Disciplined, focused, and goofy: these are the three self-proclaimed descriptors of Cogswell’s very own Dennis Sopczynski. Many know him from 2D Design or Color Theory. Others know him by reputation only, as the teacher who assigns projects that have students working overtime. Or perhaps you know Dennis through his association with the square or the cube. Like the cube, he has a multitude of intriguing sides. “It was purely experimental.” It was 1996 when the process started to surface. Seven years after Dennis had graduated from the California Institute of Arts (“CalArts”), he dedicated his time to designing the “Carnavale Delight” font, which was originally his graduation thesis. The font was entirely designed by hand, including every letter, number, and basic punctuation marks. At the time, type-design software existed; but Dennis pursued his curiosity for typography in traditional, hand-drawn style. After his proposal to publish Carnavale Delight was declined by Émigré Magazine, he decided to bring it to another digital type foundry in Chicago. T.26 agreed to publish and distribute his font with the caveat that he finishes a complete keyboard set. It took an entire year design all of the symbols and characters that this addition required. To this day, you can find “Carnavale Delight” on the digital foundry for purchase.
"So even at a young age I, I had aesthetic, a sensibility I did not quite recognize. As an adult ... it probably represented to a certain degree that I already [was] taking into consideration looking at my environment, at things we generally just assume and take for granted. So as one goes through the motions and the aging process, you certainly move beyond things. You learn to leave some things behind... at least that's sort of the case with all of us. And even once I got into graduate school, and beyond graduate school when I was working as a professional here in California, the square was the furthest thing from my mind. But, again, I go back to those moments in 2001 when I sat down and did that very first drawing on the grid paper. When I did it, I realized I had never done anything quite literally or exclusively squares where I literally took, you know, the grid paper and I just filled in the squares, on the grid paper. To also do something stylistically which was as minimalist as that drawing was and also because I’ve never done anything in which that subject manner was the swimming pool. In any respects, all of these things were ‘firsts’ for me. And as is often the case, anybody is who involved in the creative process... when you have these kinda ‘first’ moments, in the creative process, you don’t always know how it’s going to turn out. There’s a little uncertainty about it, a certain degree of curiosity, yes, a certain degree of anxiety, because what is it ultimately reveal?"
As a child, Dennis sketched detailed drawings of houses, brick by brick. The square may have been present then, but in later years he lost touch with its geometric simplicity. Then, “the square found its way back into my vocab,” Dennis recalls.
Many have heard the phrase “Dare to be Square.” This slogan was coined by a group of Dennis’ students for an independent t-shirt project. In his eyes, daring to be square can mean a number of things: risking failure, challenging established ideas, paying the price for the freedom of being an artist. “Dare yourself to not be as obvious and conventional," Dennis says proudly. But it can also mean going with what you know, being confident, and sticking with it.
“Being honest with oneself requires an artist to say, ‘I am good, but I can do better,’” Dennis says.
When swimming entered Dennis’ life in 1993, he believed it would be a passing interest. The actual impact swimming had on his creativity would remain unknown to him until 2001. All he’d begun with was a set of colored pencils and a pad of gridded paper.
“It remains with me to this day.”
440 pool drawings later, the hobby would continue to inform his best work. To this very day, he still explores the theme in a variety of different media including Photoshop. “I’ve never done anything so minimal in style,” Dennis says.
While some of his work is literal, much of it is evocative of Dennis’ personal experience. He designs aspects of the piece around details: weather, time of day, reflections, counting, pool activities, and even references to historical art.
So why does he persist with these pool drawings?
Dennis focuses on process, stating “this is what we do as artists." Most of his work isn’t high tech, but when it is, some creative decisions stem from technical errors. These "errors" have expanded his ideas in ways that he couldn’t have foreseen. This process has furthered his work - his expression - in different ways. “[One] could fail for the right reasons,” he says.
“A liability could be turned into an asset.”
Dennis’ teaching style is somewhat unique. “They think that I’m throwing them into a pool to drown, but it’s only two feet deep,” he says. Dennis firmly believes that his classes are transitioning students from artists to designers: a major distinction given the nature of today’s industry. This idea of fine arts and design being able to coexist works well within his classroom. Given his BA in Fine Arts and work as a museum coordinator, his classes reflect a more traditionally-rooted style.
