An Interview with Videographer John Thornton

John Thornton filming the David Stephens show at the Center for Art in Wood 
(photo credit Willie Williams)

John Thornton has a wide range of artistic talents and enthusiasms, and for the past seven years has been concentrating on filmmaking. His many films on Philadelphia area artists provide a fascinating and sympathetic glimpse into their life's work, and have become an essential part of the city's artistic culture.  John resists what he calls the "talking head" style of many documentary films, and keeps things lively, concise, inventive, and often very amusing. 

In this interview John talks about his various artistic pursuits leading up to filmmaking, explains why he is so attracted to making films about artists, and mentions some of his personal favorites. 

TD: What is the easiest way for someone to find your films?

JT: Visit youtube.com/RustyScupperton. If specifically you want my artist film playlists, google
Artists@Philadelphia-No.2 or Artists@Philadelphia-No.1.

TD: Your YouTube videos are on what you call the “Rusty Scupperton” Network. Can you explain how you chose that name?

JT: Back in 2008 when Hillary and Barack were dueling it out for the Republican nomination, I came up with a fictitious alternative candidate. Square jawed Rusty Scupperton, mayor of Scupperton Falls, Ohio, is a brilliant scientist and far more liberal than either Hillary or Barack. His “STR” (soak the rich) tax plan would have really benefited our country if it had been implemented after his election.

TD: Your “Rusty Scupperton Network” has your films on the different subjects of artists and art, philosophical musings, jazz and nature. Is one genre emphasized more than the others?

JT: My major goal over the past almost 7 years has been to document as many of the very talented artists with connections to Philadelphia as I could. It seems like this is an ambition which will take many many years to fulfill and I am enjoying the process immensely.

TD: You’ve led a complex and often shifting artistic life since attending the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the late 70s and early 80s, but began as a math major at the University of North Carolina. As a high school student, were you interested in both math and painting?

JT: I didn’t get interested in art at all until seeing an article in Time Magazine my sophomore year at UNC. There was an article about Wassily Kandinsky and the reproduction of one of his geometric abstractions changed my life. That very day I found a local art store in the Yellow Pages and started doing watercolor and pen geometric abstractions.

TD: What led you to decide to attend PAFA?

JT: I was living in North Carolina after graduating with a math degree doing menial labor and fooling around with art. Since I was a graduate, I figured I was owed a little free art instruction and went to the art building one day with some of my stuff. I saw a man who looked like an artist and asked him if he was a professor and would he look at my stuff. The man was the artist Moe Brooker and turned out to be incredibly encouraging and generous to me. Eventually I asked him about art schools and he told me how much he loved his alma mater, The Pennsylvania Academy in Philadelphia. By the way, one of my favorite movies that I have ever made is about Moe, and I remain deeply grateful to him for playing such an important role in my life.

TD: Upon graduation from PAFA, your work consisted mainly of sensitively rendered, linearly based straight forward portraiture as well as bold, jazzy still lifes with arresting and sometimes funny juxtapositions of odd objects. How long did you continue to work in these two veins, and when did you begin your hauntingly ambiguous narrative paintings?

JT: A lot of artists, once they find their voice, then proceed, for the rest of their lives, to refine that singular vision. I have followed a different pattern, which is a kind of stylistic serial monogamy. I will be very committed to a particular creative approach for about seven years but when it feels played out, I will make an abrupt change.

Portrait of Nancy oil on canvas 1979

Still life with Guitar and Artist’s Mannequin oil on canvas 1990

In painting, I went from fairly traditional realism, of which my painting of my future wife Nancy is a good example, to my Cubist inspired still lives, to a series of ironic “crime paintings” that were a result of the very scary life altering experience of Nancy and I being held up by men with a gun. We were living in Philadelphia in the 80’s and 90’s and first our car was stolen, then our house was burglarized and finally we were held up. After that, I wanted to start painting about human life. The abstract design approach of my Cubist still lives seemed less important to me.

Give it Up! 1994

I must say these “crime paintings” were meant to be somewhat humorous and ironic. Often I played the part of both victim and perpetrator. Even the scale was meant to be non-heroic. I was thinking about Tom Stoppard’s great play, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”. My characters are cowardly, sometimes creepy nebbishes.There is one painting where a middle aged man is caught attempting sex on the lawn of Mount Vernon and being jeered at by tourists. I am the creep and also one of those mocking him.

