|Spencer Herr is an Asheville, NC artist with roots in the Southwest. He was raised exploring the deserts and mountains of that region and his paintings reflect his love of those rugged environments. Spencer views his paintings as journal entries that document places, relationships and states of mind.
Spencer came to the Southeast by way of Virginia where he worked as a carpenter and lived in difficult circumstances. He coped with frozen plumbing and piling snow on his bedroom floor by building an easel and creating paintings that reflected his sense of longing and lack of control.
Spencer's current work explores themes of devotion, wonderment and uncertainty. the layers Spencer uses to express his ideas, emotions and memories are present with a depth that only maturity in life and confidence in painting can produce.
The Artodidact Project
Spencer Herr is a self-taught painter from Phoenix, Arizona. He graduated from Northern Arizona University with a degree in Parks and Recreation Management, and he currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina with his wife and two daughters. He maintains a studio in the River Arts District of downtown Asheville and works construction on the side. Spencer uses pencil, charcoal, house paint, and acrylic paint to create his pieces. His early work was painted on canvas, but his current work is done primarily on birch wood.
Every series that I paint is based on a question or a philosophy that I’m inspired by or want to explore further. My current show is called “Abraham’s Covenant” and it’s based on the story of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Sarah and Hagar. This story can be found in the Bible and the Quran in addition to the Torah. Another series of paintings was about the poems of Rumi. An upcoming series of paintings will explore micro- and macro-cosmic views of life; specifically, that humans feel like we don’t have ‘enough’ for tomorrow or today, but we feel like the world has enough to sustain us forever.
On being self educated:
I took art in high school, but that was about as far as it went. I taught myself by talking to other artists, by looking at a lot of art. My art education has been a lot of viewing and talking. There’s always been this lingering idea in my head that I’m not a very good student. I felt like art was the way out for me; the way for me to function in society and give back. However, I was always told that one couldn’t make a living as an artist.
In 2004 I was framing houses, and I was living in this house in Virginia that was pretty dilapidated. My friend was remodeling the house and it was snowing. He had ripped down the exterior wall and put up some paneling and some plastic; I was in there freezing and there was no heat in the house. We had a bucket on top of the toilet because the plumbing was frozen; it was like living in Alaska or something. There was a fireplace in my room but it wasn’t working. Snow was coming through the chimney and it was piling up and it was getting on the floor. That was the moment I realized that I shouldn’t put it off any longer. That was the catalyst. I built an easel and started painting. Two years after that I started showing my work.
On the advantages of self education:
First, there are specific venues for self taught artists, and those specific venues have specific collectors. I think that self taught art comes from a deeper place- a place of needing to express versus trying to impress. As a self-taught artist you aren’t reinventing art, but the fundamentals of composition and color are all intuitive. It may not be ‘correct’, but it works because it is intuitive. I feel like people who have studied art deny their intuition because of specific formulas that they have been taught.
In addition, I think that traditionally educated artists are really surprised if they find that they like the work of a self educated artist, because the work frequently doesn’t have all the fundamentals that they were taught. It’s a little bit shocking to some people.
How do you feel the need to make a living influences the work?
That’s a critical thing. I try not to be influenced at all. When I got started I didn’t think I was going to make a living, and people liked what I was doing, and a lot of people were saying that it was really different. I’m really thankful to have that as my foundation, because it’s led me to believe that if I did try to commercialize my work it wouldn’t sell.
There’s definitely that idea in my mind when I’m painting: ‘is somebody going to buy this, is somebody going to buy this?’ However, I try as hard as I possibly can to put that out of my mind and just paint. When I’m painting, everything gets shut down. I can start thinking about whether someone is going to buy something, but five minutes into painting I’m oblivious to everything. I’m just painting. That works to my advantage.
What is a typical day in the studio like for you?
When I come in it takes a while to adjust to the studio. I clean a little bit, get my brushes out, get my paints out, then stare at the painting that I intend to work on for up to an hour. Then I start painting or start sketching on the painting. If I am fortunate enough to have a full week in the studio I get into a groove; I walk in and the adjustment period gets shorter. If I’m able to come in all week, then by the end of the week I’m walking in, picking up a brush and starting to paint immediately.
How long does it take for you to complete a painting?
I don’t think that there is an average. Some paintings get done in fifteen minutes- it just happens. Some take an hour and then others take weeks.
What advice would you give to other self-educated artists?
You have to be really persistent, because the first stuff you make is probably going to be really bad. I think there are a lot of people who have the potential to be really great artists, but they give up because it’s not an easy thing to do. I guess the first things you need are willingness and passion. And then you have to be ready to paint for two or three years and not have anything come of it, just for your own sake, until you find your style and your voice. You just have to keep painting.
into the mystic
Into the mystic
Spencer Herr at American Folk Art and Framing
by Kelly Gold in Vol. 17 / Iss. 02 on 08/03/2010 Share
“Let the beauty of what you love be what you do,” Rumi said, and so does the life and art of River Arts District painter Spencer Herr.
