John Hammer: Claremore’s King of Pop (Art)

BIG NEWS: John Hammer is hosting a gallery show in Claremore at RSU’s Foundations Gallery in Baird Hall. The show will be open through February 9. 

Looking at the vivid, colorful works by John Hammer, you’d never guess that he spent the majority of his life creating art exclusively in black and white.

Born in South Texas in 1963, John moved to the opposite side of the country to Minnesota as a young boy, where he had his first emotional art experience. In second grade, he was involved in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. His mentor was a student at Carleton College, and he took John to an art exhibit on campus. The sculptures and paintings made an impression on John; he doesn’t remember ever drawing prior to that, but he definitely remembers after.

John and his family moved to Oklahoma when he was in third grade. After a short stint in Woodward, they landed in Okmulgee, where John remained until adulthood. As a kid, fresh off the art tour in Minnesota with his Big Brother, he began drawing on a regular basis. “Mainly horses,” John said, and always with pen or pencil. He branched out from horses and drew portraits of his grandparents. After that, he just kept drawing anything and everything, because as we all know, “Practice makes perfect.” He realized that he had a gift, and he kept practicing. Some of his favorite sketches were cartoons that he would copy from his favorite magazines, MAD and Cracked. Other kids began to notice his skill and began asking for their own drawings. Being that John was a huge KISS fan, it was appropriate that he did lots of sketches of the iconic band, especially since he drew in black and white. Those KISS drawings? John sold them to fellow students for the whopping price of 50 cents each; the proceeds were used to fund John’s trips to the local roller rink.

By the time John graduated high school, he knew that his ability to transfer his ideas to paper was a gift, and although countless adults told him not to bother pursuing art professionally, he enrolled at OSU Institute of Technology in Okmulgee in the Technical Illustration program. His chosen major was a mixture of drafting and art. While he enjoyed the technicality of drafting, he didn’t enjoy the stuffy culture. He much preferred the art department, where there was never a necktie in sight. He changed his major to Commercial Art, then continued in that realm professionally for the next 25 years. John spent his days designing logos, brochures, brands, and art…for other people. In the back of his mind, he thought, “Someday I’ll pursue my own art.”

‘Someday’ snuck up on him. While his wife of 25 years, Carla, and the grandkids were painting outside one afternoon, they invited John to join in. After some mumbling and grumbling, he grabbed a canvas and painted the first thing he saw outside: flowers.

It was fun.

Remember, John had limited experience creating in color; he was strictly an ink guy. This time, he decided to shake things up. After buying the best brushes, acrylic paints, and canvases he could find, he found a challenge for himself: to enter the annual 5×5 show at Tulsa’s TAC Gallery. The goal was to create a piece of art on a 5×5″ canvas. He used a different type of canvas than he was used to, and the paint wasn’t cooperating. In frustration, he ended up going wild with color, so the human form he painted wound up looking like a zombie, with green hair and yellow eyes. Figuring that it was no big deal, he entered the piece.

It sold the first night.

John had been nervous about color, afraid of his work being good. With the 5×5 show behind him, he embraced his new style. He began painted everything around him; he painted the Blue Whale, Tulsa’s Golden Driller, tchotchkes in his office. One day, while working on a rendering of an Akdar Shriner, he was having trouble matching the shiny gold of the Shriner emblem. John started splashing random colors on the canvas, and his style was born. Suddenly, John was free. As he says now, unapologetically, “This is how I paint.”

Shortly after, John took the leap; he gave up his freelance graphic design business and focused on his art full time. He created 10 pieces to make up his body of work, and Carla’s office had some empty space and allowed him to host a show, which he dubbed “The First One.” He sold a couple of pieces to friends and family. One year later, he landed a studio space in downtown Tulsa’s Hardesty Art Center. For two years, he thrived in the busy art center, surrounded by other working artists.

And now? Says John, “I haven’t stopped.”

The Hammers moved to Claremore 20 years ago, and now John works in his home studio. He has completed several shows, including one at The Circle Cinema featuring images inspired by The Big Lebowski and another with Wes Anderson films as the subjects. He designed the December 2016 cover of Tulsa’s Preview magazine. You can see his work on display at OSU-IT’s Student Union in Okmulgee. Also, the gorgeous ‘Mr. Rogers’ is at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore.

“My inspiration comes from my childhood, movies, locations, pets, and just about everything else. The beauty I find in not focusing on any particular subject is the challenge to paint something new and possibly out of my comfort zone. It’s with these challenges that I continue to grow as an artist.”

Much of John’s work can be found on his facebook page at Commissions are also accepted.


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