Stoll Returns:

'Ambiguous' paintings capture life's truisms, not ideals

Posted: Thursday, June 08, 2006

Juneau painter John Stoll finds it fitting that the first two paintings he sold - back in his early 20s - were bought by psychiatrists.

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"Maybe they just see something," Stoll said. "I have no idea where most of it comes from. Rarely I'll have some sort of notion, but generally, I just kind of let loose. If I knew what the paintings meant and could verbalize it, it would be a lot easier to have a typewriter."

"Ambiguities," Stoll's first solo show in years, is hanging at the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council gallery this month. By his wife's estimation, it's one of the most thematic shows of his career. That doesn't make it any easier to follow.

Like much of his work, it's filled with ghostly visages, or outright headless souls. Many are wearing a suit and tie - a recurring image in Stoll's work. Then there's the bizarre wordplay. A painting of a businessman's chest is offset by the words "Picture of Self."

What is he thinking?

"His work portrays man as closer to what man is than the stylized image we make up," said Dick Myren, 81, who owns about a dozen Stoll paintings. "It gets underneath the appearances that we're all hiding behind. There they are in their glory and their imperfections.

"There's the humor and the silliness of it and also the seriousness," he said. "Man is a formidable species that won't be around very long. He's in the process of self-destructing right now, and I think Stoll is just heralding that approaching disaster."

Solo show by John Stoll

What: "ambiguities," a collection of works by juneau painter john stoll.

Where: juneau arts and humanities council gallery, 206 N. Franklin st.

When: 12-4 p.m. monday through friday, or call (907) 586-2787 for special appointments. the shows runs through june 30.

Stoll has been pretty successful. Everything he's painted since 1993 has sold, to Juneau fans and collectors around the country. A Kirkland, Wash., gallery - Gunnar Nordstrom Art Gallery - recently asked about including Stoll's work in an upcoming show.

"Ambiguities" includes a series of paintings from the last year and a collection of Stoll's previously owned works.

"The people that know the work know the work," Stoll said. "It's pretty different from the usual Alaskana, not even close.

"I've not cared for the term 'artist,' ever," he said. "I much prefer painter. Liberace was called an artist, and I don't think I'm in the same category. I'm an average American suburban guy who dabbles in paint."

Stoll scrambled to finish his show, after an unexpected three-week stay in a Seattle hospital for cancer treatment.

About a month ago, he went to Seattle to have his thyroid examined. After a series of tests and scans, doctors discovered cancer throughout his body. He planned to start chemotherapy this week. Stoll beat colon cancer six years ago.

"When I was in a wheelchair with a severed Achilles tendon I painted, and when this chemo starts, I have every intention of painting as much as I can," Stoll said.

"There's people who take the Band-Aid and they pull it off slowly and go 'oooooo,' and there's people like me who grab the sucker and rip it off," he said. "I'm not particularly a brave soul, and I've never been a tough guy, but I've had some really horrific things happen in my life externally and managed to pull through them.

"My real anxiety is that I'll be so screwed up that I won't be able to paint," he said. "That would be worse than a certain amount of pain. I can take the nausea and vomiting even if I can sit on a chair and paint."

Stoll was born and raised in Seattle. He began painting in his early teens. He worked in oil at first, but soon discovered egg-oil tempera.

Quick-drying egg tempera - a combination of egg yolk and powdered pigment - is often associated with iconography. Egg-oil tempera - egg yolk, stand oil and Damar varnish, combined with casein paint as a binder - dries as fast and creates a slightly glossier glaze.

"I dribble the oil into the egg and beat like hell with a fork," Stoll said. "It's just like mayonnaise and very tough when it dries. Very luminous colors, but incredibly difficult to work with.

"What I like about it is you can paint into it fairly wet," he said. "I'll do a little spurt of spray varnish and cut right into it, and paint into the wax. It's a very nice medium for me. What you lose is texture."

Stoll does quite a bit of scraping out and repainting while molding his work. He tries to paint six hours a day.

"It took me years to learn this one: You stop when anything you do won't make the painting any better, it will just make it different," Stoll said. "I really move around the surface a lot. If you work up something too far in one area, then it thwarts the development in another area."

Stoll painted intensely in his 20s, then stopped to "think things over for a couple of decades."

He has worked a variety of jobs: commercial fisherman, foundry worker, roofer, pipefitter, shoe salesman, apartment manager, plumbing and heating, Cha's, Fred Meyer, Nugget Alaskan Outfitter. He and his wife moved to Juneau 18 years ago.

Stoll resumed painting in 1990 and had a lucky break when Barry Connolly spied his paintings through Stoll's living room window. Connolly was opening a new gallery, the now-defunct Portfolio Arts, and asked Stoll to show.

"Back then I priced my work fairly low," Stoll said. "The paintings are not my children. They're something to sell and get enough money so I can keep painting.

"Joseph Campbell once said, 'Follow your bliss,' he said. "I did that years and years ago. I started painting, and the money followed."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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