Into the mystic

“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 can be reached at]

who: Spencer Herr
what: Working Man’s Mystic
where: American Folk Art & Framing
when: Aug. 5 to 23. Opening reception on Friday, Aug. 6 (5 to 8 p.m.

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