Incident at Mount Vernon oil on canvas 1994

Working Out oil on canvas 1994

Then I switched from painting altogether and created custom software for my own exclusive use. This software allowed me to make digital animations and abstractions that I think Kandinsky himself might even have found interesting.

This was after years of painting the “crime paintings”. I was visiting my twin brother in Western Pennsylvania and we were playing water volley ball. We both went up for a shot and collided and I got an extremely bruised rib that put painting out of the question for a month. I had been fooling around with computer programming at the school where I taught and decided to use my recovery time to explore making art with code. It turned out to re-awaken my love of mathematical reasoning which had been dormant for years. I became obsessed and did this code writing for about 7 years pretty much getting away from painting.

Lingo Print #78  digital image 2002

JS Print #47 digital image 2014

Next I did a series of digital images, the "Art History Insertions” in which I Photoshopped myself into old mostly mediocre paintings from previous centuries and a series of satiric posters based on the Bible.

The Artist with his Wet Nurse 2005

Judgement Confounded by Beauty digital image 2005

Bible Studier’s Digest: The Lineage of Judah digital image 2006

TD: When did you first begin making films and posting them online? Did you have a favorite subject in the beginning?

JT: About 7 years ago, my friend the wonderful artist Fred Danziger came in to the school where we were both teaching and showed me a little movie he made and put on YouTube. “How did you do that?”, I asked. “There’s a free program that you probably have on your computer, Windows Moviemaker. It’s easy, you can figure it out”, Fred replied. And I did. My early movies are really awful but I kept at it, took a course to learn how to edit in Final Cut, and hopefully have improved with time. By the way, I am not feeling the 7 year urge to switch, I think that filmmaking will be my thing for the duration.

My early films were often quite silly and I fooled around with playing different characters. I had a female character named Libby Ellen Spooner who was a very earnest Sorbonne educated intellectual who was quite liberal. Then there was a right wing Southern redneck named Jimmy Boogar who thought he was irresistible to women. They debate Gay marriage in one of my early, flawed movies.

TD: Did you start out watching other films on art and artists online?

JT: Not really. At first I just had so many friends whose work I admired and I thought it would be fun to talk to them and showcase their work. Making films about artists seemed ideal because having been an artist for so long, I understood what the artistic process is like and also the issuers of the creative life, things like money, rejection, reputation, and meaning that artists have to grapple with.

TD: How do you choose an artist for the subject of a film?

JT: At first I would just call up friends or go to their gallery openings. Eventually I got a wonderful patron. Richard Rosenfeld, a wise and very nice man, liked what I was doing and hired me to make movies about the artists that had shows at his Rosenfeld Gallery in Old City Philadelphia. I have been making films for him since September of 2009. Later I got hired to make films for Chris Schmidt of the Schmidt Dean Gallery. I also have made movies for Swarthmore College’s List Gallery, the Center for Art in Wood in Old City, the Maryland Institute College of Art, and the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown. Sometimes artists contact me. And I still contact people whose work I would love to document. A wonderful PAFA alum named Vincent Desiderio had a show at Marlborough Gallery and I contacted him and asked if I could make a movie about him because I feel he is so important. And I ended up spending a lovely afternoon with a terrific painter in one of the best galleries in the world.

And it’s not just visual artists that I am interested in filming. One movie I am planning to work on this summer is about Larry McKenna, one of the world’s leading jazz saxophonists. I met him because he and my wife Nancy taught together at Community College of Philadelphia.

TD: Does anyone ever say no? Does anyone ever seem painfully shy with a camera aimed at them?

JT: There are people who are very shy but amazingly, I have had very few problems. I think artists realize that I am deeply sympathetic. I do not see myself as a critic, I want artists to have the opportunity to explain what they are trying to do. Just as my paintings tend to be executed in a fairly meticulous and rendered manner, I try to use what is known as “Classical editing” in my movies. No jump cuts, I am not very flashy with the camera or graphics. And I pride myself on editing the audio of what artists say to make it as clear as possible. I get rid of verbal tics, “umms, ahhs, you knows, basicallys”, things people say to fill time when they are thinking. The point is that I tell artists to just ramble on and I will make them sound like a college professor. I really try to my best to make them feel relaxed.

