John Lapsley was passionate about art and drew from a wide range of inspirations. Born in Selma, Alabama in 1915, he first studied art while attending the University of Alabama. However soon he left the school to move to Washington, D.C. where he took classes at the Phillips Gallery School of Art. At the Phillips Gallery he encountered the works of great European artists such as Matisse, Renoir, and Cezanne. He admired these French masters and was inspired by them throughout his career. Lapsley went on to study at the National Academy of Design in New York with Leon Kroll and Gifford Beale. While at the Academy he won a scholarship that enabled him to attend the Florence Cane School of Art where he learned the art of fresco painting from Jean Charlot.
Returning home to Alabama in 1936, Lapsley quickly became active in the state’s art scene, exhibiting at the Birmingham Art Club and with the New South Group of artists, which included Crawford Gillis and Charles Shannon. Like many of his New South colleagues, Lapsley was drawn to the work of the Mexican Muralists, who painted for the working classes and not the elite. His former teacher, Jean Charlot, was previously an assistant to Diego Rivera and arranged for Lapsley to go to Mexico and observe him work. During his time in Alabama, Lapsley also attended Birmingham-Southern College where he earned a degree in English.
After serving in the Air Force in WWII, Lapsley continued his education at Columbia University in New York where he earned a master’s degree in fine art. Back home in Alabama he briefly taught at Auburn, but realized that he most enjoyed working at an airfield to support himself. Lapsley worked at Maxwell Field, outside of Montgomery, and painted in his spare time until he reached retirement.
During his lifetime Lapsley often referenced the French art he encountered in D.C. and New York as starting points for his own work, although he relied on distinctly Southern subject matter. His choice of portraying the lower classes may also have been influenced by his time with the Mexican Muralists who championed the rights of workers with their art. It is interesting to note the result of these very different cultures coming together on a canvas. Although he clearly borrowed ideas from those that came before him, Lapsley applied these ideas in a way that was personal to him and his Alabama roots.