Interview with Chuck Sperry, November 2022, Paris
Questions by Vladimir Palibrk
Chuck Sperry lives in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, where he’s made his particular style of rock poster designs for over 20 years. He operates Hangar 18, a silkscreen print studio, located in Oakland.
Sperry works in San Francisco, but exhibits internationally from Athens to Argentina, Bristol to Belgrade (visited Belgrade at the invitation of The Ministry of Culture of Serbia). By conducting workshops and lectures all over the planet, Sperry’s tutelage has inspired a new generation of rock poster and silkscreen artists worldwide.
“Chuck has propelled the American rock poster genre to a new level of fine art status with his print work.” – Juxtapoz
His artwork has been exhibited at leading art institutions including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and Fort Wayne Museum of Art; his prints have been archived in the collections of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, The Oakland Museum of California, The Fort Wayne Museum of Art, San Francisco Public Library (Main Branch), the United States Library of Congress, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
One can find his art featured in many books, most notably Color x Color: The Sperry Archive 1980-2020, High Volume: The Art of Chuck Sperry, Helikon: The Muses of Chuck Sperry, Chthoneon: The Art of Chuck Sperry, Idyllion: The Art of Chuck Sperry, The Art of Modern Rock, Peace Signs: The Anti-War Movement Illustrated, and Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo.
Chuck Sperry has honed the craft of designing and hand screen printing for over 20 years to become recognized throughout the world as one of the foremost rock poster artists and printmakers. Elevating the craft to fine art, Sperry creates socio-political artwork beyond rock. He adheres to the ideal that beauty strengthens his message.
This interview was recorded at the occasion of the opening of his exhibition in Paris in November 2022 – we kindly send big thanks to our friend Shpira for editing and post-production of the audio file that seemed terribly low quality due to fact that we moved over the street during the interview, and some other unexpected elements coming into the scene like garbage truck etc..the boosted audio file and transcript are below…enjoy!
VP: Okay so welcome to another small episode of Street Art Residencies podcast, believe it or not we are now in the middle of Paris, in 10th district, and we just stumbled upon the exhibition of our old friend Chuck Sperry. It’s another exhibition of silkscreen prints. First time we met it was maybe twelve years ago in Pancevo, Serbia. What happened in the meantime Chuck? I heard that you moved to France.
CS: Hahah, hello everyone, I’m Chuck , yeah I moved to France in 2019. I moved just in time for the pandemic, which was a really good timing. Now I’m living half the time in San Francisco, half the time in France. At this point my print shop is in Oakland, California, so I spend my work time in California. More and more I’m starting to work in France. I make screen prints, rock posters and art prints.
VP: How was this change for you, changing the country, at the same time the reality changed totally?
CS: EVERYTHING changed, it wasn’t just pandemic. It’s like, pandemic, then political change, technological change, now we have this silly war, so a lot changed. We come back up out of the pandemic, and not only has everything changed, also I have one foot in France. I’m adjusting to French culture. It’s been like a mellow move. I find the French culture really attractive and friendly. There’s so much to learn, it’s just been, I don’t know, pretty cool!
VP: It’s a bit like being born again I guess, tuning into new realities.
CS: Yeah, learning how to walk again, haha.
VP: Can you tell us, did anything change in your art with this change of context? How do you see your work now?
CS: You know, it’s really interesting. In January 2021 I got contacted by a group of women from Artists 4 ERA who where trying to pass the equal rights amendment into the constitution of USA, and I was completely all in. I was like OMG that’s great! They said, I was one of the first few people they asked. Do I know anyone else?
It’s not like I write to Shepard Fairey every day, or all the time. But his name came to my mind immediately, and I had his e-mail. So I wrote and said “hey Shepard, a group called Artists 4 ERA is working with Vote Equality and they are fighting for equality, and want to try to get the ERA passed into the constitution, are you interested, should I hook you up?” Shepard wrote me back like three minutes later and he was like ‘dude, yeah!’ Hahah, then I hit up Tara McPherson who is a really great graphic artist and painter. Also I hit up Tracie Ching. All four of us joined a group of 28 artists and had a whole year of activist art shows involved with getting the Equal Rights Amendment passed.
That was completely growing out of BLM (Black Lives Matter), MeToo, and the social changes that happened in the last three to four years. So, yes I feel engaged in that.
VP: It’s really great to see this visual language and the power of print posters that you do are now united with this activist energy and contributing to it. Not to mention, the universal power of these images to cross the language barriers also. How do you see the scene in France, since you’re here? Have you had any contacts, interesting discoveries?
CS: Somehow Paris has became the center of the art world again. You can see it year by year growing stronger. I think it’s because, honestly I think it’s because, the graffiti and urban art scene reinvigorated Paris and made it a 21st Century city. That’s what I see as changing in France. That’s my interesting discovery.
VP: Yeah somehow it’s the center of the world in many ways… /laughs
CS: I mean also Serbia, San Francisco..
VP: Yes i guess all the countries and cities starting with S../laughter/
CS: hahah, no we are just at that page of the dictionary..lol
VP: It’s interesting that your work here is also falling in such a niche, let’s say, or is seen as urban art, which can connect it to the general topic of our podcast. We are usually taking interviews with street artists. How do you see this change in perception? How does it work for you?