One other thing is that I hate movies about art that waste time showing the talking heads. I mostly show the art and speaking is generally in voiceover. The person pops up in my movie like a prairie dog, just long enough so you know who is talking and then back to what I want to look at, the art.

TD: How do you prepare for a film on an artist? 

JT: I used to write out questions but I realize they know a lot more about what they think is important than I do. I tend to REALLY like my fellow artists, maybe that comes across. So I just get them to start talking and then react to that. It has taken me a while, but I have finally learned to not interject very frequently, giving people time, eventually the good stuff comes out. One of my favorite recent films is one I did on Vincent Desiderio. At some point Vince he breaks into this very funny and poignant memory of coming into his parents’ bedroom when he was a drunken college student.

TD: Many of your films are really funny, although the ones that feature artists tend to be more serious. Do you sometimes have to tamp down a humorous idea?

JT: Yes. But sometimes I can’t help myself. In my movie about Vince, I actually ended up parodying that really funny poignant story he told. I try not to censor myself too much.

TD: Which is the more attractive scenario for you, to make a film about a relatively unknown but deserving artist, or to be able to meet and interview an artist you are fascinated by, but who is widely known?

JT: One of the great things about making these films is seeing such a huge variety of artistic approaches. I think I have always been pretty open minded about art and love looking at good art regardless of style. Reputation means less to me than the quality of the work and the two are not the same thing. I love meeting new artists whose work is good and whether they are “famous” or not is immaterial.

TD: How do you choose the music? Have you run into issues with getting the proper permissions?

JT: That is something that I am really struggling with right now. I have a big iTunes library of all sorts of music that I love to use in my films, most of which is copyrighted. YouTube catches any use of copyrighted music through their Content ID system. There is a bit of a wink and nod about YouTubers doing this. What happens usually is the music is allowed to stay and YouTube puts ads at the bottom of the screen. Since the viewer can easily close these ads and because I know I am using somebody’s music in my movie, I don’t mind these ads at all. But, increasingly, these movies with copyrighted music will only play on computers, not mobile devices like phones and iPads. And there is always the chance the movie will be taken down altogether. The worst case scenario is that I could lose my YouTube account altogether. But sometimes certain music seems so perfect I take the risk. In my movie about Vince I use Radiohead and I can’t imaging my movie without that music in it.

I have hired musicians and paid for music and used this for instance in the films I did for Michener because I don’t want them being connected to copyright problems. But because even when I am paid for my movies it’s not very much money, I can’t afford to pay a lot. I really envy painter/ filmmaker David Shevlino because he’s a great musician and can make his own music!

TD: Say you have a couple of hours of film that needs to be edited down to 7 minutes. Do you write some kind of an outline first to help you organize the information?

JT: I have tried both the “carving” and building” approaches to making movies. Recently, I work with the voice recordings first and try to work out the entire story as if it were an audio only production. Sometimes I intercut the artist’s voice with my own telescoping narration. Once the story is laid out this way, I take it into Final Cut Pro X and overlay the imagery. I try to show what the person is talking about. At this point I may space the voices so that it’s not a constant barrage of talking and finally add some music.

Sometimes just using the best soundbites and more music expresses the artist’s vision better. I did a movie in 2011 about a wonderful artist at the Schmidt Dean Gallery, Dean Dass.

I only had a few minutes to talk to him. To my lasting credit I asked him what he listens to when he paints and he told me about Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports”. His couple of soundbites and that music tells the whole story of his lovely work.

TD: Name a few of your films about visual artists that you are especially pleased with.

JT: In addition to the ones already mentioned (Moe Brooker, Vincent Desiderio, Dean Dass) here are a couple:

And here is a new one, in which one of my favorite artists explains his technique of making a landscape with encaustic paint. This is definitely in the “how to” category, a master of an unusual medium. This film is going to be one section of a longer and more in depth look at this wonderful artist.

TD: If someone wants to sample one or two of your humorous films, where should they go?

JT: Here are a couple:

click here to watch 
(I love collaborating with my grandkids!)