Dennis believes it is important that he is an artist for an audience of one: himself.
His pool drawings are purely for his own benefit and of his own will. Although he is a designer (where creative direction is determined by a client) his artistic process is still his own, even when teaching at Cogswell.“I didn’t know that was part of the process,” Dennis says about his experience at Cogswell, which has shown him the will of young artists.
As a professor and designer, he helps students understand that he supports them within their individual processes. He believes that an academic environment is the best place for young artists to try out new ideas and find their individual processes before moving on with their careers. The Self Portrait project assigned in his classes is one of the strongest assignments he offers.Through this project, he helps students understand their ideas of themselves, which forces them to find their own artistic processes from within.
“I arrived with, somewhat of an assumption, not really presumption. I thought I knew a few things about design. When I turned out I knew as little as… I knew less than I thought I did. Also, my approach to image making, because at that time I had a degree in fine arts. The biggest challenge I had to contend and reckon with my first semester there was that I’m doing things in a context of design [graphic design (those were the projects we were given)] but I’m responding as a fine artist. So that was my first major hurdle; It wasn’t necessarily a conflict with shouting matches or things like that between faculty and myself. It's me walking away kinda scratching my head thinking, ‘Why am I not getting this?’ It’s because, and I now realized years later, I was approaching these projects too much like a fine artist and not enough like a designer…. And during my first semester at CalArts they were asking for ‘A’ and I was giving them ‘B’… Finally, a few things started to click in the second semester in my first year. By the time I was close to graduation, I thought "I think I finally got this figured out.’”
“Outside looking into the inside on the inside.”
Dennis has had a handful of memorable experiences with students at Cogswell. One stood out to him was complex by nature and wholly unexpected: In his 2D Design course, he had projects that are a part of the curriculum - “staple” projects. He combined a couple of those projects, like the Surrealism Narrative and the Song Lyric Poster, to create the Topical Song Lyric Poster. He gave the students two different songs to work with and freedom of choice when it came to picking a theme (excluding religion, politics, and sex). The students handled these heavy topics with a degree of maturity that was surprising to him. They were working with complex issues, yet it seemed they had found a way to use this project as a form of self-expression. Each student submitted a completely unique project, which added to the collective experience overall. Dennis was “taken aback,” saying that the pieces were “some of the strongest work by Cogswell students.” Throughout the project, he saw the potential of his students. Watching them apply their design processes to these projects was a highlight of his year.
“In a different direction.”
While Dennis is known by most for his love for squares, his favorite ‘non-square’ shape is quite surprising: the Biomorphic Shape - a shape that is organic and ever-changing by nature. This is the shape of the water that is within the square pool. This shape is important to him because of its ability to change.
“You might have career ambitions, but there are options and things can change.”
Dennis believes in taking opportunities wherever they may be, even if they are unexpected. “Let’s say you want to work for the factory that makes blue squares,” he explains: “the same factory also makes red circles. You apply for a job and you get placed making red circles. Although it may not be what you exactly wanted, you still have a foot in that might lead you to eventually working with the blue squares…You would never have had that opportunity to do what you want to do if you didn’t take that chance.”
“This is what they were after….”
Looking back on his impact at Cogswell and his life since grad school, Dennis realizes that he has finally found what CalArts was looking for within him. His experiences at Cogswell have modified his artistic and design processes. The very idea of a Cogswell Chronicle highlight about him took him by surprise. He was flattered by the idea but wasn’t looking for praise. He likes the thought of supporting students through projects but does not want them to be admirers or copies of his own unique creative mind.
"So what I had found was [the square] did not necessarily take me back to my childhood where I drew things so precisely. What it did do most importantly, is that it introduced me to something I had never previously had ever considered to be an integral part of my life, my profile, which was the swimming pool.”
Dennis’ inspired work and experiences with his students are what makes Dennis who he is as an artist. He is not just a square, but a pool of biomorphic water contained within a square outline.
“They think that I’m throwing them into a pool to drown, but it’s only two feet deep”