James Soter – Confronting challenges in automotive minimalism
For automotive enthusiasts, Colin Chapman was more than a successful designer, engineer and industrialist. He was a philosopher and a visionary; a minimalist with influence at the cutting edge of progress. These characteristics extended to Chapman’s engineering and Lotus cars still thrive as functional manifestations of minimalism, best described by the founder’s quote: “Simplify. Then add lightness”.
Minimalism is an art movement that began in post–World War II western art, most strongly with American visual arts in the 1960s and early 1970s. Affected by this revolutionary new outlook to shapes, the automotive design discarded elements that had adorned legendary creations of the past and started focusing on pure forms. Representing a reductive process, which focuses on the essence, rather than dynamics, minimalism in the visual arts, is in sharp contrast to the energy-filled paintings of abstract expressionism.
In “piston-head terms”, the abstract expressionist’s work resembles bolting down a B-road. Everything moves faster than memory can capture; every gearshift changes the experience.
When the minimalist takes over, he gives the car a good scrub, places it in a gallery and dims the lights to the point where the identifiable characteristics of the desirable silhouette are just about visible. He then sits in a comfortable chair, as he takes in the visual stimulation of the undiluted lines forming the automotive body.
This still body is the subject matter for minimalist automotive artist James Soter. His impressive workshop in Burr Ridge, a suburb of Chicago IL is like a world-class motoring museum with canvas exhibits.
Black: Looking at all these paintings James, one gets the feeling you are unlikely to be found outside the walls of this workshop.
JS: No. It’s quite the opposite here. It’s important for me to be motivated and inspired by these machines. I grew up during a time, when the American car culture was near its end and thankfully I experienced it. Hot Rods, Street Rods, cruising nights, drag racing, burger joints that hosted car shows, drive-in theaters. We were all into modifying our cars, even brand-new ones. At high school, we used to go to the local drag strip over the weekend and would drive to school on Monday with the white chalk on the glass showing the results.
You could say that in the past we actually “lived” the automobile and it was so much a part of everyday life, that it had cultural extensions to it. My father did not escape from it either and was the perfect petrol-head role model for me. Leaving home, he would land at the port of Lisbon in Portugal and end up departing from the port of Piraeus in Greece for his return to the U.S., having toured most of Western Europe in his 1968 GTO.
Black: A bit of a drive that one! What are the challenges of turning this inspiration into a minimalistic work of art?
JS: Yes, the challenges! I do research on the subject. In order for me to be satisfied with my work I need to find the right lines. Very much like admiring artwork. In order to understand volumes, shades and how lines “flow”, you need to experience the visual stimulation first hand.
As part of doing commission work, I get invited over to factories, private garages or car dealerships to view certain models. I also sketch the subject over and over again, so that once I go on canvas, it will come out in a natural way. I obviously do quite a lot of reading and it’s then that the car becomes captivating. Often, my research focuses on the differences between American and European manufactures. The rebranding and exchange of design elements or features in different countries is something you don’t get to see, unless you travel extensively. I travel as much as I can and visit museums and motoring events to get close to some of the rare automobiles.
Black: Burr Ridge is “mega-mansion” territory and I was wondering how the environment influenced you as an artist.
JS: Yes, Burr Ridge evolved in the 80’s, but also hosted the Santa Fe Speedway. The race track is no longer there, but I am lucky to have memories from back then. Burr Ridge was home to many dreamers and makers and the sound of a stock broker’s 328 GTB, coming home in a quiet afternoon, still rings in my ears.
The GTB, a Porsche 930 and a red Lamborghini LM002 have left a mark and I dare say that those cars are still an important influence for me. My neighborhood is a special place, where it is legally permitted – and quite normal – to have a 5-6 car garage. I remember someone of German descent, who owned two Carrera’s, both of which he raced. Next to them in the garage, he had a lift to fit everything himself, his tools and his wife’s car.
Black: What about your garage?
JS: We lived on an estate with over 2 acres of land and had a building, where my father had his workshop and car collection.
His personal car was a Mercedes Benz W114 in Dark Green and saddle leather interior. The smell of that interior is still with me. It was a pleasure when he drove us to school. Every time I see a W114 it just puts a grin on my face. My father had a small car collection that included a 1929 Ford Woody.
Black: Was your dad professionally involved with cars?
JS: He was a furniture designer and spent his youth in Europe as a master carpenter. He wanted me to experience drafting and architecture, so I was getting private tuition by art professors. One day, he brought a professional drafting table, placed it in the family room and said: “This is yours”! As a child I would draw up sketches and do model clays and throughout my high school years I would dream up my own models, aspiring to become a car designer. My mother would take me to the library very often. I loved reading articles on future technological infrastructure and vehicles in the Popular Science Magazine. My favorite book, one that I constantly checked out was The Buffy-Porson, A Car You Can Build and Drive by Peter and Mike Stevenson. It had a story line based on a kid building a wooden car, while showing the step by step instructions with cutting patterns. This encouraged me to build a car body out of wood and aluminum at the age of 8 in father’s workshop. Having this space available at that age gave me freedom to create. It was a great period of my life. I eventually became my father’s apprentice learning everything in the construction trade after that.
Black: I know you have also studied art in college. What was your experience from this transition from the hands on, practical, day-to-day creativity of the environment you grew up in, to the academic one?
