John E. Sparks

John E. Sparks
John E. Sparks (Baltimore Sun)

John E. Sparks, an artist, educator and a nationally known printmaker who developed and chaired the department of printmaking at the Maryland Institute College of Art for nearly 40 years, died Aug. 2 of prostate cancer and pneumonia at Meritus Health Center in Hagerstown.

The former longtime Charles Village resident was 69.

"I respected John a great deal. He had, how shall I put it, a lot of attitude and I'm sure he rubbed some people the wrong way, but he was an artist," said artist Raoul Middleman.

"He was absolutely brilliant and had a sense of quality and integrity. John was also a tremendous champion of a lot of avant-garde positions," said Mr. Middleman. "He was a man of great feeling and passion. and he didn't suffer fools."

"If I were starting an art school, John would be in charge of printmaking. He was essentially the architect of the printmaking department at MICA," said James J. Hennessey, an Hampden artist and longtime friend who retired from MICA in 2002.

"He knew more about printmaking than anyone I've ever met. Since printmaking is a relatively modern idiom, he had friendships the with giants of the discipline. He knew all of the significant figures of the printmaking world," said Mr. Hennessey. "What John had was a connection to the world and lore of printmaking."

The son of real estate and insurance executives, John Edwin Sparks was born in Washington, and when he was a teenager, moved with his family to Upper Marlboro.

While attending Frederick Sasscer High School in Upper Marlboro from which he graduated, he also studied at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington.

From 1960 to 1962, he studied at Richmond Professional Institute, which later became Virginia Commonwealth University, and earned a bachelor's degree in 1964 in fine arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art.

After earning a master's degree in printmaking and painting in 1966 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Mr. Sparks returned to MICA, where he developed and later chaired the printmaking department, and also taught printmaking.

Mr. Sparks was nationally known as a highly talented printmaker and also for his historical and technical knowledge of etching, lithography and photography.

One of Mr. Sparks' students was Baltimore printmaker Ruth Channing, who is married to Raoul Middleman.

"John was a mentor to me and was so erudite. I studied with him and he was one of the best printmakers I've ever known," said Ms. Channing. "He was a really good teacher and taught me everything I know about lithography. I don't think there is anyone who knew more about printmaking than John."

Jay Fisher, who is chief curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art, is an old friend.

"As an art historian, I relied a lot on John and for every project we did on printmaking, I sat down with him," said Mr. Fisher.

"I'd ask what the technical thing was the artist doing? What was his challenge? " said Mr. Fisher. "He had an unbridled enthusiasm for looking at art and a deep understanding about printmaking. I learned an enormous amount from him."

Mr. Fisher said that Mr. Sparks could explain, for instance, what Manet was trying to achieve in a print.

"John was thoroughly reliable. If he didn't know something, he said so. It just wasn't about technique for technique sake," said Mr. Fisher. "He understood what skills were needed to make it great. He understood what went on between an artist's mind and hand, and what he achieved with the artistic result."

"He had an artist's temperament. I went to the National Gallery one day with John," recalled Mr. Middleman. "I thought I knew a lot about painting but he opened my eyes when discussing a painting. He showed me things that I had not seen before."

Mr. Middleman said that Mr. Sparks was "well-respected as a printmaker by those in New York."

"John was passionate about art but not mindless. He was very knowledgeable but not about petty sentimental bourgeois art," he said. "He had a sense of standards and they were very high. He had it. He was unique. I loved the man."

Mr. Sparks could be a demanding teacher.

"He had clean studios at MICA, and was very demanding that way. He said you had to have respect for your work, and if you couldn't find something you needed in the studio, then how could you have that respect?" said Mr. Fisher. "He was conscientious and demanded hard work from his students."

In addition to his work at MICA, Mr. Sparks also taught printmaking classes at the Lake Placid [N.Y.] Center for Music, Drama and Art from 1971 to 1975.

He retired from MICA in 2004.

Throughout his career, Mr. Sparks participated in numerous graphic arts and prints shows around the country as well regionally, including at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

His work is found in numerous private and public collections, some of which included the Library of Congress, Central Institute of Art and Design in Beijing, Atelier Ettinger Inc. in New York City and the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

"John was very knowledgeable is so many esoteric areas like contemporary music, which I know nothing about," recalled Mr. Hennessey. "He could talk at length on a variety of subjects and was an interesting conversationalist."

Mr. Sparks was a devotee of 19th- and 20th-century European and American music, family members said.

Mr. Sparks, who had lived on Guilford Avenue, moved in 2002 to a farm on South Mountain in Frederick County's Middletown Valley.

A celebration of Mr. Spark's life will be held from 3 p.m to 5 p.m. Sept. 14 at The Main Cup, 14 W. Main St., Middletown, which will be followed by the scattering of his ashes on his farm.

Surviving are his wife of 46 years, the former Sandra Richter, a graphic designer; two nephews; and two nieces.