Artist Tom Spleth visited the University of Dallas last week to demonstrate his diverse skill set with his Costa Rica to Lubbock drawing exhibit. From Monday to Thursday, Spleth gave printmaking and digital iPad drawing presentations, ceramics demonstrations and an artist talk to UD art students and other attendees.
The exhibition features drawings that Spleth made during a trip that began in Costa Rica and ended with a family reunion in Lubbock, Texas.
During his talk on Wednesday, Spleth explained that the exhibition at UD has been very meaningful for him. Pottery has dominated his career for the past 40 years, so an exhibit of his drawings gives Spleth more creative range.
“It’s a formal moment that actually might change how an artist may feel about his own work,” Spleth said.
Spleth saw this exhibit as an unequaled opportunity. He especially appreciated the support from Assistant Professor of Ceramics, Kelly O’Briant, who helped bring his work to UD.
“She saw my work at the Penland School and submitted it to the selection committee,” Spleth explained.
He also highlighted the help of the gallery director, Christina Hayes Haley.
“She was open to showing all of the kinds of work I currently make,” said Spleth.
For his Costa Rica to Lubbock drawings, Spleth used an iPad and a digital painting program called Procreate before printing the drawings on metal.
Rather than traditional printmaking ink, Spleth uses an equal mixture of Golden Acrylic Primer (GAC) and acrylic paint. During the printmaking presentation, he used a window squeegee to scrape off excess paint from the linoleum he had been carving.
Spleth stressed that the technology of the artwork pales in comparison to the artwork’s meaning. “I utilize new software and equipment provided by genius developers to create my own images with a currently new medium. I see the digital work as simply another way to make images,” Spleth said.
He sees artwork in history through that same lens, as even early Flemish oil painters were just using oil paints as new technology.
“The humanity of the image is the essential goal. I look at Flemish painting, or Persian miniatures, or the drawings on the caves at Lascaux or any of a hundred different masterpieces for real guidance,” Spleth said. “In that context, the technology itself pales as an issue.”
The UD advertisements for Spleth’s arrival described him as the grandfather of American studio slip casting, which is “a ceramic technique where liquified clay is poured into a plaster mold.”
However, Spleth has a more humble view of his role in the artistic community.
“Slip casting is an industrial process that was developed in the Elizabethan times. I borrowed much technical information and tailored it to my needs as an individual in an artist’s studio,” Spleth explained. He was the first in the American studio movement to use these materials.
“Now, use of casting is a common idea and leads to much marvelous work. Rather than accepting responsibility for creating a movement, it is more accurate to say that slip casting was perfect for the ideas about ceramics that developed in the hearts and souls of ceramic artists as time passed,” Spleth said. “I was just doing it early on.”
Spleth clearly possesses a high level of mastery, but his printmaking presentation on Tuesday, Oct. 1 also revealed his lightheartedness and humble tone.
“At this point in my life, I really accept all the flaws,” he told the audience.
During his talk on Wednesday, Spleth reflected that flaws can actually benefit the artist.
“I sort of have a goal… to convey [that] precision, extraordinary craftsmanship, error-free work is probably not the path that will lead to your greatest accomplishment for you as an artist,” said Spleth.
While making prints on t-shirts for sale, he noticed that splatters of paint had gone awry, but considered them as marks of uniqueness.
“I’m going to take photographs of the flubs and misses so that you know that the shirt you have ordered is the shirt that I send you,” he joked with the onlookers.
Spleth has much experience in art student life from earning a BFA from the Art Institute in Kansas City and an MFA from Alfred University in New York.
“I recommend … to not suffer over a perceived need to be excellent. Keep it lousy, direct, unencumbered, sort of a one-to-one relationship between the experience of living a life and the experience of making art,” he advised students. “It’s OK if it’s smudgy, blurry, or trashy. So are we.”
The subject matter of Costa Rica to Lubbock varies dramatically, but each work captivates the viewer with vibrant colors and dramatic depth. Spleth’s work will be on display in the Beatrice M. Haggerty Gallery until Nov. 4, and it is certainly an exhibition worthy of a meticulous audience.
A team of writers including Anastasia Wilhelm, Gwendolyn Loop and M-C Scarlett worked to write this article.