Jean Opperman From Nowhere to Somewhere, Yes is the Answer
Jean Opperman From Nowhere to Somewhere, Yes is the Answer | Foto: Jean Opperman From Nowhere to Somewhere, Yes is the Answer

Jean Opperman From Nowhere to Somewhere, Yes is the Answer

Por: Diego Cerón

20, December, 2022 en Luxury Trending

Jean Opperman
From Nowhere to Somewhere, Yes is the Answer

By Heide VanDoren Betz

Jean Opperman is an innovative educator with 35 years of experience teaching drawing. She developed a drawing curriculum for the Fashion Design Program at CCA (California College of the Arts). In addition, for the past 25 years, she taught drawing classes for the pre-college, first year, Fashion Design and Illustration Programs continuing as a teacher, academic advisor, and chair of the program.

This December, Jean will retire after 29 years encouraging, inspiring, and instructing hundreds of students in the fine art of the line. She will however continue her figurative work and managing the business aspect of artist, Gustavo Rivera’s (see Business Concept Magazine, July 2022) career.

Jean Opperman From Nowhere to Somewhere, Yes is the Answer
Jean Opperman From Nowhere to Somewhere, Yes is the Answer

Heide Betz: Tell us about your background, your family. Where did you grow up?

Jean Opperman: I grew up in Poplar Bluff, MO. It was a sweet little southern/midwestern hillbilly town very close to Arkansas. Main Street from the train depot to the cemetery two miles away was hand laid red bricks, lined with big oak, and flowering poplar trees. My father, a city slicker from St. Louis opened a flower shop about a block from the courthouse. We lived next door.

Poplar Bluff was a great place to grow up as a white person. In the public schools, I was educated by capable dedicated teachers who were southern intellectuals and mostly provincial malcontents. My knowledge of American and English literature generally surpassed any from my boarding school friends. After being awarded a full scholarship to Stephens College in 1968, I left my hometown excitedly, my eye was on California.

HB: When did you come to California?

JO: When I graduated in 1972, I escaped Missouri for San Francisco; I came here, as so many did, with an empty wallet and a boxcar of dreams. The dream of seriously dancing was suddenly a possibility. Dance was everywhere in San Francisco in the ‘70s. I found a dance studio and soon took 10 classes a week in ballet and modern dance. I was a quick study and groomed for the studio company. Then I broke my foot in a Graham class the week of auditions.

HB: Did this accident lead you to another path?

JO: Yes, one dream deferred would be another realized. I started taking art classes at an art school. I met mentors who fostered me as a teacher in classical drawing and encouraged me to get my MFA. And somehow, I was able to broker my lifelong love of drawing into a 30-year career.

Jean Opperman From Nowhere to Somewhere, Yes is the Answer
Jean Opperman From Nowhere to Somewhere, Yes is the Answer

HB: tell us about your early career, your first teaching job.

JO: My first teaching job was at Cañada College in Redwood City in 1985. I then taught at the Academy of Art, San Francisco, for a few years. A job teaching fashion illustration in the Pre-College program at CCA(C) opened. I didn’t know anything about fashion illustration, but I loved clothes and I had taught classical figure drawing so by the time the class started I had taught myself enough about teaching fashion illustration to stay at least one lesson ahead of my students. By the end of the summer, the chair of the new Fashion Design Program at CCA(C) hired me to develop the drawing curriculum for the new program.

HB: Did anyone influenced your path as an educator?

JO: My father did, he could draw. He could also dance and play the piano. He ushered me into my first painting class when I was eight. The other students were in high school. He put up a fuss to get me in the class. Then he framed my murky little landscape and hung it in his flower shop. A year later, he died from cancer. Everything art related I’ve ever done holds him.

Casey Fitzsimons, was my first serious drawing teacher. If it weren’t for her I’d never pursued teaching. She also took me to see Whoopie Goldberg right before she became a big deal. Fred Holle and Karl Jensen, both brilliant teachers from my MFA time influence my path. Many educators have given me their passion and love for their subject. Passion, humor, knowledge, performance, and humanity are the marks of an effective teacher. Watching them taught me how to teach.

HB: Which artists influenced you in your art?

JO: Artists who influence me are too many to name; I’ve always respected and admired the work of Kim Frohsin, my friend, Barbara Ravizza. My partner, Gustavo Ramos Rivera is a steady influence on me. His work couldn’t be more different, but his discipline, dedication, and joy in the process are a constant source of inspiration to me.

