

Sample pages of a Peter Poplaski sketchbook. (Warren Gerds)

The first feature article I wrote on Peter Poplaski appeared May 24, 1970, in the Green Bay Press-Gazette. How many writers get to go back to a subject 50 years after the fact?

“No kidding. And we could practically go back to some of those old ‘Agents of We’ locations that we shot. They probably cleaned up the alleyways a little bit, but the background areas are still available.

“I went to a wedding reception a few weeks ago at St. Brendan’s Inn. I’m sitting outside and looking at Washington Street from the back, and I said, ‘You know, this is my old backlot. This is where I made “Avenue Ball” and all those Krupp gang movies. Kind of funny to think of it that way. Kind of like old Hollywood, you know.”

“I have all those old films. I’m trying to get digital copies. What I’m trying to do is I want to get a decent digital copy with the original soundtrack, and I want to give everything to the Neville Public Museum. I made a good history of the life and time of Dale Kuipers and our whole childhood dinosaur making in our basement, and I’m trying to get the movie may actually survive at his brother’s in Gurney, Illinois. I want to track down the original dinosaur movie and have the Neville Public make copies and we’ll all have a copy and they’ll keep the master or something. I kept all the drawings and models and everything, and little by little I gave parts of it to the Neville and, lo and behold, they had a one-man Dale Kuipers show last November. So that’s a fun beginning, and I’ve got more stuff and I just want to work it into… a good way to tell the story in an exhibition way, like include a lot of 1950s and ’60s comic books that have dinosaurs on the covers that we grew up drawing as kids. And then I even have the original plastic dinosaur models that the Neville Public Museum sold in the 1950s and ’60s, which we all bought as kids. And then of course in our situation, we saved it. So I’d like to give that back to the museum so that kids – everybody loves dinosaurs and certainly gone beyond what anybody would expect thanks to Jurassic Park, I’d just like to kind of give a nod to the old days when we were making drawings from famous monsters in filmland or filming off TV to study special effects and doing homemade stuff.

“Again, Dale Kuipers was a local artist, and he went a certain direction and went as far as he could. I’m still tied up with comics, but I still also do fine art painting – landscapes and still lifes and things like that – so I’m back and forth on those projects. You know, maybe it’ll mean something in a grander scheme. But I like the idea of the Neville having it and talking to them about it so they have the background. And so I made movies – not really movies, they’re more like slide shows that are animated a bit but I use silent movie titles. And then you get an interesting but kind of funny history, but yet it’s what happened and, you know, there you are.”

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