Artist Stephen Lapthisophon has made his mark on Dallas in more ways than one. Born in Houston, he attended undergraduate at UT Austin and went on to get his MFA in Chicago, where he also studied comparative literature at Northwestern. In the early 2000s, he was looking for new opportunities to show work and ended up in Dallas, as an artist in residence at UTD. In 2007, having developed a close working relationship with Nancy Whitenack at Conduit Gallery, he made the decision to move here permanently.
In the seven years since then, he has been a dynamic contributor to the Dallas art world. He regularly shows at Conduit in the Design District and helps to bring up the next generation of artists at UT Arlington, where he teaches. His artistic interests and influences are diverse -- ranging from painting to poetry to film. One influence on his work that is often discussed, including by Lapthisophon himself, is his blindness. For twenty years he has been legally blind. In October of 2013, he presented his first major solo exhibition, entitled "coffee, seasonal fruit, root vegetables and 'Selected Poems'" at the Dallas Museum of Art. That exhibit featured works made with food materials like coffee, ground spices and herbs, emphasizing the importance of senses other than sight -- a regular theme of his art.
What made you decide to move here permanently from Chicago? I didn't have a commercial gallery in Chicago at the time and Conduit was already important to me. I started thinking about seven more months of winter, and I had an opportunity to teach, so in 2007 I moved. I had been building a familiarity with Dallas. It was a slow transition from 2002. At first I lived in the Wilson building downtown. I found the most Chicago-like building in Dallas. Now I live in Oak Cliff, and I love it.
How has living in Dallas influenced you as an artist? Dallas has been good and profitable. The people who I've met here have affected my creative life more than anything else -- other artists, the experience with my students, and the gallery where I show. But in some ways I would say that there are things about Dallas creatively as a place that could be anywhere. I do think that there are some aspects of the landscape of the real estate that are particular to Dallas. There are so many neighborhoods that are in flux, and that creates opportunities for exhibitions in terms of just warehouses and storefronts that work for a DIY approach to things.
Your exhibit at the DMA last year featured a lot of food materials. Do people often attempt to smell the works? Do they give off an odor? There's a big yellow wall made of turmeric, and when it's new it gives off an odor. I also use rosemary a fair amount. That's something that does smell very fragrant. But whether or not it actually has an aromatic quality isn't important, it's just the suggestion that it's there that's enough -- the suggestion that there's something more than the image, that there's this whole other component of the olfactory sense and sense in general. I do think that things look different when they're made from different materials like coffee, but also when someone reads the information in the materials list, it sends them to a different place. It brings up things in terms of everyday life.
How do you preserve those pieces, considering they're made with perishable materials? They're generally pretty stable by the time I let go of them. They're coated with stuff that preserves them. But part of the point is to bring up those questions of permanence. We think a lot of things are permanent that are actually in flux and in change.
What are you working on currently? I'm working on a number of short and longer form video projects. I have an exhibition that I'm organizing for the gallery at UTA for the spring. It's about disability issues and the art world. My next show at Conduit is in February and I'm working on pieces for that.
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You work within a lot of different artistic media. How do you determine which to focus on at any given time? I'm a fairly restless person, and I work on a lot of things all at once. But mainly I'm interested in the idea of works being appropriate for the context and the setting. I believe that things should have a rightness to the moment or presentation. There are some artists who say, 'this is what I do and it's always what I do.' I like to see what the situation is like, where it's going, and to find the right way to intervene in that situation. I like to challenge myself.
You went to graduate school for comparative literature at Northwestern. How does that aspect of your background influence your art? For me, all artwork is a form of thinking. I'm propelled by other versions of that, including the way it's reflected in literary thought. I'm interested in the things that happen in poetry. The level of indirectness, and wonder and mystery that happens in poetry is very specific to poetry. A lot of my work comes from those impulses.
What's your teaching philosophy at UTA? I try to ask questions of my students that encourage them to find their own voice, and to go somewhere they haven't. I try to help them discover what it is they're doing and why they're doing it when they do it. What are the stakes for making art now? I think it's important that artists make work that challenges the world that it's in, instead of making products that it seems like the market wants. Artists should work against the grain.
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