HB: Have you always taught only drawing and fashion design, or have you worked in other fields?

JO: The thought of being an 8 to 5-er, five days a week in an office in panty hose, made my blood run cold, always. So, I painted Victorians in San Francisco for about 5 years. I also waited tables in more restaurants than I can name. Then, I actually decided making money was important, so I got my Series 6 license and sold mutual funds as 401(k)s. My timing was unfortunate, 2001 and 9/11 was not beneficial to the financial world. Even more unfortunate was my soul pounding on the hermetically sealed windows on the 22 floor to get out of there every day.

Jean Opperman From Nowhere to Somewhere, Yes is the Answer
Jean Opperman From Nowhere to Somewhere, Yes is the Answer

HB: How did your teaching career progress?

JO: By the time the summer pre-college sessions were over, I knew I had found “my people” at this school. At that point, I wedged my foot firmly in the door of the CCA and never took it out.

Over my time at CCA, I’ve taught drawing in Fashion Design, Illustration, Foundations, and Animation. I was the assistant chair, co-chair, and interim chair of Fashion Design for about 15 years before I joined the Illustration Program. I traveled with Enrollment Services doing portfolio reviews and occasional presentations. I was the Academic Advisor for Fashion. I went from a lecturer to a full time ranked renewable professor who had chaired a program. Anytime there was a job that needed to be done, I volunteered. Every time I was asked to do anything, I showed up early and stayed late. I worked my way up the ranks.

HB: What do you find most rewarding about being an educator?

JO: Taking students from nowhere to somewhere in their ability to draw observationally never fails to excite me. As does their excitement about improving. At CCA, I also walk the halls with the amazing talent and quiet excellence of our brilliant faculty; many are world-renowned in their fields. I have been honored to be in their company.

HB: What do you find most challenging in working with students?

JO: The disparity in readiness to work hard for a goal is a challenge. Many students now simply are not ready in terms of maturity and organization skills to focus on a serious course of study. I am a huge proponent of at least one gap year between high school and college. Lack of intellectual curiosity and the willingness to dig deep when learning becomes challenging becomes more apparent each year. I am dismayed by that.

HB: Can you tell us some anecdotes of how you influenced certain students to their career path?

JO: No, I’m a small cog in their educational wheel.

HB: You, the artist: What motivates you to paint or draw? Can you tell us a bit about your process?

JO: I can’t recall a time I haven’t wanted to draw and paint. There have been times in my life I did not do any artwork because life intervened. Family, illness, need for money, but it’s always lurking on the horizon–the “holy grail” I am compelled to search for. That sounds lofty and a little pretentious. Truth is, if I don’t find a way to get work down on paper or canvas, it eventually it makes me sick; if I want to feel whole, I find a way to do some work.

HB: Tell us about your recent, stunning Ballerina series.

JO: Dancing loomed large for my dream search when I arrived in San Francisco. I’ve always loved all things dance. Especially now, when the news is frightening, fascism is rearing its ugly face in too many places. Civility is harder and harder to come by, hatred is courted not shunned by too many people in power; I find the perfect beauty of the dance to be a balm.

Jean Opperman From Nowhere to Somewhere, Yes is the Answer
Jean Opperman From Nowhere to Somewhere, Yes is the Answer

HB: Your medium of preference?

JO: I am finding the mixing of charcoal drawing and acrylic paint in this series to be extremely gratifying. It’s a lovely little world of dance on the canvas and I have total control of what fills it, which makes me very happy.

HB: You have been working and sharing a studio with artist Gustavo Rivera (see feature about Artist Gustavo Rivera in Business Concept, July 2022). How long have you worked together?

JO: I met Gustavo 13 years ago. We’ve been working together for the past 9 years. Our working relationship is very organic; it started gradually about ten years ago when I saw Gustavo missing opportunities as art became more digitized. It was a skill I had that he didn’t, so I started to help him. For the past eight years, I’ve handled all aspects of his business life.

HB: What is the most challenging aspect of handling an artist’s career?

