Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 40
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
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Princeton Personality by Jean Stratton

SIGNATURE SCULPTURE: “To be successful is to feel good about what you’ve accomplished at the end of the day. I’m fortunate that I have been able to have the opportunity to do what I like to do.” Sculptor James Stewart Perry stands beside his mahogany wall piece “Enigma” on display at the Morpeth Contemporary Gallery in Hopewell.

Princeton Sculptor James Stewart Perry Will Have October Exhibit at Morpeth Gallery

James Stewart Perry is a sculptor of import. His abstract pieces created in wood are fascinating and unique, engaging the intellect and the senses.

As Mr. Perry points out, “During the process of building a piece of sculpture, I start with an initial idea, but allow it to evolve in ways that often yield surprising and unexpected results. I like making forms with wood that are pleasing to the eye but also complex and challenging.”

And what is especially intriguing about the artist himself is that Mr. Perry has recently resumed his work in sculpting after a hiatus of nearly 30 years. From 1980 to 2008, he worked in journalism as a graphics editor for The New York Times.

How all this came together, culminating in an exhibit at the Morpeth Contemporary Gallery in Hopewell from October 1 to October 31 (public reception October 2, 6 to 8 p.m.) is a story all its own.

Interest in Art

James Stewart Perry was born in Manhattan in 1947, the second son of Robert and Mary Stewart Perry. His father was a Professor of Religion at New York University, and his mother was an artist. Three other boys, David, Ethan, and Jason, completed the family.

When Jim was three, the Perry’s moved to Erwinna, a small town in rural Bucks County. Mr. Perry remembers a happy childhood and an early interest in art.

“My parents moved to Erwinna because they didn’t want the kids to grow up in the city. We lived in a small village, and we’d mostly hang out with friends and get on our bikes and ride all over. We were a close-knit family, and I was close with my brothers, although we fought all the time.

“Also, by the time I was 12, we had gotten a house on the Maine coast, and we went there in the summer.”

Other family vacations included trips to Bermuda, Nantucket, Washington, D.C., and the West Coast. California was the home of Jim’s very famous uncle, actor James Stewart (his mother’s brother and his father’s classmate, Princeton University, 1932).

“We flew to California to see Uncle Jim, and I also noticed that whenever he came to see us, a lot of people began to come around,” remembers Mr. Perry.

Christmas in July

Not overly impressed with his uncle’s fame as a young boy, Jim was more excited about the annual visit to the Stewart family home in Indiana, Pa., where his grandfather, Alex Stewart, owned a hardware store.

“It was like Christmas in July for my brothers and me at the hardware store,” remembers Mr. Perry. “My grandfather let us pick out anything we wanted — pen knives and other ‘dangerous’ things my parents didn’t normally let us have.”

Mr. Perry also recalls his first visit to Princeton with his grandfather, a staunch Princeton alumnus, Class of 1898. “My first memory of coming to Princeton was marching in the P-Rade when I was seven or eight with my grandfather.”

Jim attended elementary school in Erwinna and then The Solebury School near New Hope. “I was really more interested in art than anything, and my mother encouraged me at Solebury, I had an art teacher, George Mellor, who was a sculptor, and I started making figures in clay.”

Jim’s figures were exhibited both in school and at a nearby gallery. He remembers his first sale very well. “One of my figures was on display at school, and humorist Art Buchwald happened to be visiting. He purchased it — my first sale!”

Music was another interest, and Jim had guitar and banjo lessons, instruments he continues to play today.

After graduating from Solebury, he set off to Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where he majored in sculpture. “Bard was a liberal arts college and had a good art department,” explains Mr. Perry. “The professors were New York City artists and fairly well-established artists. My sculpture teacher was Jake Grossberg and my painting teacher was Murray Reich. Classes were often in the evening, and then we could hang out with these artists afterward.”

Time of Turmoil

Jim was also involved in music during college, as he was in high school, although not in an organized capacity, such as in a band or orchestra. “We used to jam at college, and I loved folk music — Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Judy Collins.”

He enjoyed college, but as he notes, “The sixties were a time with a lot of turmoil — assassinations, war, race riots. It was a difficult time.”

After graduation in 1971, Jim headed to New York City with aspirations to become a sculptor. It was hard-going for a fledgling young artist, and he took on jobs as a carpenter to supplement his income. He did have success, however, when his pieces were included in the Whitney Biennial exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and also in private galleries.

“I was trying to establish myself as a sculptor working in wood,” he explains. “In high school and college, I was carving stone, marble, and steel, but now, working with wood pieces resonated with me.”