CS: I think the reason that I happen to fall into the urban art category, is that I’m doing posters for concerts and for events, so these posters are sort of part of the street scene. They were always been used for actual street — I would say advertisement — but they are not really advertisement, they are actually communication. Because I’m working in that field, it is part of urban environment, it’s on the walls. I’m working with a Cuban artist Jorge Jorge that I met in France — speaking of cosmopolitan stuff — and he is working with collage. What he is doing is ripping pubs down and re-utilizing all those kind of images that he gets from posters from advertisers, and turning them into collages. So, he took my pieces from the show and ripped them apart and put them back together in his own conception. Our joke is that we are improving Cubo-American relations /laughter/
VP: ..through the art and collages, hahah..
VP: Maybe politicians should also have some kind of graphic art jams in order to understand each others better.
CS: hahah yes, approved!
VP: Can you tell us a little bit about this exhibition now for our listeners? Can you explain where is it happening, the name of the gallery, the name of the expo, concept behind it, how long did you work on these artworks..?
CS: The show is called Idyllion, and it’s the name of the book that I am releasing. It’s about a hundred and thirty pages, my imagery paired with poetry and musical lyrics, and all of the pieces were intended to emphasize the…
…pardon me we got a garbage truck entering the scene…
VP: …unexpectedly entering the interview…
CS: …because here we are in the street. Okay, he’s gonna go…
VP: Maybe I could help them to put this stuff inside so it goes faster. Monsieur, monsieur! It’s like a radio drama, not only an interview all this…isn’t it?
CS: It’s like they’re getting rid of the bodies.
VP: Yes, that’s the best way to do it /laughs/
CS: Okay, I will start that over.
So, the show is called Idyllion, and it’s the name of the book that I am coming out with, which is a hundred and thirty pages pairing the work from the last year with poetry that inspired the pieces, or lyrics of songs. The show is at L’Oeil Ouvert, which is a gallery in 10th arrondisement, at 1 rue Lucien Sampaix. I’ve worked with this gallery for like 10 years, and with this owner for about four.
The work being shown represents a year of work that I put together about this time last year, starting with the designs and then moving into the printing phase. I did ten screen printed wood panels, each seven colors, and in editions of thirty copies. They’re pretty rare, hard to get, and there’s ten designs in total. I’m able to reach lot of people this way.
The heart of it is kind of a meditation on the power of femininity and ritual energy. I get into mythological themes. I’m really trying to reach images that appeal to collective unconscious. So that’s kind of the vibe on that.
VP: Back to the roots.
CS: Yeah, exactly, back to the roots. Overlayed over that whole thing was this Equal Rights Amendment drive that I took part in. That’s the project!
VP: Thanks a lot. I have just few more short questions, maybe less informative about situation now, more about yourself. If some young artist is listening to this at the moment, what would you recommend to her/him in terms of strategies, or at least what to read, listen, watch? Anything interesting?
CS: Whoa, you know, what I would recommend is just to kind of work work work and don’t be afraid to get your art in front of people. You can pick up inexpensive tools and paint — spray can, screen printing materials — and it doesn’t take a lot of money. It’s pretty much open to everyone, and just go for it.
You know, I always got involved in art groups, or associated with other artists, and just found people that were friendly enough to teach me this or the other. One of the things that I did is, I made zines, you know. I started using just regular drawing pens, making images that I wanted, printing those out, making like little zine and getting that out. I just started leaving those around the neighborhood, and you start to get response once you get your art in front of people. And then that’s a real kick in the butt to start doing more and more. And so then you know, you might get the confidence to paint on the street, make your own images for people who are living with your work. That would be my advice, just get out there and do it.
VP: Thanks a lot, so, not being afraid to communicate with wider audience is essential for you.
CS: Yes. Totally.
VP: Thank you. Maybe just for the end, is there any movie you would recommend watching?
CS: Aw, dude! You know I just saw Roma, which came out a couple of years ago. It’s about the student revolt in Mexico City that was suppressed by some really bizarre secret operation. Woven through this movie is the story of modern Mexico, and it’s politics today. It’s just really something you got to see.
VP: Thanks, one last question: your favorite music at the moment?
CS: Oh shit! It’s funny, I’m listening to a lot of reggae right now, like Desmond Dekker, Junior Murvin — that kind of stuff — really deep, kind of groovy stuff.
VP: For you, reggae is a happy or sad music?
CS: I don’t know, for me it’s happy. It’s inspirational. It really makes me stop and think about where the world is now. It’s almost prophetic, you know.
VP: That’s interesting. Once I was painting walls in the house, you know, this regular paint job you do every five years. At first, it was very hard, but then when I played reggae, it became so easy. I realized, man, reggae is the working class music. It makes work go more easy, apart from other things.
CS: Yeah that’s it! And it’s inspiring too. It makes you think that your place in the world is more important, because you’re gonna win, you know, and that’s really the message I get from it.
VP : Thank you, thanks for everything
photo above: Jorge Jorge, Chuck Sperry and the happy podcast journalist
More art, news and posters by Chuck Sperry at the following links: