Is there a tattoo shop on Sesame Street?
There must be because Ernie has ditched his trademark striped shirt and sports some ink showing his desire of equal rights for everyone.
Disney beauties Snow White and Cinderella pose for a selfie-taking a break from a sip of Old Style and a drag on a cigarette.
The characters Sun Prairie silk-screen artist Donald Topp loved as a kid, have all grown up and are living in the 21st Century.
“I play off the nostalgia of a recognizable image or toy, but make it in an avatar of a much deeper, cynical message of society,” said Topp, wearing a Bartman black T-shirt.
Just in from mowing the grass at his home in the suburbs where he lives with his wife and children, Topp won’t reveal his real name but his art is featured in galleries all around the world.
Topp sits down in the basement of his house, where he spends a couple of hours each day finishing off his silk-screen printing pieces he creates in a Madison studio.
Looking through cardboard boxes of old magazines and newspapers, Topp grabs one that had a good headline – makes it into a background for Oscar the Grouch, Princess Jasmine, Ariel, and other animated characters – and brings out messages of women’s rights, environmental pollution, equality and more.
Always a fan of pop art, Topp wanted to dig a little deeper with his pieces – rooting out political and social messages of the day to spark the intellect and emotions in people.
“Most people look at art, but they don’t invest in art,” Topp said. “So I started putting images and texts behind the main images to see if anyone caught them. By doing that it changes the context of the overall piece.”
Admitting he doesn’t like it when someone tells him what to do, or how to think or behave, Topp has some strong reactions to social norms, advertising, political rhetoric, and fractured fairy tales.
The older Disney films are ones that continue to bother him – Cinderella and Snow White portrayed as damsels in distress.
“They had to be rescued by a man, and the only way they could find happiness is when Prince Charming comes along and saves them,” he says. “There is no acceptance of being happy with themselves.”
Advertising does the same thing, he said, pigeonholing what is expected of men and women in society.
While Topp was out in San Diego, he noticed two girls posing for a selfie that inspired one of his pieces – tattooed Cinderella and Snow White, preening and smiling up toward their smartphone.
“It shows self-importance, that you always have to document everything so it creates an illusion on social media that you have a spectacular life,” Topp says, noting some things that rattle his cage.
Besides the tattoo girls, Topp has the Iconic series featuring Tom Petty, Jim Morrison, Johnny Cash, and others – people he’s admired and considered heroes, ever since he was a kid.
Topp, now 43, grew up in Marshall on a dairy farm and was into art and athletics. He graduated from Carroll College with an art degree and then earned a masters in visual arts at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee. He taught K-8 art for more than six years before budget-cutting layoffs forced him to try something else. Today, he works at a Sun Prairie company.
Silk-screening became his main mode of art after learning the process in school and working at a screen print T-shirt shop.
Silk screening is a dying art, Topp said, with digital taking over. And that makes him stand out at the art shows in Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota, where he sells his works.
Topp is featured in galleries across the world, and those closer to home – David Leonardis Galleries in Chicago sells more than two Topp pieces each week.
Already Topp is planning a series with Charlie Brown and Marge Simpson – maybe highlighting bullying and the fifties’ straight-jacket typecasting of the housewife.
Whatever he ends up with, Topp says art is his outlet, and he’s not too concerned if it doesn’t sell.
“If people don’t like it, they can move on,” Topp said. “There are always going to be those people who think that we need to be in the same box.”
Find out more about Topp’s art at https://www.donaldtoppart.com and on Instagram.