Two artists find lasting impressions in fleeting moments

By Brittany Erwin

Photo: Gold inside gray image and pink-tinged work by Benjamin Lee Sperry

Our lives are a compilation of fleeting moments. To find greater meaning requires reflecting on those moments and allowing them to shape our interactions with the world. Championing the effort to highlight two creatives doing just that, Jeffrey Cortland Jones and Michael Conlan co-curated an exciting exhibition, Strange Bruises/Ghosts Emerging, featuring Jennifer Nelson and Benjamin Lee Sperry. Their works ruminate on the singular moments that comprise a life. The exhibition, which runs Sept. 22 – Oct. 27 at University of Dayton’s Gallery 249, juxtaposes Sperry’s whimsical process-driven works with Nelson’s detailed yet sparse scenes.

These artists, who have never met, are connected by two art-world Daytonians, who recognized similar themes of connection in the strikingly different works. Neither artist created works to show together—if to show at all—which makes their coupling even more compelling.

For Sperry, a resident of New York, this exhibition was a surprise. “All the work, anything [Jones is] showing of mine, nothing has been sent there [for the exhibit],” he says. “It’s all stuff I’ve actually sent through the mail.” For several years, Sperry sent works on paper in a variety of forms and colors to Jones. “Not every day,” Sperry elaborates, “but the intention was every day, sometimes two to three times a day. You know how some people keep a sketchbook? But everything was meant to be an exercise.”

So, what can viewers expect from these personal missives?

“There’s a mix in this,” Sperry summarizes. “With this work, a lot of it is print-heavy with various methods… There’s traditional photographs, a lot of work made with Xerox machines, there are hand-done elements in all of it, attaching certain found items.” Viewers will delight in the colors and abstract concepts alongside any variety of things that can be sent through the mail–totaling to more than 100 works.

Though the exhibition evolved from this daily practice between individuals, Sperry emphasizes the importance of sharing those moments. “The first snow of the year,” he reflects, “I put that in an envelope and sent it to him, and before it even left, it all melted and then all that was left was the residue. That was one little instance where I got excited about whatever I could share with him by filling something and sending it through the mail.” Sperry’s work captures not only a moment, but also the creation of it.

Whereas Sperry’s works convey color and whimsy through a mixed-media process, Nelson’s art is spare and precise, comprised of predominately black ink centered within a large white space. This draws the viewer into the richly detailed, hyper-realistic scene on paper. Nelson, who majored in biology and resides in North Dakota, says, “The work is tidy and [science] is neat in the way that my ending up in art was not… With a science background, there are certainly natural science things that come up in the work. I am particular about the birds and mammals and natural features that show up in the work.” The minutiae she painstakingly recreates lends an authenticity to her scenes.

Within the last several years, Nelson’s work has started to include more humans, thereby enhancing its relatability.

“Before, I always had animals as protagonists or artifacts left behind, but now there is human interaction,” she says, adding there is also present a “large amount of white space, attention to detail, familiar things you may have heard or seen before but seems just a little unfamiliar or different.” Viewers will have a chance to connect to the complex simplicity and cohesion of Nelson’s work, which may arise from Nelson’s preference for a uniform creation process.

“All the work starts out as Indian ink on paper,” she explains. “It’s an ancient working process and ancient materials, but incredibly simple. And viewers understand ink on paper. It just feels really honest to me, those materials. You lay out your material and subject matter and people are not hung up on process materials.” In contrast with Sperry, Nelson’s work invites viewers to contemplate the finished work rather than the
making of it.

Each artist succeeds beautifully at inviting viewers to reflect on the singular moment within the work and challenging us to allow the work to impact our lives in broader ways. Nelson hopes viewers find something to connect with: “Just something that moves outside the exhibit, whatever that is. Where the work makes or causes people to take something from the content of the work and causes them to think differently about daily aspects of life, however that can occur. That the work moves outside itself.”

Sperry describes a similar sentiment. “Finding importance in these small gestures and deeming what is important. Especially when we as humans are in such a material culture. I’ve sent [Jones] all these teeny scraps of paper, so there is something powerful to look at this teeny scrap of paper, and whether anyone else thinks it’s important, that’s very individual.”

Nelson and Sperry have separately and together given viewers a multitude of moments that, when viewed as a whole, connect us to a larger story. Whether we are connecting with ourselves, with another person or something greater, that sense of connection—in whatever form—is vital to the human experience.

Strange Bruises/Ghosts Emerging runs through Oct. 27 at University of Dayton’s Fitz Hall Gallery 249, 300 College Park. For more information, please call Gallery 249 at 937.299.3204 or visit JenniferANelson.com and BenjaminLeeSperry.com.

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Brittany Erwin
Reach DCP freelance writer Brittany Erwin at BrittanyErwin@DaytonCityPaper.om

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