published Sunday, January 1st, 2012

'Past and Present'

The January exhibit at River Gallery showcases the paintings of James Conner and the mixed-media creations of Sammie Nicely.

Their show, "Past and Present," goes on display Monday and continues through Jan. 31.

Conner grew up in rural Mississippi. Because his earliest memories are of drawing before he was old enough to go to school, he believes he was destined to be an artist. He studied advertising art while in high school and served as a graphic artist and illustrator for the U.S. Army during two tours in Vietnam and Europe.

Returning home, Conner earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Wayne State University and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Mississippi. He decided to settle permanently in the South and be a full-time artist. This decision brought a new focus and intensity to his work.

Conner's paintings are colorful, and he strives to paint the passion of the moment. His time in Vietnam had a great impact on him.

"When I returned home, I saw things in a way I had never seen them before," he says in his artist's statement. "I try to capture my emotions as quickly as they emerge."

In fact, the artist keeps a sketchbook next to his bed in case he is inspired during the night.

"It's not unusual for me to get out of bed to capture a thought before it escapes me," he said.

His images are a diary of his life and heritage in rural Mississippi, his family and traditions of the past.

Nicely, a contemporary folk artist from Georgia, received his art degree from Middle Tennessee State University. He works with oil pastel, clay, found objects and pencil and feels that his work strongly reflects an identification with his African heritage.

Most recently, he has been drawn to the mask form -- not only in his two-dimensional work but also in making them. Some masks incorporate found objects while others are made from earthenware clay that is wood- or pit-fired. They have an ancestral or ceremonial quality.

"Masks have been an integral part of most societies," Nicely says in his statement accompanying the show. "Using masks allows me to present a realm of emotions and experiences."

Giving each mask a life of its own allows the artist to enhance communication with the viewer. For Nicely, art serves as a common ground for communication where each person brings his or her identity into play in order to appreciate his work.

A reception for "Past and Present" will be held Friday from 6:30 to 8 p.m., and both artists will be present (snow date: Saturday, 2-4 p.m.). Conner will give a painting demonstration on Friday.

River Gallery, corner of Bluff View and High streets, is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday and by appointment. Call 265-5033 for information.

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