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.