John Peaspanen has been creating art his entire life, experimenting with all sorts of media.

He is achieving a long-time goal with his first solo exhibition, “One Tribe,” which will be on display at Liberty Arts Coffee House, 526 N. Liberty St. in Winston-Salem, now through Feb. 23.

The show features a series of brightly colored portraits of indigenous people from such countries as China, New Zealand, Finland and Ethiopia.

“I like primitive stuff,” said Peaspanen, a former journalist.

A native of northeast Ohio, Peaspanen and his family moved to Winston-Salem in the fall, his 23rd move in 26 years.

He says he’d like to stay in Winston-Salem for a while.

“I’ve made a lot of positive contacts here,” he said.

How would you describe your art?

The current collection is called “One Tribe.” It’s a series of colorful indigenous tribal portraits, executed in acrylic on canvas. In the current divisive, isolationist environment in which we live, I felt it was a great way to remind everyone that we are all just human beings.

By highlighting societal ideals about beauty and strength, you start to see the similarities amid the diversity. One culture’s practices, such as lip plates or neck rings, may seem extreme to us. But what must those people think of our injecting cadaver fat or botulism toxin into our faces?

In my artwork, I lean on the eyes and facial expressions. Each piece has an attitude, a feeling being projected. It all starts with the eyes.

How have you evolved as an artist?

I did not have much support in my artistic pursuits. My parents thought it to be frivolous. My art professors gave me flunking grades, until I agreed to change majors. Being almost totally self-taught, it has been a very natural progression. I’m not afraid to try new things or to make the occasional misstep. I just let it flow. No subject, medium or technique is off the table. I create what I like, because, ultimately, if no one else likes it, I have to live with the pieces.

Who has influenced your art?

There have been so many influences — Degas, Patrick Nagel, Toulouse Lautrec, Mucha, Klimt, van Gogh, Japanese woodblock prints, Gauguin, on and on. I study anything that interests or inspires me, reverse-engineering it in my mind. I discover subtle tricks and techniques that I adopt as my own.

What is your biggest challenge?

Up until recently, life has been the challenge. I’ve always done art as a sideline. My jobs that paid the bills have included newspaper journalist, radio host, bartender, tattoo artist, customer service manager, greenhouse laborer and florist, among others. I moved around a lot, living all over Ohio, Illinois, Kansas, Denver and various portions of North Carolina. I’m currently stationary, having moved here in August 2019 from Cincinnati. I have now found the time to finally focus on my art.

I’ve always been an artist and have sold pieces and done commissions throughout my life. This is my first solo exhibition. I’ve never before had a cohesive collection to show, because I moved whatever I made too quickly. It’s a great problem to have, but it does limit gallery opportunities. (I’ll have a second show at Willow’s Bistro in March/April and am in talks with two other venues for 2020, so far.)

What does art do for you?

Art fulfills me. It allows me to release the images from my mind. It makes me happy. And if someone else likes what I do, then that is just a really nice bonus.

Any advice for other artists?

Believe in yourself and your vision. Critics and experts abound. There will always be those who try to dissuade you. Ignore these people. They are driven by jealousy, fear or their own self-doubt. If you have something that you need to share with the world, do it. Make your own opportunities.

Lisa O’Donnell writes about the arts for the Winston-Salem Journal. Contact her at

lodonnell@wsjournal.com or 336-727-7420.

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