When asked if he’d be willing to sit for an interview, Jerald Pope had this to say: “What aspect of my pretty spectacular life will you be examining — writing and illustrating books? Cartooning? Painting? My years as a theater writer/director/designer/critic? Whitewater body surfer? Unitarian anvil salesman?”
In truth, he is a lot of these things, so we were off and running.
Pope describes where he grew up near Bartlesville, Oklahoma, as a windy cement-plant suburb of a tiny international oil town. “Think Leave it Beaver but less funny,” he says. His mother taught piano and his father was a draftsman for an oil company. His own creative side soon became apparent.
“In fifth grade, I drew and cut out little airplanes and boats and made complex war scenes on my desk. The teacher would sweep them up, destroying my little world like a matronly Godzilla.” To keep a closer eye on him, she moved his desk directly in front of hers (where he proceeded to draw pictures on the front of her desk). Not to be dissuaded, he took summer art classes and won three first prizes at the county fair. Those early successes led him to the University of Tulsa, where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.
He then stuck it out for a half semester of grad school until his advisor refused to regard his box constructions as sculpture. “To teach him a lesson, I quit school and plunged into theater,” says Pope. “I doubt he’s even now recovered.” He spent nearly three decades in theater, including 20 years with the Tulsa-based American Theatre Company, where he helped produce nearly a hundred plays, even appearing on stage occasionally. All the while, he adds, “I continued to paint and draw on the side, and sold a few paintings.”
Fast forward to 1999. He and his wife were doing long-term theater residencies around the South, during which time they developed a fondness for Asheville. “The shabby, desolate, funky one,” he points out. They ended up moving here — and then came 9/11. “Arts dollars were massively shifted to supporting military paranoia,” he recalls. He next became an adjunct professor, teaching mostly theater and humanities courses at a variety of schools — UNCA, Appalachian State, Montreat College, and Warren Wilson College.
All the while, he continued painting. “But,” he interjects, “a canvas might sit on the easel for years until one fevered night I would hack away at it, finishing at dawn, exhausted but triumphant.”
Books are also an important part of his résumé. He’s created five picture books, four coloring books, a novel, and a graphic novel. His nationally award-winning book, Fetch, was told in pictures only (black-and-white etchings with a splash of red). “Fetch,” he says, “organically wanted to be wordless.”
He followed this up with Owl Girl, also wordless, which he illustrated using Prismacolor pencils. The pictures tell the story of a young girl who wanders into a dark forest and is swept up by a giant owl that takes her to his nest, where she grows up as an owl. A young girl named Haddon spoke to Asheville Made about the book:“I really like how having no written words lets my imagination flow. I can change the voices and the story each time I read it.”
In addition to writing and illustrating books, Pope continues to draw and paint, and to make assemblages, an aspect of his art that he began in grad school 50 years ago. But, with the interview drawing to a close, any descriptions of his past work as a whitewater body surfer and anvil salesman will have to wait for another time.
Jerald Pope, Swannanoa. Pope’s books are available in Asheville at Mountain Made in the Grove Arcade (mtnmade.com), Malaprop’s Bookstore (malaprops.com), and New Morning Gallery (newmorninggallerync.com); and in Black Mountain at Chifferobe (chifferobehomeandgarden.com), Town Hardware & General Store (townhardware.com), and Sassafras on Sutton, sassafrasonsutton.com. His assemblages are for sale at Chifferobe and at the store’s booth at Marquee in the River Arts District (36 Foundy St., marqueeasheville.com). For more information, see harebrandideas.com.