JS: I’ve studied various forms of art from commercial, graphic, sculpturing, even theatrical design, costume and screenplay. Drafting played a key role for me and I enjoy working with a simple pencil, despite spending most of my time with CAD and graphic art. This transition wouldn’t have been possible without some great teachers and professors. With their influence, all this hands on experience and education of principle in art and design just came together.
Black: Have you ever become the recipient of criticism regarding your art?
JS: Of course, but it came from artists trying to mark their own path, rather than someone of wider acceptance. In art, there are always plenty of opinions and remarks. You learn to live with it. Sometimes you may feel “limited” in this type of environment, especially if you are confronted with a thought-barrier and this can hold you back. While studying art you also study the artists. You try to understand the world around them during the period they lived in and come to interesting conclusions regarding their creativity.
Black: Would you say someone in particular was a great influence for you?
JS: The list is a long one. The most famous ones are Frank Stella and Jacques Villon, but others that have also had an impact on me in many ways. For example Alekos Fassianos, Yiannis Moralis and Georgios Lazogkas. The latter three are not as well known to the general public, but they have been highly acknowledged for their unique artistic approach and their commissioned work.
Black: Is time off beneficial for an artist or is it a distraction?
JS: It depends. Taking time off and doing repetitive work with no insight, no deeper meaning, perhaps is time not well spent, but if you are creative in a different way, this experience makes you and consequently your art more “mature”. When I take time off, it is due to the fact that I have other fulfillments to attend to, but coming back to my work, I feel my art has developed further in this process.
I am constantly thinking of art subjects, patterns or materials that I can put together. I do a lot of sketching and save all my material and subjects for future use. Very often, I bring back quite a few sketches from my travels.
Black: Minimalism has got to be a “dangerous path” to universal acknowledgement as an automotive artist. Motoring enthusiasts adore the iconic shapes and unmistakable lines…and your lines are somewhat vague. Why didn’t you choose realism or abstract expressionism as the “vehicle” to deliver your inspiration?
JS: I am not trying to copy an image. If I wanted realism I could capture an image with a camera, thus I would have chosen to become a photographer or a graphic artist. What I am doing is taking it further away and distorting it, maybe in another eccentric shape. Many lines can be found on an automobile, but what I enjoy doing is use one or two lines that create the image and the rest of them create the energy. My vision in art is to generate a sketch and have two or three different conceptions of the subject, depending on the energy flow I want to portray.
Art to me is not about replicating, but more about stimulating; giving the viewer the opportunity to enter a new dimension and occupy the mind for a moment or two. I find this immensely satisfying!
Black: Is minimalism an attitude towards life in general or is it reserved for your art?
JS: You could also say I favour minimalism, because having Spartan blood from both my parents, it’s in my DNA. I am a minimalist in art; in life…”laconic” may be the term that best describes both my upbringing in the Christian Orthodox community and my existence.
Black: What is your laconic definition of laconism?
JS: Simple, strict and straightforward, yet strong and bold, having a full meaning, without the unnecessary.
Black: What is characteristic about the people who appreciate your art and their living spaces?
JS: They are motoring enthusiasts with a remarkable passion for design and function. Their quest is for unique items and this extends far beyond their collection of cars and artwork.
They have managed to create living spaces for themselves and the ones they love, with elements that reflect aspects of their character and drive.
Black: Which one is your favourite automotive era?
JS: The Art Deco cars from the 30’s and 40’s. The 1938 Hispano Suiza H6B Dubonnet Xenia Coupe is a favourite piece of “rolling art”. The 1934 Ford Model 40 Special Speedster is something that fascinates me. Here we have an American manufacturer in a small Barchetta style, but unfortunately the US never saw something as beautiful, until the introduction of the Corvette and in later years with the concept cars. The 1939 Rolls-Royce Phantom III Labourdette Vutotal cabriolet has a very imposing presence that captivates me.
Black: What car are you driving?
JS: A 1971 Mustang Mach1 351M in pewter and white interior. I’ve had it since my high school years in 1991 and it has been my second classic, with my 1969 GTO being the first.
Black: Any regrets during ownership?
JS: The mistake I made with the GTO was that I had it fully restored and it lost its original smell, which is something I savoured. The Mach1 was fully restored early in my ownership, so it always felt like new and it has been a daily driver since. Due to its color its looks like a British tourer, rather than an American muscle car.
Black: Still, it is hardly a “minimalist” car…
JS: I do own a Porsche in Europe, where I also reside, to make up for it.
Black: Which is your favorite modern car and which one would you like for your classic collection?
JS: The Mercedes-Maybach G 650 Landaulet would be my first choice as the modern car.
There are many classics in my wish-list, but the one that stands out is the 1957 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa…mostly because of the price.
Black: Your work is already becoming noticed globally and the commercial result must be very rewarding indeed. What is the reward you are pursuing as an automotive artist and what is your vision of the future?
JS: The reward is always to be creative in new and exciting ways that others can appreciate and enjoy as much as I do. Following this path, my vision of the future is one of “confronting” challenges imposed equally by myself and the art world.
As the automotive industry focuses on global issues, confronting challenges will become fundamental in developing better cars and a brighter future for our planet. Chapman’s principles combined with minimalistic aesthetics are gaining ground. New “spartan” designs from established manufacturers shape the trend of things to come and under this light, the work of James Soter becomes now, more current than ever.
To learn more about James Soter, catch up with his latest work and discuss a new project you can follow the links