George Spencer attributes his artistry to a how-to-draw book he gave his daughter about 10 years ago.
He bought the book for his then-9-year-old daughter Margaret and began to feel embarrassed when he saw how good she was getting at drawing.
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“I thought, ‘If this child can do so well, I should try.’ So that’s when I started to try,” Spencer said. “After a year or so of making this my hobby — I really had no interest in art or drawing before that — people said, ‘You’re pretty good.’ I enjoyed it and kept at it and made headway.”
And for the month of April, Spencer, who signs his work as “St. George,” got to display the fruits of his beloved hobby at the headquarters of southern cuisine at the famous Chapel Hill restaurant Crook’s Corner.
Spencer said he considers himself a neo-outsider because he sees notable comparisons with a group of artists known as outsiders.
“They didn’t live in big cities, they didn’t go to college and they didn’t go to art school and get fancy diplomas,” he said. “They were these weird, rural, southern, untrained people.”
Spencer said he gets inspiration for his art, which is painted on pieces of wood, from everything around him.
He said two years ago he started creating paintings of high-heeled shoes because a friend in the art world told him they were highly profitable.
Then, he said he got bored, so he moved on to painting animals.
Now, he said he does a lot of portraits.
“A lot of what I do I kind of do by chance. I start out, and I don’t really know where it’s going to end up,” he said. “I do the background first without knowing what the main images are going to be. And then I’ll stare at the background for a while and look at magazines or books or photographs and get ideas and all of the sudden something will spark, and I will start to work right away without really thinking about it.”
Spencer said while making art does require thoughtfulness and some degree of rational planning, he finds that thinking too much about it can be really limiting.
“I try to turn my brain off,” he said. “It’s like going fishing. I’m going fishing into the depths of my mind.”
Spencer said he paints on wood because it is cheaper than canvas and is easier to store. But he said he also likes the way the wood works with the paint.
“I like the roughness of the wood — the irregularity of it, the fact that it warps. There’s something non-traditional about it,” he said. “It’s not canvas that Leonardo da Vinci would paint on. It’s a piece of construction material.”
Michael Mezzatesta, a private art dealer and a friend of Spencer’s, said Spencer’s breadth of vision is really remarkable.
He said he enjoys the way Spencer attacks the wood with color and creates folk art images that are still very sophisticated.
“Every work has a message to it if you look carefully. They’re not just decorative works of art,” he said.
Gene Hamer, the owner of Crook’s Corner, said for the past 30 years, the restaurant has been showing art every month, mainly with local artists.
He said having art displayed in the restaurant creates an interest for its patrons.
“It gives local artists a chance to show their work and gives them exposure,” he said. “And what it does for the restaurant is it makes it a lively place to dine.”
Spencer said he doesn’t feel like he needs a textbook to do well in art. He said he’s just being his real, down-home natural self.
“I’m having fun with it, I’m in the moment, and God willing I’ll be doing art when I’m 85 years old,” he said. “Most people will be sitting in their rocking chairs, and I’ll be at the easel.”
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