In 1978, his life took a new turn when he encountered former Bard classmate and painting student, Hetty Baiz.

“We had dated in college, but then she transferred to Cornell, and we went our separate ways. Now, she had established a painting career and had an exhibit in a New York gallery. We got in touch again.”

Starving Artists

In a year, they were married, and living in a loft on 26th Street. “We were really living like starving artists,” recalls Mr. Perry. “One year, we were preparing our income tax, and we realized that the two of us together had earned $4000.”

This created a turning point. Hetty went to Columbia, earning an MBA, and got a good-paying part-time job, and now, Jim went in another direction.

“I ended up getting a job that did information graphics, including financial charts, maps, technical illustrations. Then, I got another job at the Wall Street Journal as a graphics editor. This includes being a visual reporter — partly reporter, editor, writer, and artist.”

In 1980, he went to The New York Times, also as a graphics editor. “The job involves coming up with a way of illustrating data. I produced the graphics from start to finish. I’d write the captions and whatever text accompanied the graphic — chart, map, whatever.

“I loved the work,” continues Mr. Perry. “I was a general assignment editor, and it involved working with a lot of survey polls. If it was a breaking story, I might have only a matter of hours to complete the work. During elections, we’d work all night. If it was a feature story, I could have more time. We had access to advance stories.”

He experienced memorable times and memorable stories while at the paper. “I went through a lot of presidents — from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush,” he says, smiling. “I enjoyed the variety of the work. It was always interesting, never the same two days in a row. It was intellectually challenging. The pressure could be very, very intense, but when the work was done, you felt very good about it. I took a lot of pride in my work.”

Special Section

Among his days — and nights — at The Times, none was more historic than September 11, 2001. As he recalls, “The weeks following 9/11 were the most stressful of my 28 years there. The Times put out a special section, ‘A Nation Challenged’ without advertising, every day until the end of the year. Each section had a large number of graphics (including maps of Afghanistan), some taking up whole pages, and we usually had a day or less to produce them. A very difficult time for all.”

In 1984, while he was at the newspaper, the Perry’s first son, Christian, was born, (later to be followed by Alex in 1990). “We decided not to raise our kids in New York City,” says Mr. Perry. “When we planned to move, we took the baby, rented a car, and drove around a 50-mile radius. We didn’t think we could afford Princeton, but after looking at other places, we said, ‘Let’s just drive through Princeton and take a look. We got out, walked around, and felt the appeal of the town. Some of the other places were just bedroom communities for New York. Princeton has a personality of its own. It seemed to be a great place.”

They were able to get a house on Moore Street in 1985, where they lived until 1993 when they moved to Riverside Drive.

“I liked New York,” recalls Mr. Perry, “and when we lived on 26th Street, I had about a 15-minute walk to work. I traded that for a two-hour door-to-door commute when we went to Princeton. But it was worth it.”

He found it difficult to combine sculpting and journalism when he was at The Times, but when they moved to the Riverside house, he made accommodations for a studio.

“The house had a large two-car garage, and we turned it into two studios, one for Hetty and one for me. At that point, I took up woodworking as a spare-time hobby. I started building furniture. I had no training, and it’s very different from sculpting. When you build a table, for example, there are a lot of technical things involved in it. But I found I like making things, and I made a lot of furniture in the Shaker tradition for our house.”

Turning Point

Another turning point in Mr. Perry’s life came in 2008, when he decided to take early retirement from The Times (“after a buy-out offer that was too generous to refuse”). When he left the newspaper, he thought he might continue to make furniture, but then two art exhibitions changed his mind, and rekindled his artistic fervor.

As he explains, “The Museum of Modern Art had a retrospective of Martin Puryear, an amazing sculptor and extraordinary woodworker. Then, in 2008, at the Princeton University Art Museum, I saw an exhibit of “Félix Candela: Engineer, Builder, Structural Artist”. A Spanish-born architect and engineer who worked in Mexico City, he did amazing buildings. The exhibit not only showed photos of his buildings, but scale models of how they had been structured. I got very interested in form and structure. I was inspired and went back to the studio and made my first piece. I showed it to Hetty, and she approved. She is my greatest supporter and greatest critic.”

These exhibits had focused on the ways these two artists had been able to overcome the conundrum of craft and fine art, points out Kate Somers, curator of the Bernstein Gallery, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University. In particular, Candela’s use of the “hyperbolic paraboloid”, a mathematical curve, was key.

