Knoxville Artist Receives Guggenheim Fellowship

Knoxville painter Jered Sprecher's abstracts celebrate and explore the complicated relationships between colors.

Jered Sprecher teaches painting and drawing at the University of Tennessee. Next year he'll be teaching, primarily by example, the importance of perseverance, healthy self-esteem and individuality. He won't be in the classroom or his faculty studio. This week, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation announced that Sprecher will receive a year-long fellowship that will basically give him a year off from teaching and allow him to paint full-time.

At a time when much arts funding is withering and people are debating whether or not there is even a need or place for art in the new economy, the news is encouraging on many levels.

"The Guggenheim Fellowship awards excellent thinking," says Chris Molinski, Associate Curator of Education and Adult Programs at Knoxville Museum of Art. "Grants from this foundation are received by artists but also by writers, scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, and lawyers. Out of a couple hundred honorees, there are usually only a handful of painters. It is really significant that the Guggenheim recognizes Jered as a new and interesting artist working with paint. It is really difficult to do anything new with painting."

In his fourth-floor studio in UT's Art and Architecture Building, Sprecher is about to call it a day. Three walls are covered with new paintings, and each of those paintings appears to have at least some wet paint on it. Sprecher's putting his final touches on this group of works before it gets packed to be shipped off to Zevitas Gallery, in Boston, Mass..

"I wrote that I wanted to get some time to work on some more ambitious projects, specifically larger paintings," he says, describing the proposal he'd sent the Guggenheim Foundation, along with samples of his work. "For many years I've been making paintings that are this scale." He gestures to a cluster of paintings, all about 20 inches by 16 inches. "Now I'm starting to push the scale. In some ways it feels that there's a preciousness to the small paintings. But just because of their scale you can do things quickly on them, take chances. Basically what I want to do is take chances on the larger paintings."

Sprecher's abstracts are simultaneously playful and challenging. They celebrate and explore the complicated relationships between colors; between light and its absence; between forms that might, at first, seem to have no relationship other than the fact that he has placed them together on the same canvas. It's easy to imagine the attraction to more real estate, and the demands and pleasures that might come with attempting to solve those same kinds of problems on a larger scale.

"It's important for me to make the work," says Sprecher. "That's something I'm dedicated to. I don't want to make the work and have it just sit in storage. I want to get it out there and enter into a dialogue with other artists, people who enjoy art, or people who have never seen art before. You want to get it out there and see what people's reactions are to it.

"But with grants or fellowships, shows, approaching galleries or curators, it's important to develop a thick skin. You have to be ready for rejection. But I always tell myself, if I apply for something, that's seven or eight more people who have seen my work. I may not get the thing. Nine times out of 10, I probably don't get the thing. But it's a chance for them to see my work. I always think that maybe they'll remember it."

"The Guggenheim Fellowship is a very prestigious award," says Molinski. "It speaks volumes about an artist. This honor is a vote of confidence in Jered and his work. It says that, in comparison with all of his peers, Jered is a remarkable artist... that his work is thoughtful, important."

Some people who hear the improvised—or abstract—music that John Coltrane made late in his life imagine that it's completely random and without forethought or structure. But those who listen deeply and openly can hear the ways that compositions like "Ascension" or "Love Supreme" benefit from his many years of playing bebop and ballads and R&B. Similarly, one can see in Sprecher's paintings solutions to the kinds of perspective problems that an artist only learns by painting landscapes. One can see objects that are not people, but which still profit from his former fondness for portraits.

Sprecher studied in Iowa and Nebraska. He describes an epiphany from those years that has shaped his style.

"As a young artist, near the end of undergraduate and during graduate school, I was doing a lot of work where I'd make drawings," he says. "I'd go to a local nursing home and I would draw portraits of the people, the residents there. Sometimes I'd talk and interact with them. Sometimes they'd watch me draw. I sort of became part of that community. Two or three times a week, I'd spend several hours there.

"At one point when I was there, I just got tired of drawing. And this lady who had been watching me draw, and seemed very interested in what I was doing, I asked her if she wanted to draw. The first thing she drew was two circles overlapping, and another two circles, overlapping. Then she drew a rectangle around them. I wasn't sure what that was at first. She said, ‘That's me,' and she pointed to herself and pointed to her glasses. The next thing she did, she drew a box, and then parallel lines inside the box. Then she reached next to her and she had this book she was reading, and she said, ‘That's the book I'm reading.'

"It's not like that event changed me immediately. But I'm sitting here talking about it at least 10 years later. I kind of filed it away. I started thinking about the efficiency with which she had related these ideas. There was some mystery there, because I didn't know what these pictograms were at first. But once they revealed themselves, there was a humor to them, and also tension, with the shaking of her hand. I think that's been a foundation for me. I'm engaged in this thing called painting or art-making. There's a long history of it. I think of it as being interconnected to this longing to communicate with other people. Whether it's a portrait painting that says, ‘Hey, this person was here, this is what they looked like and this a way we can remember them,' or graffiti-like street tags saying, ‘Hey, I was here,' in some ways functioning similar to a portrait. I think a lot about this quilt that my grandmother made for my father when he was going off to college. Just a simple geometric pattern on it—triangles—but it's a sailboat. It's this thing to keep him warm, but also I wonder if my grandmother thought of it as this boat that is taking my son on his life's journey.

"These things can be abstract, but also humane and personal."