Former SDA art teacher paints stories through portraits


A former North County art teacher is showing off his own talents to the community in an art show at the North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT).

John Ratajkowski, who taught drawing and painting at San Dieguito Academy for 30 years and divides his time between Carmel Valley and Ireland, features nine portrait paintings with abstract elements on display through Aug. 12 in the Solana Beach theatre’s gallery at 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, suite D.

The pieces, created with wax-based paint made by Ratajkowski, portray people the artist has met in real life, including his daughter and former students.

Previously, the artwork — each created within the last two years — has been featured in galleries in countries such as Ireland and Poland.

Angela Jackson, NCRT’s gallery director, considers Ratajkowski a “natural storyteller [who] weaves tales through his artwork.”

“There’s a narrative behind each of the portraits that draws you in,” said Jackson, who also teaches visual art at San Dieguito Academy. “He can easily be telling you the story over a pint, in addition to using encaustic, pigment, and linen. There’s an intimacy that is shown in his work and a dialogue between artist and sitter that makes you want to know more.”

Ratajkowski recently spoke on his methods as a painter, both in abstracts and portraits.

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What is your history with art?

I’m like everyone else. Around 12 or 13, you start thinking about what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. Art is something that I always did and always liked to do. From the time I was about 12 years old, the assumption I had for myself was I was going to do this. It was the one talent I had that I really enjoyed. It wasn’t just something I could do; it was something I liked to do. I didn’t have a lot of that. ... I got a degree in painting from San Diego State University, and my dad said, ‘Why don’t you get a teaching credential?’ So, I did. I taught painting and drawing for years at San Dieguito Academy.

Do you specialize in portraits?

Portraits are something I do in breaks. I do non-figurative stuff mostly, and like most non-figurative people I know, go back to something. I always go back to portraits because it’s a discipline and kind of brings me back into really having to look rather than just think. I find that abstracts are harder because thinking is harder than looking. Portraits just really re-spin my thinking.

Where do you find inspiration for this type of art?

It’s an evolutionary thing. I got into materials more than anything else. All of these [paintings] are done with paint I made myself. They’re wax-based paints. I make the paint, which in portraits you can’t tell as much because it’s flatter. I can do anything with this paint that I want. I can make it water-thin, I can make it paste-thick. ... The abstract and materials all kind of ran together. When I go back to the portraits, I’m still trying to figure out new applications of the material. Even though I’m doing my face or Natalie’s face, I’m still trying to figure out what the materials do. I will take something from this portrait, when I go back to abstract stuff, and I will take things I learn from that painting even though the next painting isn’t about a face, it’s still about the application of the materials.

Do you work off of photographs or models?

Somewhat. For my self-portraits, I work with a mirror. For others, I use both photographs and models. ... To do a good portrait, I need both. I need something that I can refer back to but I also need the person for a three-dimensional connection.

How do you decide which faces you want to paint?

I paint interesting faces. I do a lot of self-portraits because there’s always a mirror. Others were just interesting people. I painted one because I liked her hat. Others had interesting faces. Another was a favor I did for somebody. Mostly, I just pick people I can stand to look at for long periods of time. Again, it’s practice. I don’t think these portraits are anything more than if you’re a musician going out in the woods and practicing for hours after hours.

How long does each piece take you?

They vary. They’re hours and days. ... One was experimental. I found a way to suspend the wax so it didn’t harden fast, and I did the portrait on a piece of glass then ran it through an etching press. Then I did it again, and every time it meshed out more. ... Others have been quick. My self-portrait took longer than a lot [of the paintings] because I know I’m frozen in a mirror, so I’m not worried about what the model’s thinking. ... The thing about the abstract work is you create a problem, and then you have to solve the problem you created. Sometimes, you’ve created such a dense problem that you can’t even solve it. It’s like a trap; the deeper you get into it, the harder it is to get out. Those things can take months because I just can’t figure out how to worm my way out of what I’ve done. Some of them never get finished. That’s what I like about it because it’s much more captivating in a way. For portraits, to solve the problem, all I have to do is take the face there and put it here. So the problem’s already defined.