Asheville Art Talk: Joseph Pearson brings his figure-scapes to Mars Hill

ON THE ROAD: Artist Joseph Pearson stands next to his piece "Home From the War." In 2011, the painting was selected by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons as part of its series, "Wounded in Action." The painting traveled the country and was the featured image of the exhibit.
ON THE ROAD: Artist Joseph Pearson stands next to his piece "Home From the War." In 2011, the painting was selected by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons as part of its series, "Wounded in Action." The painting traveled the country and was the featured image of the exhibit. Photo by Thomas Calder

Inside his Pink Dog Creative studio in the River Arts District, artist Joseph Pearson shares one of his favorite quotes. It comes courtesy of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. In the film, Yoda offers Luke Skywalker the following advice: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

The 70-year-old artist considers the statement to be one of his guiding principles. Prior to retiring in 1999, Pearson held a full-time government position as an illustrator in his home state of Mississippi. His illustrations dealt mostly in oceanographic-related charts and graphs. “It wasn’t fun stuff,” he says. Throughout his professional career, though, Pearson made time for his creative endeavors, painting in the early mornings and late evenings. Once he became a father, he incorporated his daughter into his work. “She became my model,” Pearson says. “She’d read to me while I worked.”

Two of Pearson’s more recent collections will be on display at the Weizenblatt Art Gallery in the Moore Fine Arts Building at Mars Hill University. The show, titled Figure-scapes and Figures, will run Sunday, Jan. 15, through Wednesday, Feb. 10.

The figure-scapes portion of the series explores themes of decay, metamorphosis and rebirth. A female subject is present in each painting. “Throughout Western art, the female figure has been used … to represent certain ideas and philosophies — liberty, justice,” says Pearson. He also views the female image as a symbol for the collection’s look at life cycles: “Since women give birth, I thought I would let the female form represent that transitional process.”

The mixed-media works combine oil paintings with items he retrieved from recycling bins; the latter offers a textural component to the pieces, which emphasizes issues of waste and decay featured in the series.

The figures portion of the exhibit, touches on a number of social and political issues. Pearson notes that much of his work, past and present, examines these matters. He attributes it to growing up in the South during the civil rights movement. “This was South Mississippi,” he says. “Segregated South Mississippi. Growing up at that time, there were white- and colored-only water fountains. Separate schools. All the assassinations were taking place at the time. I remember seeing a cross burn on my school campus one night. … Being young and impressionable, all that kind of just has its place back here,” he says, pointing at his head.

“Having grown up under those circumstances, I see things through the lens of social sensitivity — that’s how I’ll title it.”

Pearson and his wife relocated to Asheville in 2015, by way of New Orleans. Since arriving to the mountains, Pearson says his work has found a greater audience. “In the year and a half I’ve lived here, I’ve probably gotten more accomplished than my entire time in New Orleans,” he says. In addition to the upcoming Mars Hill show, he and fellow artist Jessie Whitehead had an exhibition this past summer, at Pink Dog Creative. Pearson also cites his recent Regional Artists Project grant, which he received through the Asheville Area Arts Council, as further indication of his work’s progress.

Accolades and recognition, however, are not what drive Pearson. It is the work. “I’ve had a few artists say to me, ‘Oh, I want to do this,’ or ‘I want to do that, but I don’t have the time,’” Pearson says. “If a thing is important to you, you find the time to do it.”

WHAT: Figure-scapes and Figures

WHERE: Weizenblatt Art Gallery in the Moore Fine Arts Building at Mars Hill University, 100 Athletic St, Mars Hill, mhu.edu

WHEN: Opening reception Wednesday, Jan. 18, 6-8 p.m. The exhibit will remain on view through Wednesday, Feb. 15. Free

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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