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Art through an artist's eyes: In new book of essays, Lincoln Perry shares perspectives

Next time you’re strolling in a museum and lingering over works of art, keep in mind that the fellow visitor browsing beside you might be an artist.

It might even be Lincoln Perry, in fact. The former Distinguished Visiting Artist at the University of Virginia loves spending time in museums and he hopes others will accept art’s invitation to look closely, feel deeply and come away somehow better for the effort.

“Art tries to have a conversation with the viewer,” Perry said. “I like the art that has conversations with the viewer instead of delivering a package. To me, the painting that is the most interesting is the one that is on the way to being beautiful.”

Perry has published a new collection of essays about the art of viewing art and will share excerpts from his work at 4 p.m. Saturday at New Dominion Bookshop.

In “Seeing Like an Artist: What Artists Perceive in the Art of Others,” released Oct. 4 in hardcover by Godine, Perry dives into the ways artists themselves look at art created by others. What you are responding to when you’re mesmerized by a work of art may be its subject matter, but it also could be its spatial structure, color, composition or even a lifetime of stereotypes and assumptions about art that can come between you and the work itself.

Fans who’ve spent time examining the many images and visual references in Perry’s large-scale mural in Old Cabell Hall or explored his monograph, “Lincoln Perry’s Charlottesville,” already have a sense of his achievements as a painter and sculptor. “Seeing Like an Artist” offers a glimpse of Perry as art fan and fellow traveler.

On Saturday at New Dominion, Perry will talk about his essays, and share his hope that others will spend time with art and love it as much as he does.

“The gist of the book is that I love the art that I go to museums to see,” Perry said.

Don’t expect a stuffy presentation. There’s room for you at the reading regardless of whether you consider yourself an art buff.

“And they have audiovisual aids,” Perry said. “When you have slides and you’re boring, people can look at the slides.”

In case you’ve ever wondered, artists are indeed supportive of each other’s journeys as they follow the muse and Perry said they’re pleased to see others succeed.

“They’re rooting for quality. It’s, ‘Yay for our side,’” Perry said. He compares it to the way his wife, author Ann Beattie, and fellow writers root for each other in the service of art.

“My wife, when she reads a novella or short-story collection and she loves it, she’s ecstatic,” Perry said. “She’s not competitive. She loves the cause.”

Having mutual support and respect for colleagues, however, doesn’t mean that artists are obligated to keep their opinions to themselves. Especially if they don’t like a piece.

“There’s a pretty large number of bad paintings,” Perry said. “Some are so in-your-face inaccessible that it feels like your fault.” And no matter how well one has educated oneself about the elements of art, there will be times one looks at a canvas and thinks, “I don’t get it, and, therefore, it stinks,” Perry said.

That’s where a healthy perspective can kick in for art fans.

“There’s not a quiz. You’re not going to get laughed at for not getting it,” he said. “I’m intimidated by poetry. If I don’t get it, I can feel like an idiot, or I can just put it down.

“You can just move on. I’m not saying, ‘This is a cornucopia of pure genius.’ Find what you like. Let it sink in. And don’t let it feel like a duty.”

On a recent museum ramble with a friend, Perry “dragged him over in front of a Matisse and said, ‘Let’s just be here a moment.’ As a painter, I started to see connections to other artists,” he said.

There’s always room for a great painter to have a bad day at the canvas, too. Every artistic idea doesn’t work, or at least not on the first try. Perry said he recently fought the temptation to interrupt a tour guide who was gushing about a painting’s magnificence to a group of young students because “I literally couldn’t see it.”

“It seems to me we lionize certain people — Matisse, Picasso, Caravaggio,” Perry said. “Artists don’t see it that way. Sometimes they succeed; sometimes they fail.”

In his essays, Perry leaves plenty of room for growth and change.

“One of the essays is about changing your mind, and I’ve changed mine many times,” he said. “There have been paintings I’ve loved — and now, I walk by them. We change. Your life changes. The way you see it changes.”

It may be comforting to realize that artists are every bit as susceptible to being swept away by the intangible elements of the viewing experience as amateurs are.

“There’s not always something to say about a painting that’s a key or that’s terribly enlightening,” Perry said. Sometimes, it’s simply that “you’re glad you drove to Philadelphia, and you’re glad to find a parking space, because you saw that one wonderful painting.”

The New Dominion staff recommends arriving early to secure the best seating. For details about the event, go to or call (434) 295-2552.


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