The closest Sean Sapp came to having a profound museum experience as a kid happened while flipping through an accordion of neon-lit posters at the Spencer’s in his hometown of Midland, Texas. In between blown-up photographs of KISS and bikini-clad supermodels, he came across “The Scream” by Edvard Munch. The painting’s technique, odd yet legible, grabbed his attention. Unlike the untouchably technical artists he’d previously admired, such as M.C. Escher and H.R. Giger, here was something he might actually be able to imitate, something that allowed him to take his own compulsive doodling more seriously.
A few years later, Sapp was an 18-year-old working at Vino’s in the late ’90s, freshly transplanted from The Lone Star State in pursuit of cheap rent. After a year or two of watching pieces of local artwork with little price tags get hung on the walls of the restaurant, he finally brought it up to someone in charge. “So y’all just let anybody do this?” he asked, to which they replied, “Pretty much.”
He decided he’d try to sell some of his own work, but out of nervousness, he opted to sign it as Sulac, a nickname only his co-workers knew him by. In the decades since, he’s stuck by the pseudonym.
“I started making things as a teenager, but I had no idea that that was something you could really do,” he said recently. “If there were galleries or museums in the town where I grew up, I didn’t know about it. My family went to eat Mexican food if we went out. We didn’t go look at art.”
By the time he moved to Little Rock, he’d developed a love for collage, but through trial and error he found people favored his drawings and paintings and oil pastels, presumably because they thought collage was too simple and amateurish to be worth their money. Sulac didn’t give up on mixed media, though. “I was always trying to sneak collage in there. Like, all right, this’ll be a painting, but I’m also going to glue some stuff on it.”
Sulac has an obsession with recycled paper, “especially if it has stuff printed on it or written on it,” he said. “I love old handwriting.” Beyond the look, he was first drawn to using salvaged materials because they let him feel less anxious about the creative process. “It developed out of working at restaurants and hanging out with my friends after work,” he said. “I would draw on the guest checks or napkins when we were sitting at the bar. There’s no pressure, and so that’s when the best stuff would come out. I realized if I just glue a bunch of stuff to the canvas, it won’t feel like this blank space.”
Thematically, Sulac sums up his art simply: “Animals, buildings, ladies. Those are the top three things.”
He’s received little in the way of formal training: “One time I went to a figure drawing class. The model comes in and they disrobe and it’s no big deal to them. Everyone else is [cool], but I felt really weird about looking at them,” he said, laughing. “I couldn’t, man. I ended up painting a duck just floating in some water.”
Sulac describes his work as a clash of opposing forces. “If it looks too cute, it needs something dark about it,” he said. If it’s too dark, though, “I want to cute it up. There needs to be a good balance of cuteness and darkness.” It’s a kind of friendly surrealism, one that shuttles the viewer back and forth between the strange and the familiar. Sulac is committed to bending reality, but his way of doing so is always playful. He’s one of those rare artists who can make work that charms most people without sacrificing its edge.
That broad appeal is one reason he’s been able to transition to being a full-time artist over the last few years. In the early days of COVID-19, just three months from his youngest child’s due date, he surprised himself by quitting his restaurant gig.
“If you would have asked me that morning when I was driving to work, I would have said, ‘Yeah, I probably am always going to work.’ I didn’t know I was at the end of my rope until I looked down and there was the end of the rope in my hand.” While musing about where he might work next, he focused exclusively on creating and selling art, only to discover that the finances didn’t look much different from waiting tables. “I kept thinking ‘Any day now, I’m gonna have to get a real job,’ but it just kept working. And here we are, three years later.”
Sulac has a new exhibition, “Fake It Forever,” opening at the Argenta Branch Library in September, alongside SLUGKNIVES.