TD: Your filmmaking venture seems to fit you so well. I think of you as someone who is passionate about the arts, enthusiastic about meeting new artists, open-minded about different approaches to painting and sculpture, and curious about new technology. You are very sociable. Not only all this, but you are so good at intelligently choosing and shaping information to give a lucidly clear impression of your subject. Do you feel that working on your own paintings fits you as well?

JT: I have pretty much made the switch from painting to filmmaking. So many people, especially in the early days of my making movies, told me I was nuts but I just love what I do now. For me filmmaking is like collage, you have all these elements, moving pictures, stills, voices, music, text and titles that you have to arrange into something meaningful. It involves writing, filming, photography, editing, and is endlessly fascinating. I cannot imagine ever getting tired of this. And unlike painting which is extremely solitary except for maybe an art opening every three years or so, the filming part is very social. I have met hundreds of people and been introduced to all sorts of wonderful art because of filmmaking. And I don’t worry about being the next Fellini, I hope that I am improving but I do what I do because of the pleasure and challenge I get from the process.

TD: Do you still paint and draw?

JT: Not for a while now.

TD: I have a theory that probably most artists share, that you need to have a pretty healthy ego to make it as an artist. What is it like for your ego, for an artist like you to put your focus on other artists? Your films are works of art in themselves, of course, but what is this experience like?

JT: I do see making my movies as a creative act. I used to experience tons of jealousy and envy when I was a painter. That has gone away. I don’t know a lot of other people who concentrate on making movies about artists, but there is one young guy named Frank Weiss who is very very good. His movies are beautifully made and you can see some on the ArtC website http://www.artcnow.com . The one advantage I may have is that having been a painter, I have a different understanding of the art life and can bring that to bear when talking to artists.

TD: Do you ever worry about getting to the bottom of the bucket as far as finding new and interesting artists to interview?

JT: Never! I am 61 and will be in the ground long before I finish my series on Philadelphia liked artists. Plus with all the art schools in the area, more artists are emerging every year.

TD: What is a typical day like for you?

JT: Some days I have filming gigs but most days it is:
Wake up/ coffee, oatmeal and Philadelphia Inquirer with Nancy/ go up and edit until lunch/ back up to edit until time to jog/ beer on deck watching the sunset over the wetlands/ dinner with Nancy/ watch TV, read and bed.

TD: What are you working on now, and what do you hope to work on in the coming year?

JT: I have an open ended film about the designer Paul Evans for the Michener Museum, a movie about environmental artist Stacy Levy for Swarthmore, and an upcoming movie about an artist whose opening is the same time as this year’s PAFA Student show, which I am sad I will miss for the first time in years. I want to make a movie eventually about the Academy’s tradition of cast drawing, a profile about jazz master Larry McKenna, and the longer format film about Dale Roberts.

TD: Do you have some favorite documentary films or filmmakers?

JT: The 1986 film "Sherman’s March" by Ross McElwee is very inspiring to me because it shows how a filmmaker can insert himself into a documentary with funny and moving results. I also love PBS Frontline and American Experience.

TD: Thank you so much John!


  1. Great interview!

  2. terrific Taryn! John... it is strange how my little movie, way back, got you rolling...I wonder if I hadn't done that, would your film maker personae have emerged, anyway? I think so...

    1. Thank you Fred, and good question!

  3. I'm very happy with : "By the way, I am not feeling the 7 year urge to switch, I think that filmmaking will be my thing for the duration".

  4. John is a brilliant and generous fellow.

  5. John-best be careful-I feel Hollywood is comin' after you. The quality and presence of the auteur is so strong in these that "and the award for best documentary filmaker goes to..."

  6. Thank you for another insightful and engaging interview. It is wonderful that these two sensitive and thoughtful artists Taryn and John are documenting much of the Philadelphia talent.

  7. Hey John.... I've been trying to find you on Facebook...can't.... got a question for you... my home email is oe@zoominternet.net.... drop me a email....

  8. This was wonderful to read. I own two of John's paintings from years gone by. One is "Still life with Guitar and Artist’s Mannequin". I can tell you that the photo above does not do it justice. Not a day goes by when I don't take at least a moment to stop and take it in. I love it.


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