Right in the heart of the Downtown Flint art scene, painter John Dempsey has been maintaining a studio for over 25 years, working with the Buckham Fine Arts Project, and exhibiting his work at the Flint Institute of Arts, and many other locations.
After growing up in Detroit, Dempsey received a BFA degree from Michigan State University, and a MFA degree from Central Washington University. He has also studied painting at Wayne State University and Arizona State University. “I really got into art in college,” he says. “My father always painted; it was always something around, something I could do. It was never an odd thing to do.”
Teaching art since 1973, Dempsey found he can balance out his solitary painting time with being collaborative with the students. “I like interacting with the students,” he says. Although he has been teaching drawing, painting, and design at Mott Community College, his full-time calling is painting and exhibiting his work.
After hearing about Flint from writing art reviews in a few different magazines, he found himself moving here. And Flint has certainly influenced his work. “Flint was a major influence,” he says. One of his series, The Michigan Chronicle, is more focused on places he has been to in Michigan.
Dempsey’s main discipline is acrylic paint, with his subject focus on contemporary landscapes. His personal practice is an exploration of what constitutes space, place-making, how we understand place.
Dempsey’s compositions combine a variety of places together, “because we live in a variety of places and environments,” he explains. Frequently, he works with his series of paintings, immersing his viewers in the space, as the canvases themselves are quite large. Of which he says the scale is dictated by the subject matter, not by marketing techniques. “I like working large,” he shares. “It seems to suit the subject matter.”
The pieces are created from an anamorphic perspective and seem distorted, like a fun house mirror. This is an example of another way Dempsey is thinking about perspective, which is one of his formal interests. These anamorphic perspective paintings of places illustrate that his memory of those places is warped.
“When you ask ‘what is Flint,’ you get a rapid series of images in your head that explains your experiences in Flint,” Dempsey explains, “but everyone’s images and experiences would be different. From a generic standpoint, it’s the arches and the weather ball, etcetera.” More specifically, he gathers ideas with factory interiors, public space interiors, domestic interiors, and landscapes. And in his paintings, many – or all – of those places combine, and the specifics are an aesthetic response as he is painting.
The Flint Institute of Arts has included Dempsey’s work in a couple of past exhibitions. The FIA also has one large-scale painting in their permanent collection, which they exhibit on occasion. Themes Dempsey grapples with are understanding how complex our environments are and how different environments coexist in the same place; and how we define our environment – where we fit into it, how we feel and relate to it. “The puzzle with this,” Dempsey says. “is if you go and work in the factory, you’re in the factory you can only experience one place at a time. So, any time you’re thinking about other places, you’re in those places, too. Even though we have this understanding of place, we really can only experience them sequentially.”
With the “places” in his paintings, Dempsey is allowing the viewer to experience them all at once; his role is to bring these spaces together, but not necessarily create a narrative. The paintings give the viewer the opportunity to stop time and experience a piece of Dempsey’s environment.
In addition to the FIA, other places Dempsey has exhibited his art includes solo exhibitions at the South Bend Museum of Arts, the Northville Art House, the Durham Art Center, Semans Gallery, the ARC Gallery in Chicago, IL, and in Grand Rapids at ArtPrize four times. There, he was able to meet a lot of people, and he enjoys when more people are able to see his work. Currently, he has two pieces on display at Bishop International Airport, one they commissioned and one on loan.
“I like the idea that a painting is conceptual and it’s physical,” Dempsey shares. “It engages both your mind and your hands. It’s both craft and philosophy, in a way. I think that’s what I responded to in school. You can talk about things and make things. It was the best of both worlds. Over time, I appreciate that more and more. It’s not just something I do; it’s something other people do, too.”
Currently, Dempsey is working on painting a number of pieces for a group exhibition at Buckham Gallery from September 9 to October 8, in addition to a group exhibition at the Muskegon Museum of Art from May 12 to August 3. “It feels good when the circle is completed,” he shares, “and that I’ve connected with [viewers].”
Dempsey hopes to continue having his work seen by people all over, finding exhibitions, and putting more of his work out in public places for anyone to enjoy.
Photography by Eric Dutro