JO: The most challenging aspect of handling an artist’s career is the artist. Gustavo still wants to live in a world that existed when life was based on the trust of a handshake, galleries handled all things PR, and computers didn’t matter too much. The most frustrating aspect of working with Gustavo is his lack of desire to live in the “modern” world. This means that time kept is not by the clock or the calendar but is always on “Gustavo time”. While sometimes charming, it’s also maddening because the world keeps moving faster even as he refuses to.

HB: What is most rewarding about your collaboration?

JO: The most rewarding is the spillover of his joy in life. Everyday moments become special because he sees them all as a beautiful blessing. I’m a worrier who is always in a hurry; it’s been very good for me to learn to slow down and enjoy life’s simple pleasures in a deeper way.

I’ve learned a lot from Gustavo. He is a visual genius and the most knowledgeable person I’ve ever met–knowledgeable about the world of art, architecture, and literature concerning art throughout history. This is all the more impressive because his formal education stopped after the 6th grade. He is the true definition of a self-educated man. I think this has been to his advantage because his vision has not been influenced by preconceived, dogmatic ideas about art. There is a purity to his curiosity and expression, many formally educated people lack.

HB: How do you keep your creative juices flowing while teaching and handling another artist’s work?

JO: Mostly, I don’t very well. That’s why I’m so happy to retire. I want more time for my work. One of the only things I do to keep my hand nimble is to draw from the model in group sessions when possible. But the logistics is not always easy. During the pandemic, I discovered Zoom model drawing. That was a lifeline I still hold onto–less time consuming than joining a group and you can do it in your pajamas.

Jean Opperman From Nowhere to Somewhere, Yes is the Answer
Jean Opperman
From Nowhere to Somewhere, Yes is the Answer

HB: Do you have a work routine?

JO: When Gustavo is in Mexico, which happens 2-3x a year, I work in his studio. So I try to go at least 4-5 days a week to paint when he is gone. Honestly, it’s much harder when he’s here, but I now have a corner of his studio and I’m working here with him most days when I don’t teach.

HB: What type of drawing or painting gives you the most pleasure, a feeling of accomplishment?

JO: Working directly with a model and doing large gesture work with a brush makes me high as a kite when it’s going well. I feel like everything stacks up just right when I’m working steadily. My shoulders or knees may ache from over use, but I don’t notice it. And my mind, while busy, eases. Painting makes me feel like I am having coffee in a lovely flat in Paris with windows that reach the ceiling. Darkness may still be in the corners but the rest of the room is flooded with that brilliant Paris light.

HB: Of all your creative work, do you have a favorite, one you are most proud of?

JO: Yes, I love this new series of dancers. There are several of my large ink wash gestures I like a lot. The Female Gaze, acrylic 40×30” painting that was in the DeYoung digital show of work honoring Alice Neel’s exhibit is a favorite.

HB: Which artist(s) in history do you admire and why?

JO: Degas, which needs no explanation. Rembrandt, the light out of darkness and the humanity is exquisite. Caravaggio’s works burst off the canvas like 21st century cinematography, the power and innovation are intoxicating. Vermeer, perfect in silence of the moment. Whistler, the greys. Alice Neel, pulls the soul out of her subjects’ eyes and smears it on the canvas with a brush. David Park, his commitment to texture and immediacy, the compositions are brilliant. I could list dozens more.

HB: Where are you completely at ease, comfortable, where is your “happy place”?

JO: The Beach, always. And Paris. If there is a St. Peter, I hope to be good enough for him to give me the choice between Heaven and Paris so I can choose Paris.

HB: You have led such an interesting, busy, creative, and full life experiencing hardship and joy. What’s the secret?

JO: I’ve taught at CCA for the past 30 years and will retire as a full time professor in August. When I think of how fortunate I am to have had a life surrounded by art, artists, educators, and makers, I have to pinch myself. This was not, however, dumb luck, although that played a part. I sacrificed. A lot. For a long time I lived with no health insurance, no car, living in a studio apartment raising my son as a single mom. Sometimes I worked three part time jobs, and taught. Sometimes I had a full time job and still I taught at least one class a semester and one in the summer. I showed up. I said yes. I made myself indispensable. Maybe that’s the secret.

HB: Do you have a motto in life?

JO: There is a quote I quite like from Martha Graham: “Without discipline there is no freedom”; “When in doubt, lead with kindness”; and “Fake it till you make it.” The motto of the single mom. I took chances that scared me to death because I needed the job.