Local artist George Pappas sits on a leather couch in his in-home Sarasota studio, where he talks about his long career and receiving the “Ageless Creativity” award from the Longboat Key Center for the Arts, a Division of Ringling College of Art and Design.
The tall, thin man is wearing an athletic partial zip-up, jeans and what look to be suede shoes; and, aside from faint traces of paint on his shoes — he doesn’t look like the typical disheveled artist.
In fact, Pappas looks like an off-the-clock dentist — a career he could have had. But after two years of pursuing a degree at Norwich University in Vermont, he dropped out to pursue a more colorful career — although, he did eventually become “Dr. Pappas.”
He studied art at a small art school, then he continued his arts-related education with a master’s from Harvard and Ph.D. from Penn State.
Pappas jokes that the “Ageless Creativity” award is something they give to “some old guy.” But he’s pleased that this year he’s that 83-year-old guy.
He received the award Oct. 12, at the Longboat Key Center for the Arts. The award coincided with the opening for his exhibit of paintings from his last 20 years of work. He’s been painting for 60-plus years.
His work is a mixture of abstract with realism and traces of Byzantine, and it’s mostly large-scale.
Pappas wishes his studio were bigger so he would have more storage for his work. His current studio is slightly smaller than a two-car garage, with taller ceilings. And, he likes to sit in a desk chair near the middle of the room so he can look at the three-to-four projects he’s working on at one time.
He likes to work after he hits up Coffee Carousel and the grocery store and maybe cooks a meal, which he does frequently. And, he sometimes works with a game on — he’s a Boston Redsox and New England Patriots fan.
Pappas’ work is bold, bright and attention-grabbing; which is contrary to his personality. He’s just a normal guy — married for 47 years, with two children, two grandchildren and a fruitful career.
Pappas’ father was a Greek orthodox priest, and growing up in a church full of religious icons and gold leaf clearly influenced his work. He’s not only of Greek heritage, but is inspired by Greek mythology, archeological sites and literature. So much so, that the opening reception for the exhibit at the Arts Center was catered with Greek food.
“We’ve been to Greece a lot of times. I took two sabbatical leaves in Athens and also two sabbatical leaves in London,” he says of the time he spent abroad with his wife, Sarah.
But his work is modern for having such a strong Greek influence. His style is abstract, something Pappas picked up from his mentor, Gyorgy Kepes.
As a late 20-something, Pappas was studying art history at Harvard but was also taking studio classes at MIT, because Harvard didn’t offer them. Pappas took Kepes’ painting class for a year-and-a-half, met with him every week for critiques, and they’d visit galleries and museums together.
“He was an abstract painter, so that interested me a lot. My first painting show was devoted to abstract images,” Pappas says.
From there, he had a few solo shows that were encouraging.
“I had in the back of my mind that I’d like to be an art professor,” he says. So, Pappas got into teaching. First, for a year at a public school, then at Northern Iowa University and, then, at Penn State for eight years.
Joe Paterno used to bring his students into the art department.
“We’d go out to lunch every once and a while,” Pappas says.
He moved in 1966 to Florida and taught at the University of South Florida for 27 years; he spent 10 years as the chairman of the art department. Pappas retired from USF in 1993.
“And I’ve been retired since then,” he says.
His biggest honor was in 2011, when Ringling Museum acquired one of his works, “Double Trouble,” for its permanent collection. You can also find his work at Allyn Gallup Contemporary Art. But he’s pleased to be getting the “Ageless Creativity” award, even if it is because, as he says, “he’s old.”
“If ya hang around long enough, something good will happen to you,” he says with a smile.
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