Jack Spencer's Restless Art
The Nashville artist can’t decide whether he’s more passionate about photography, painting, or music
“I don’t do commitment,” says Jack Spencer almost as soon as I meet him. I am standing in the living room, water dripping from my hair. I’ve gotten soaked in the few minutes it has taken me to race from the car into his house, caught in a heavy downpour that will go on for days and cause severe flooding throughout Tennessee. He eyes me warily as I catch my breath, then ducks into the safety of an armchair behind the large dining room table.
Trying to put him at ease, I admire the house; walls are covered with paintings and photographs, some by friends, others his own, which I recognize immediately from books and shows. A large reproduction of a Botero painting dominates the living room. The furniture is overstuffed, serviceable, and comfortable. The neighborhood is lovely: thirties-style bungalows shaded by trees and surrounded by flowers, now flattened by the deluge. A tour bus crawls past, on its way to gawk at his friend Alison Krauss’s house down the street. I ask Spencer how long he’s owned his home. “I’ve been renting for eleven years,” he says. “I don’t marry, I don’t do mortgages. This is my bachelor shack. We have great old martini parties here.”
What with the pounding rains and his declaration of independence, our interview is off to a rollicking start. Jack Spencer, photographer, painter, musician, and philanthropist, is a man of big appetites, big emotions, big ambitions, big talents, and big pronouncements. I am often reluctant to meet artists and writers whose work I admire; it is frequently the case that they have not held their temperaments up to the same standards as their talents. In these first few minutes, I’m worried this is going to be one of those cases. But Spencer, for all his gruff, and somewhat shy, awkwardness, turns out to be one of the most bighearted, funny, generous, kind, and moral people anyone could hope to meet.
Spencer’s photography is equally large in its impact, haunting, provocative, and beautiful; many of his images are unforgettable. Much of his work is remarkable not only in its imagery, but also because of darkroom manipulations that yield up unusually rich, lush sepia prints. His early photographs were published in a book, in 1999, called Native Soil. The series, at first glance, chronicles a trip through the southern Mississippi of his childhood; Spencer was born in Kosciusko, in 1951. But Native Soil is more profoundly a meditation on race, poverty, kinship, joy, and love. The photographs give glimpses of lives rich with stories, if not with material goods. Spencer returned in several memorable images to an elderly black man with a formidable face, named Will “Cooter” Branch. “I just loved that man,” Spencer says. “He had eleven kids. Sent ten to college. I spent a lot of time listening to his stories—and learning about the terrible wounds left by prejudice. Native Soil is an answer to that.” For Spencer, the pictures were a way to unlearn the poisonous attitudes that had been bequeathed to him by his family, people he loved and knew were good and decent but, he eventually understood, misguided.