Hendrix art professor and painter Matthew Lopas had "no clue you could make a living as an artist" when he first discovered his passion for painting.
"I just wanted to follow my talent," he said. "But it took a while to find the courage to do that."
Working as a professional artist and teaching art to college students was "like a revelation," Lopas said.
Lopas grew up in Evanston, Ill., outside of Chicago. He was interested in Chinese philosophy and culture and had studied karate and tai chi, so he majored in Chinese studies at the Residential College of the University of Michigan, which "had a philosophy similar to Hendrix," he said. It also had one of the best Chinese language programs in the nation. He spent a year living in China studying Mandarin with the Council for International Education Exchange at Nanjing University.
"It was an amazing experience," he said. "But ultimately it really wasn't my talent, and I decided I didn't want to go in that field."
Lopas had always drawn and had taken a few drawing and sculpture classes in Michigan. He wanted to pursue that further after earning his bachelor's degree in 1988, so he enrolled in drawing and painting classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
"It was kind of my local art college … It's what I knew," said Lopas, whose grandparents lived near the Art Institute of Chicago. Lopas had taken a summer class there as a middle school student. " It was a really good art school with really good teachers."
He was quickly seized with an obsession for art. He took studio art classes from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. He also had a work study job at the Beacon Street Gallery, where he installed shows and wrote grants.
"It was my introduction to the art world," said Lopas, who later worked three days a week as a sculptor's assistant.
In 1991, he completed a BFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and set his sights on an MFA at Yale University. Before moving east he entered an art competition and took first prize. Lopas was awarded his first solo show. Sales from that show led Lopas to realize that art could be a profession.
"That's when a light bulb went off, and I thought, 'I can actually do this'," he said.
"I just followed what I wanted to do," he said. "When you become an artist, it's a calling. It's a way of life. That's all I really cared about."
At Yale, Lopas studied figure painting under William Bailey, whom Lopas calls "an amazing artist … just phenomenal."
Yale's close proximity to New York City was also influential.
"New York is a grad school in itself," he said. "There are hundreds of galleries, different kinds of artists, and a lot of really good painters."
After completing his MFA at Yale in 1995, Lopas moved to Brooklyn and had a sold-out show at Paris New York Kent, a gallery in Kent, Conn. In 1997, Lopas and his wife, Susan Clark, an artist he met at Yale and married moved to Washington, Conn.
Lopas learned the pressures of the art market. When he changed his style, his work sold only sporadically.
"Once you sell a certain kind of painting, that's what the market expects," he said. "But I value my artistic creativity more than that. If you're a creative artist, you want to be creative."
In addition to his own work and gallery shows, Lopas taught art as an adjunct faculty member at schools and art centers in Connecticut.
"When I realized I was obsessed with art, I also thought it would be nice to teach," he said.
In 1999, he started applying for teaching jobs and was offered the position at Hendrix.
"Being a college professor is a great way to live," he said.
Lopas arrived at Hendrix at the right time. Along with sculptor Erik Maakestad and art historian Dr. Rod Miller, Lopas literally helped build the art program at Hendrix.
The summer before moving to Conway, he and his colleagues met with donors who were interested in funding a new three-building art center at Hendrix, which opened in 2004. Even with the tremendous growth and opportunity that this represents, Lopas feels the job is still unfinished. He would love to see a purpose-built campus gallery, as well as dedicated studio space for senior art majors to work, in the future. Young artists need to be exposed to a steady stream of actual art and a space of their own to make work, he said.
The college was also transitioning from the trimester to the semester system, which meant the professors were able to rewrite the entire art curriculum. They revamped the senior art show as part of the capstone experience for art majors and instituted a multidisciplinary upper-level team-taught course to prepare majors for their show. They also developed a gallery program, bringing visiting artists to campus to exhibit their work and interact with students.
"It was a very creative time," said Lopas, adding that the department added even more expertise when they hired photographer Maxine Payne.
"There were so many things that hadn't been done before due to a lack of resources," he said. "It was definitely a change, and everybody was excited and welcoming and happy about it."
Lopas teaches the entire studio painting and drawing sequence, as well as the senior interdisciplinary critique course.
Lopas teaches Hendrix students "how to paint from life," a philosophy on which his own work is based. "Compressed and Extended Interiors" is a catalog of his work. Prepared in 2006, it is a collection of paintings from Lopas' life, specifically scenes from his own house, which he built in 2002.
Through these paintings, he discovered a technique for painting 360-degree panorama. The discovery led Lopas to research panoramic painting, which he found had been a phenomenon in the 19th century.
"Panoramas were the movies of the day," he said.
Last fall he attended the International Panorama Conference in Gettysburg. There he met an international community of arts, curators, and historians and learned that there is a resurgent worldwide interest in panoramas.
When his father passed away, Lopas wanted to paint his family's 1920s-era house as "a sort of catharsis." In the process, he realized a need to paint panoramic views that were not only horizontal, but also vertical. This led to an artistic breakthrough in the discovery of a new perspective technique of painting distorted images.
"It's very similar to what a mapmaker does," said Lopas, explaining that mapmakers use projection techniques, such as the Mercator projection, that use distortion to depict the round world on a flat surface.
"I found a way to paint like a mapmaker, and there's no way to do it without distorting," he said. "But the distortion makes it exciting and interesting. Ultimately an artist wants to be creative, and I found a way that makes it exciting and unique."
The new panorama project is captured in "Nest for the Imagination: Global Panoramas of Evocative Interior Spaces," a catalog of his collection of work from his childhood Chicago home.
Painting his family home and developing his distortion technique led Lopas to find other historic interiors to paint.
"I needed to find locations like that," said Lopas, who has painted the historic Ward Mansion in downtown Conway, the Black Swan Inn in Tilton, N.H., is currently completing a paintings of the Baker House, a historic home in North Little Rock, and has plans to paint more historic homes in Arkansas.
"There's so much beauty, history, longing, and memory. Older homes are mysterious spaces, suggestive of a story," he said. "For me, as a painter, there's also a lot to actually represent in old spaces. It's an interesting challenge to paint."
While a handful of artists have painted panoramas that depict the entire globe of perception, Lopas has hit on technique that he thinks is unique.
"I feel like I'm entering a phase that's original," he said. "And it took years of hard work to get to that place."
But in addition to mysterious spaces, Lopas said he draws artistic inspiration from his Hendrix students.
"The creative energy of students feeds you as an artist," he said. "When you have students who are excited, interested, and talented, it just feeds you. The act of painting is a solitary experience. Being in an environment like Hendrix is not only an honor, but also feels like a necessity for a rich life with intellectual growth."
Lopas is currently a gathering a group of artists interested in the panorama phenomenon. The group is called Painting 360 - Contemporary Variations of the Painted Panorama. Their work can be viewed on Facebook at the link below.
His artwork can be viewed at http://www.matthewlopas.com