“Perry was captivated by the way layered strips of wood, meticulously positioned, resulted in these beautifully curved structures. He came away with an idea to explore: how to make all those straight angles of 2-by-4 pieces of wood, those rectilinear shapes that had become deeply familiar from his furniture-making into animated curves, alive with possibility.”

Layered Wood

Over the past two years, Mr. Perry has “continued to push the trajectory of his curves,” continues Ms. Somers. “Yet his exploration has not compromised the integrity of his sculpture. The work is not about complicated twists. Like most sculptors, Perry is obsessed with form. Whether the works have a figurative aspect or evoke a more abstract idea, he wants the sculpture to occupy the space with a strong presence.”

And, she adds, “The sculpture is further animated by its contradictions: the individual geometry of the layered wood versus the curve created in the layering process, and the simultaneous sense of stability and movement achieved within the same work.”

Mr. Perry loves working with wood, especially mahogany, walnut, and cherry. As he says, “Wood allows for endless forms and varied texture and colors. It can be manipulated in many different ways: shaped, carved, and constructed. And working with wood feels good and smells good.

“What is meaningful about sculpting is partly the physicality of it. Working with my hands, and wood is so adaptable. It’s a good feeling.”

He uses hand and power tools, he explains, “tools that woodworkers use. I start with boards, which I cut, then I construct the piece layer by layer, each layer slightly different than the layer before. Each layer varies in respect to its axis, in terms of size and structural changes.

“When I begin, I have a good idea of the form and size of the piece. These are abstract pieces not meant to represent anything. They can be wall pieces; some can sit on a table, and the larger ones can be placed on the floor. I use an oil or natural finish.”

Much Better

Completing a piece can take several weeks, and since he began sculpting in 2008, he has created 13 pieces.

“It’s been much better than the first time I was sculpting,” he reports. “Not only have I had more experiences, Princeton has been a wonderful place, a nurturing place to be an artist. People are very supportive. I was invited to join the Princeton Artists Alliance, and when I brought some of my early work to the Morpeth Gallery, there was interest. Now I’m doing sculpture and being represented by Ruth.”

Ruth Morpeth, owner of the gallery, recalls her first visit with Mr. Perry. “I met him during a studio visit with his wife and fellow artist Hetty Baiz. At this time, I happened to notice a weathered, yet spare and modernistic, assembled wood sculpture gracing their front lawn. Jim rather diffidently mentioned that he had made it long ago. It was not until a year or so later he presented me with a newly-made sculpture, and it took only this one piece to entice me to commit to an exhibition.”

Mr. Perry, having been a Princeton resident for 25 years, is very pleased with his relocation from New York. “I love the fact that you can walk and ride a bike to our wonderful library or to the Whole Earth Center for organic vegetables. We spend a lot of time walking on the campus and through town. There are so many interesting people here. Everything about Princeton is under-stated. Eminent professors can live on your street, and they’re down-to-earth, just like your neighbors. There’s a lack of snobbery here.

“We enjoy concerts at McCarter and going to the art museum. My two kids are products of the Princeton public schools. My older son went on to graduate from the University of Chicago, and my younger son is a music student at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers. “

Homemade Pasta

Mr. Perry continues his interest in guitar and clawhammer banjo, regularly getting together with a group of like-minded musicians in Somerville. “We play old-time string band music — the kind of music that was played in the Appalachian Mountains before blue grass.”

He is also a cook, his specialty being homemade pasta. As he explains, “The deal was with my early retirement, I’d have dinner on the table when my wife came home from her job in the Office of Information Technology at Princeton University. I also enjoy cooking for company.”

He hasn’t completely left his journalistic life behind, and admits to being a news junkie, often listening to NPR on the radio while he sculpts.

Sculpture is now his focus, however, and it fills his days. He is cognizant that not everyone is able to fulfill their dreams, especially struggling artists who often face negative reaction to their early efforts. “I admire people who have made a difference and have been able to follow their dreams.”

That would describe Jim Perry, and as Kate Somers points out, “While it is easy to be immediately seduced by the beauty of Perry’s sculptures, it is important to spend time with them. Each approach to the sculpture brings a surprise. As the light shifts from day to night, the pieces take on a new life. The trajectory of a curve is never-ending. The arc of an artist’s career can rise and fall and rise again.

“While Princeton has a rich community of excellent painters, print-makers, and fine art photographers, it has far fewer sculptors working in the area. Sculpture has unique challenges as an art form, and we are very fortunate to have Jim in our midst.”

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