“Ephemeral.” That’s a word John Collier used to express the nature of ideas when he was interviewed in 1994. It’s also a word that describes a crucial aspect of his work. When examined closely, Collier’s images have movement at the edges, a tremulous shimmer that evokes a connection to the ineffable in a way that words cannot. Call it spirituality, call it life. Paradoxically, this deceptively quiet shimmer is always exciting, at times thrilling.
Born and raised in Dallas, Collier is largely self taught, in that he didn’t attend art school. However, his father, John Carroll Collier, an illustrator and painter, created an art-filled atmosphere for his son and five other children, most of whom went on to have careers in the arts.
As a way to improve, he more than studied artists he admired. “It’s good to copy,” he says. “The artist you’re copying has solved all the problems of composition and color. You’re learning how to mix color and get it on the canvas like the master did. You’re learning to think like the way he did.
Collier internalized the lessons from his heroes, not only in the manner in which he put marks on paper with masterful deftness and deep understanding of subtle coloration.
Collier’s use of pastels in the 1970s was an innovation in contemporary illustration. Steven Heller credited him with initiating a “pastel renaissance” in works that evoked classic images in a fresh way, and had “aesthetic concerns that harken back to the Italian Renaissance.” Top illustrators, such as Marshall Arisman and Mark English, agreed that here was one of the country’s most important artists. As did a raft of editorial and commercial clients that included: Atlantic Records, H.J. Heinz, Oscar de la Renta, Time Life Books, Push Pin Studios, Columbia Records, and many more!
Through a grant from Hallmark, Collier taught at the University of Kansas, where he was honored as the Joyce C. Hall Distinguished Visiting Professor. Sought after by art institutes nationwide, he has lectured at Syracuse University, Art Center College of Design, Pratt Institute, Smithsonian Institute, the University of Delaware.
Collier warns against what he calls “the beautiful lie,” an abstract concept he explains in concrete terms in a 1988 documentary, “The Art of John Collier.” The more truthful the work, the better it is, and the more we want to return again and again to witness it. He says, “If art is moving, it is good.”
Collier’s work is rife with subtext, part of the ephemeral nature of his approach. At times incantatory—where one has the feeling angels are just out of the frame. At other times, he evokes a sense of darker mystery, most effectively on display in a book of ghost stories. Collier not only illustrates the ghastly subjects, but relays something more complex and very hard to do. He renders terror.
More recently Collier has devoted himself exclusively to painting and sculpting imagery for religious institutions and in 2005 was chosen as chief sculptor for the Catholic Memorial at Ground Zero. His larger than life-size figures, representing the patron saints of police, firefighters, and workers, and Mary Magdelene, received the Prestigious Optimé Award from Ministry and Liturgy and are permanently installed at St. Joseph’s Chapel.
Tempted early on to make art take first place in his life, Collier has discovered that the work is a reflection of what is important in life. His conviction that what one believes is reflected in the work, leads him to ask, “What do I believe that has meaning? Are the things that I believe about life true?” For him, being a Christian, effects him emotionally, which, he contends comes out in his paintings spontaneously, something that naturally effects people. “They feel it and they can’t help themselves.”