Mudd Art History: John Pearson’s Flip Flop Paradox A
DEVIN MCMAHON AND PJ MCCORMICK // APRIL 12, 2019
Pearson had no memory of the work, or apparently any of the others scattered around Oberlin: “I would [tell you about Flip Flop Paradox A], but I don’t even know what you’re talking about. There’s stuff all over the place but don’t ask me where it is, I just let people borrow it and then I forget about it.” In retrospect, this was probably about as apt an introduction as one could get with Pearson, a frank, intelligent, principled (and slightly cranky) career artist and teacher, who was generous enough to share his time and talent with the Oberlin community, and luckily, with Devin and I.
Although we found little on Flip Flop Paradox A itself, Devin and I were fortunate enough to sit down with Pearson in his impeccably organized and designed studio and home (hidden behind the College Street building’s brick facade), and hear about the life and process of one of Oberlin’s most prolific artists.
How’d you end up in Oberlin?
“Well I was at the Institute of Art in Cleveland. I had been living in Canada. I was kicked out of this country for visa reasons. I don’t remember now, but the state department said, ‘Get out,’ I said, ‘Fine,’ so I went to Canada. They said I had to go back to England, to my country of origin, and I said, ‘I’ll go where I want to go,’ so I went to Canada, and then after two years, I was able to apply to come back to the States, so I just came back through a formal channel.
What were you doing in Canada?
“Same as I do anywhere: make art. The Canadians have a socialized system of supporting the arts, like in England. It’s not like the States where it’s all about money and competition and control and crap like that. They just expect art and want art to be made and to be on public view.”
So then why’d you come back to the States & Oberlin?
“This is the center. This is where any progressive ideas were being developed and where you can do anything. People don’t even blink. In England...there’s so much regulation, I guess because it’s a small country. I found it ridiculous for a country of that size to be arguing about every little detail, it’s ridiculous. In the States, it’s like, whatever you want to do. You do what you want to do, but if you do anything that’s going to hurt other people you’re going to get taken to task.
Nobody will look at you stupid if you do something different; they kind of get curious. And I kind of like that openness. You discover things that people are doing here that you’ve never seen before or have never considered doing yourself. It’s a bigger country, there’s more opportunity. And, frankly, there’s a hell of a lot more money here. It all revolves around money, eventually it comes back to that bottom line, and there’s a lot more money here. And a lot more people that have their own ambitions and visions of the way things could be. It’s much more open. There’s a lot more going on.”
Did your art change here?
“Probably just a lot bigger. I mean it’s constantly changing for all kinds of reasons. The thing about the States is there’s a lot of sophistication here. Companies and communities are much more aware and want art around, so it just gets supported. In England, everybody expects everything for nothing. [Mimicking] ‘Hey, we like that painting, can you give it to us?’ No, I won’t give it to you. I like your coat, will you give it to me?”
What about Oberlin specifically? How his living in this community affected your art?
“Well, I’m sure it has. I don’t think about it. I just do what I want to do. I just got to a position where I have independent means, and so I can do what I want to do. Sometimes I do absolutely nothing, because that’s what I want to do. Nothing! Other times I’m very actively involved. I’ve been involved with education all my life, so I’m constantly involved in some way in teaching or helping students. I don’t actively go looking for it, it just somehow comes looking for me. I just do what I want to do.”
What impact did teaching have on your process?
“It probably had some, but I don’t even think about it.”
What classes did you teach at Oberlin?
“Just studio classes. I have taught lecture classes, art history classes, in terms of current issues and things like that, just when I felt like it wasn’t being offered by the art history department. I’ve always taught what I thought students weren’t getting at Oberlin. There’s a lot going on in Cleveland. Cleveland is an incredibly rich and fertile city in terms of its cultural involvements. It’s not by chance that it has one of the finest art museums in the world. It doesn’t just happen. It’s because people are really engaged. And there’s a lot of money here, made in all kinds of ways, primately in industry. And the people that are involved in that are also pretty sophisticated in terms of the arts. They’ve developed an interest in the arts. So over the years, it’s just kind of grown. I mean the Cleveland Orchestra is known all over the world. It’s not just some funky orchestra in a little town, it’s a world renowned orchestra. There’s all kind of things like that.
And why it happens in Cleveland, I think it’s because it’s pretty open. People have got open minds. And there’s a lot of money in Cleveland from all kinds of industries. I was kind of surprised when I first discovered Cleveland. I thought it’s a pretty great place. A great place to live. I mean, a lot of people through the country think: Cleveland - a dirty industrial town. They have no idea. People are constantly surprised by Cleveland. People will come visit me from New York and Europe or Japan and just be surprised about how the city was, what it had to offer. Think of the Cleveland Museum of Art. How many museums are like that? You gotta go to New York or London to find museums like that.
Cleveland is sort of laid back in a way. It doesn’t go around bragging about itself. A lot of cities go about bragging about themselves, and they can’t deliver. Cleveland can deliver. It does it’s thing and doesn’t think it’s out of the ordinary. It doesn’t think anything’s extraordinary. It’s just the way things are supposed to be. I’ve [also] never had difficulty meeting anyone I wanted to meet and discussing ideas I wanted to discuss ideas with. It just seems pretty open.”
Who are you inspirations?
“I’m just interested in art period. If I like a work, I just look them up, give them a call, and say, ‘I’d like to come to your studio.’ There’s an idea that people who are well known or artists who are famous are on some lofty plateau, and they’re not. They’re just like everybody else, they’re just guys trying to do something. And they just want people to be interest in what they do, so it doesn’t matter if it’s Joe Schmo, or the Queen. Interest is interest. On the other hand, because it’s Cleveland, Cleveland isn’t put on this map as being as hefty as New York or whatever, so artists in Cleveland are pretty free to do and act however they want, and not worry whether the outside world gives a damn. Because Cleveland supports its artists. Cleveland is a very rare city in that regard. It really does support its artists. And that’s what I liked about it. There were a lot of artists there because of that, but they really do give support. And it’s serious support, not just lip service. I think that’s probably why we stayed in Oberlin. When we visited the area, my wife just fell in love with Oberlin. So we just went for it.”
Do you recommend students who want to pursue art to move to Cleveland?
“They should move to any place where they see there are things that are of interest to them. They shouldn’t go somewhere because a bunch of famous artists live there, because 9 times out of 10 those famous artists aren’t going to have time for them anyway. And if there are a lot of famous artists there already, who’s going to be interested in you? You have to do what you have to do and then try and see where you can get it located. It’s a huge world out there and artists live all over the country. “
In a new column by your favorite Features and Arts + Culture editors, Devin McMahon and PJ McCormick, we conduct research to ascertain the history and context of some of the pieces in Mudd Library’s eclectic collection of art.
We’d reached a roadblock; John Pearson, the artist whose piece Flip Flop Paradox A hangs in the stairwell between the first and second floors of Mudd library, was unfamiliar with his own piece. Given Pearson’s copious oeuvre, we’d soon find, this wasn’t all that odd, but for the moment, we were stuck. For the first edition of our new column, Devin and I had selected Pearson’s large Tetris-block-esque sculpture, and after some digging, found that he was a retired Oberlin professor still living in town. A few quick emails with the Art Department later, and we were in touch with Pearson’s daughter, who helped us set up an interview at his Oberlin home and studio. But once we had found his home -- no easy task, it turned out, as Devin and I were apparently blind to a building we’d each walked by a million times, even though it sits right between the Apollo and Slow Train -- we floundered to find a new direction for our interview.