Seeing is Being

Painter/collagist embeds a lifetime of close observation in his canvases

INSTRUCTOR OF OBSERVATION
Painter Roscoe Conn teaches viewers how to see.
Photo by Jack Robert

Roscoe Conn has a kinetic mind that catalogues images for later use in his evocative artworks. He paints in acrylic and incorporates images from cut-up magazines and photos he and his wife Bettina take. He recycles thrift-store frames. When he speaks, his thoughts unspool like a ticker tape — and many of the ideas expressed end up on his canvases.

Self-taught before receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree from UNC Charlotte in 1996, Conn has spent more than two decades in the classroom, inspiring the next generation of artists. He also leads and motivates as a soccer coach and co-founder of the Rutherford County Visual Artists Guild.

Conn’s work has been shown in exhibits at Upstairs Artspace (Tryon), Blue Spiral I (Asheville), Red Piano Too (St. Helena’s Island, SC), The Gallery (Rutherfordton), Conn’s Gallery (Landrum, SC), and in a permanent installation at KidSenses Children’s Interactive Museum in Rutherfordton.

Community

He recently retired from 23 years of teaching in Rutherford County Schools — only to start teaching art classes an hour away, at Middle School of Pacolet. 

“I like teaching kids,” he tells Bold Life. “As an adult, you get wrapped up in things. Then, you look at kids and you just laugh all day … once you get them to see the relationship between art and their world, they’re actually quite proud of what they’re doing …  and they help me get back into the playfulness of [my own] art.”

Conn’s contemporary work portrays urban environments, with a unique focus on trailer parks. “My wife and I love going to different cities and taking photographs. We’re not tourists — we like to go to the areas where you get to see the real city. Do you know how fun it is to paint a washer and dryer, a refrigerator flipped over, a couple of junk cars? That’s a lot of places in the South.”

Man Who is Catching a Snake

He calls this approach “a collage of experiences,” explaining, “I like embedding things in my art; that way, you have the overall aesthetic — but if you stare at it long enough, you’ll also start finding things that are a little abnormal.”

He says he started concentrating on collage in 1993, inspired by artists like Romare Bearden, who was born in Charlotte and moved to New York during the Harlem Renaissance. “I used to skip school to go to the Mint Museum in Charlotte,” Conn recalls. Another 20th-century painter he admired was Jacob Lawrence, the modernist whose “Great Migration” series — 60 panels depicting the route of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North after WWI — brought him fame at age 23. 

He mentions Lawrence’s “shapes, his lack of detail on the face — he always portrayed a story rather than just represent figures.” Conn embeds his own abstracts with braille, noting, “I taught braille for five years, and I thought, ‘What if I put in something that automatically people want to touch?’ I made it to be touched. If you’re blind, how many times do you get to go to a gallery and ‘read’ the art?”

Conn embeds some of his paintings with braille, to be “read” by blind viewers.

Working at home, Conn says he often “bounces back and forth between five paintings at a time.” The process, he explains, “is very tedious. It’s like being a surgeon: I use Exacto knives. I use my memory. I’ll remember the cover of a magazine I saw four years ago, and I’ll hunt that down until I find the image in there that I need. I’ll use other people’s images — but I don’t want to reproduce anyone else’s idea. I want it to be mine: the hidden things bouncing around in my mind.”

Those layered images carry a mission, of sorts: “I feel like we don’t look at things,” says Conn. “We take things for granted. We do things automatically in life, and go by things we don’t really observe. With my collages, I’m going to give people something to stop and look at — but I also want them to start questioning things.”

At right, the artist collages an idea from an old magazine.
Photo by Jack Robert

In his current show at Upstairs Artspace, he’ll show five trailer-park scenes, a handful of cityscapes, one abstract with braille, “and at least one political piece.” He calls the Tryon gallery “a hidden gem” and notes, “I’ve enjoyed watching them grow.” Twenty-five years ago, he had a show there with David Wingo and Raymond Floyd, “older guys who had a sense of art,” he remembers. “I read their résumés, and that show was my turning point to go back to college. It’s great returning to the gallery I started at. I’ll call it my home forever.” 

Roscoe Conn, Rutherfordton. In the Eyes of the Beholder, an exhibit featuring Roscoe Conn and Joseph Pearson, runs through Monday, March 15 at Upstairs Gallery, 49 South Trade St., Tryon. Regular gallery hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 12–5pm. For more information, call 828-859-2828 or see upstairsartspace.com. 

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