“Not You, Not Me, Just Us”: The artist is using human form fmore prominently in his new series, Working Man’s Mystic.
Like most folk artists, Herr has had no formal art training, but always knew he wanted to be an artist. He tends to work on pieces of found board, and his color palette is largely dictated by the paint leftover from remodeling jobs. Herr’s work is driven by a passionate need to create, to express love and a desire to come in contact with God, as inspired by the teachings of the Persian philosopher-poet, Rumi.
Herr is premiering a new body of work at American Folk Art & Framing. Gallery owner Betsey-Rose Weiss, who is perhaps Herr’s biggest fan, has run the gallery for seven years, and bought the business three years ago. Herr is the first new artist Weiss opted to represent.
Herr found the gallery at American Folk to be visually appealing and in line with his sensibilities. He presented Weiss with a CD of images, one of which was “Keith’s Cow.” She was blown away by the scope of his talent. “It was an amazing painting,” she says. “It showed me that he was capable of doing what he loved … he is very brave.”
Weiss has helped cultivate Herr’s career as an artist; Herr himself has almost no contact with his patrons, and relies heavily on Weiss to facilitate the sale of his work. Her enthusiasm for the man and his work is almost maternal. And it’s contagious. His paintings are big sellers for American Folk, and Weiss has the enviable problem of trying to keep enough work in stock for clients.
Two of those clients, Chapel Hill collector Adam Jackson and his wife, Susanne, are the gushingly proud owners of three of Herr’s paintings, including “Keith’s Cow.” Adam, who shyly confesses that he doesn’t feel “qualified” to discuss art, explained that, on three different occasions, he and his wife went into the gallery and immediately found a piece they both loved. The pieces happened to be Herr’s, though they didn’t know that at first glance — each piece was so unique in scale, scope, color and form. They seem to become smitten with Herr’s work no matter what the style or story — truly love at first sight.
Regarding the purchasing habits of other art collectors in the region, Weiss notes that most buy what they like — work speaks to them, rather than a famous name. “We’ve discerned our own tastes,” she says. “That’s a good thing … to have an intelligent audience for art.”
“She Saw the World, She Changed Her Perception”
An artist’s work is constantly evolving — and Working Man’s Mystic, of which Herr is intensely proud, is no exception. This series shows a notable shift toward employing the human form in his paintings. His earlier work was laden with words and animal forms, but humans are starting to replace text. “I wasn’t confident enough to use human figures before,” Herr says.
Herr’s wife, Kara, was the focus of virtually all of Herr’s earlier work, most often in the form of maternal animals. Their two young daughters are the paramount influences in his current work. Rather than capturing his girls with staid portraiture, Herr focuses on their fantastical essence, their innocence, not stamping them in a particular time and place.
“Request: Lover’s Surrender,” the narrative starting point, and Herr’s personal favorite piece, features a human atop a horse. Setting the tone for the series, it depicts the dissolution of self, the “fight to let go, to develop a genuine relationship with God.” The informal bookend to the series, “The Last Surrender,” utilizes the same figures, but displays a sense of quietude and contentment — the relationship with God is sealed.
Floating somewhere in the chronology between these two works is “What Will Carry You.” Two static human forms stand backward on a pair of horses that are obviously in motion, a sort of passive action toward the Divine. Herr likens this piece to Rumi’s “Surge like the sea, don’t scatter like the storm” — standing still but being moved.
Perhaps the most engaging painting in the series, “No Me, No You, Just Us” gives Herr’s audience a glimpse of his creative process. “I make paintings knowing I won’t like them,” he says. “I keep re-painting them until I’m happy.”
He often completes a painting and proceeds to cover it entirely with a new work. In the case of “No Me,” a human face remains from layer one, its eye revamped as the eye of a horse in layer two.
Weiss sees this as an interesting way of expressing memory — portals to the past and windows into perception. “I am interested in artwork that, 20 years from now, I [will] still [be] trying to figure out,” she says.
Besides the obvious influences of Rumi and family, Herr takes much inspiration from fellow artists and craftspeople. Studio mate Alicia Chatham constantly challenges him, and offers her own brand of criticism, described as a “positive prodding.”
Another mantra for this working-man’s mystic came from artist Daniel Nivens, as he was leaving Spencer Herr’s studio: “Stay brave.”-Kelly Gold
Spencer Herr is represented exclusively in Santa Fe, NM at POP Gallery. Contact us directly to add this prolific young artist to your collection at 505.820.0788.