With great joy and abandon, George Spencer applied paint, blue, black, yellow, and then red, to a bare piece of plywood he had just thrown up on his easel.
“I am surprised by every darn thing that comes of my brushstrokes,” he said. “I just let it fly.”
And he lets it fly a lot. Spencer’s Chapel Hill home is sated with his paintings on plywood. About 40 of his paintings are also on exhibit now at Carrboro’s Open Eye Café and Chapel Hill’s Sophie & Mollies Boutique. Both venues are open during the 2nd Friday Artwalk this Friday. Spencer will be at the Boutique, 431 W. Franklin St. from 6-7 p.m. and at Open Eye, 101 S. Greensboro St., from 7-10 p.m.
The Boutique exhibit, up through mid-April, has 11 paintings of shoes.
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“Women’s shoes are very powerful and sexy but make a woman very non-powerful,” Spencer said. “They make it hard for women to walk. They are a weird object in that they are fraught with a lot of dualism.”
The Boutique’s manager, Maureen Kaplan, saw Spencer’s paintings a few weeks ago at an event at the Carrboro ArtsCenter that brought in local businesses to meet local artists. “The colors of George’s work are so vibrant, and the pieces are so fun and whimsical,” Kaplan said.
The Café’s exhibit, which ends March 31, is also fun and whimsical. For years, Spencer has been including text in his paintings, and two of the paintings in the show tell tales. One is about Ethel – Last of the Carolina Pachyderms. Her brief story begins, “In 1656, when English settlers arrived in present-day Chapel Hill, they were met by red-eyed, fruit eating black bears riding elephants.” The other text painting is about a space hero chimpanzee named Sally.
“My creativity throughout my life before I started painting has expressed itself in words,” Spencer said. He is an editor who has worked with national publishers and is now the editor of two travel magazines, Destination and Equip, and the author of seven books of poetry. “Using words is great where the image itself is insufficient,” Spencer said. “A lot of folk artists do this. Feels sort of like a billboard.”
Spencer dipped his toe into the visual arts when his daughter Margaret became enamored of it and began teaching herself the nuances of drawing. “I saw her drawing cartoons and thought, ‘Why shouldn’t I try it?” In 2008, Spencer had his first local exhibit.
Living in Tennessee in 1987, the editor of a magazine about that state, Spencer began collecting folk art including works by Howard Finster, Jimmie Lee Sudduth, and others less well known. “I never dreamed I would take up art,” Spencer said. “There are a lot of similarities between what they did and I do. Like Jimmie Lee Sudduth, I like to paint with my fingers. The Rev. B.F. Perkins obsessively painted flags and the Statue of Liberty and other iconic things. I’ve painted maps of the South over and over again.”
But Spencer has been told that despite his works fitting into the genre of folk art, his background does not mesh with the “definition” of a folk artist, which in the simplest sense, means a self-taught artist who is outside mainstream society.
With two advanced degrees and a successful career. Spencer in no way fits the bill. So he came up with his own genre of “neoOutsider.”
“I thought I had coined it but it turned out that at the same time I did, an art historian, Dr. Melissa Westbrook, did as well,” Spencer said.
Regardless, painting makes Spencer, whose parents are both from the rural South, feel like a child again.
“I get lost in the play of it,” he said.
Joy Javits, founder and coordinator of DooR to DooR of UNC Health Care, which brings musicians, poets, dancers, and storytellers directly to patients in their hospital room, owns several of Spencer’s pieces.
“I have been surprised, confused, delighted, and blown away by George’s art,” Javits said.
On the back of all of his works, whether they are whimsical, or very serious like his works that address lynchings, 9/11, and humanitarian injustices, Spencer paints a cross, the symbol of his pseudonym, St. George.
“I took this nom de plume partly for marketing,” he said, “but I like to think that my work is doing good in the world.”
Want to go?
For a list of venues on this month’s 2nd Friday Artwalk go to 2ndfridayartwalk.com/