Mark Topp (b. 1952) is a classic example of how “fine” artists can discover their calling through the inspiration of the great illustrators.
A native of Syracuse, Topp came of age just after the final heyday of such “Golden Age” illustrators as Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish, Dean Cornwell, J.C. Leyendecker, and N.C. Wyeth. Along with the better comic book rtists, their visual achievements motivated young Topp to pursue drawing and painting, albeit outside the formal art education system.
While in high school, the young man took private portraiture lessons from Robert Hofmann (1889-1987). Academically trained in his native Vienna, Hofmann brought to the U.S. his appreciation of European art history and traditional techniques, including working from life. Later, in his 20s, Topp reconnected with Hofmann, who became his mentor and encouraged him to admire 19th-century masters like Germany’s Adolph Menzel and Poland’s Jan Matejko. He now owns several Hofmann paintings, and is helping to organize a show of 35 Hofmann drawings dating from the period 1917-1927, to appear this October at LeMoyne College in Syracuse.
Topp joined the City of Syracuse’s Department of Parks, Recreation & Youth Programs in 1987 as a graphic artist. His efforts to adorn facilities such as senior centers with life-sized murals blossomed, so from 1987 until his move to Pennsylvania in 2008, he supervised the city’s well-regarded community murals program. (He returned to central New York recently.)
During and after his civil service, Topp has pursued his own art, working in oils and pastels. Usually in the studio, but also in plein air.
Though he accepts commissions for portraits, he prefers to arrange unnamed figures in compositions of his own esign. Like his illustrator forerunners, and like his heroes Daniel E. Greene, Nelson Shanks, Curt Walters, and Jerome Witkin, Topp works from live models, but also from the photographs he takes of them. His complex scenes of kids playing ice sports, men working, or couples picnicking succeed thanks to his assured draftsmanship — simultaneously firm and quivering. And his knack for conveying volume through savvy juxtapositions of color.
As seen here, this same sensibility pervades Topp’s vibrating landscapes, which somehow elevate “ordinary” urban scenes into vistas worth stopping to admire.