“I’m a quiet kind of person,” says Ron Porter, sitting calmly amid an array of his large canvases scattered along the main wall of Carol Stein’s Cumberland Gallery. Indeed, my first impression of the painter is elfin. His smallish stature and wire-rim glasses under a shock of graying sandy hair disguise at first glance a fierce confidence and ready smile that animate his face when he is speaking about his work in a recent interview. His self-effacing demeanor belies also the ruminative power and mystery of the luminous oils that surround us.
Porter’s surreal landscapes, he admits, do not serve any didactic purpose, nor is there an immediately discernable narrative at work. They are, however, arresting in their almost sentient self-awareness. Although a human figure rarely appears in a Porter painting, the works have a sensibility about them that seems as if someone is standing just outside the frame of reference watching the observer, as one admirer noted. It’s an almost eerie feeling. His works serve as portals into an alternate world, exquisitely rendered in tight brushstrokes that feature an incongruent collection of objects in the foreground, usually set on a table that serves, perhaps, as an offering of talismans that one can almost reach out and touch. Or another set of landscapes fills the canvas with the fiery pinks of a sunset above a moodily dark foreground of hills, then—pop!—at dead center is another complete painting of yet another landscape or the darkened outline of a logging truck, framed in white, that may or may not relate to the larger scene.
“I choose objects that are simple and recognizable, that have a universal quality that most people can identify and relate to,” he notes when pressed about his choice of images. “I like the symbolism of a table—it’s necessary for all our dealings as human beings. We eat, we meet, we work at tables. The table implies the human presence, even if an actual figure is not there.”
“It’s up to the viewer to decide,” Porter insists. “I never decide up front what’s going to be in the painting. Somehow the painting tells me when it’s finished. It can change several times in the process. Things get rearranged; things get painted out. It’s mysterious even to me; I can’t explain it.”
As a professor of art at Vanderbilt University, Porter tries to impart to his students that sense of yielding to the canvas. “I like to remind them that the thing they are making is the thing that is making them. Each piece is my totality in the moment it’s being made. The residue—the painting—is what is left over each time I’m finished with that process.” Working in his home studio almost nightly, into the late hours, Porter has amassed a prodigious amount of “residue” in his more-than-twenty-year career.
It was a circuitous path to becoming a full-time painter for Porter. “I always remember that old quote, ‘Opportunity favors those who are prepared.’”
Serendipity led Porter to fortuitous opportunities that he had the good sense to seize. Born and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, he discovered rock and roll at the age of 14, then “got a job in a drugstore, saved my money, bought a drum set, taught myself how to play, and set off to be a musician.” The music took him on a long and satisfying career that allowed him to crisscross the country, with a long stint in clubs around the San Francisco Bay area. “I always had a sketchbook with me,” he notes. “I traveled all over and was constantly drawing.”
He allowed a temporary setback to direct changes to come. “It was 1967; I was 25 or so and had been in Atlanta, where my drums and clothes were stolen. I came back to Knoxville to get an idea of what to do next, and a friend called with a job offer. I went to work for a few years as an exhibit technician at an art museum in Greenville, South Carolina. It was a wonderful chance to have time up close with all those art works.” He attended a workshop there with painter Elaine de Kooning and befriended the museum director, who had known Jasper Johns as a child in Georgia. “We traveled to New York and stayed with Johns in his studio,” Porter recalls. Rubbing elbows with Johns and his fellow artists made an indelible impression on Porter—one that he continues to explore in his work.
“I started out painting abstractly,” he notes. “Eventually, the representative aspects became more interesting to me than the formal aspects of the painting, although every work has abstract qualities throughout it.”
In 1984 he entered Middle Tennessee State University as an undergraduate art student, at the age of 40. His talent was immediately evident and led to a meeting with discerning gallery owner Carol Stein, who was fascinated with his series of large canvases featuring the backs of big-rig trucks. “I had a thing about trucks—the idea of this thing that everybody sees but doesn’t really notice. I wanted to see it in a different way and capture that,” Porter says.
“I was interested in the reflective quality of his work,” remembers Stein. “I also noticed that as he progressed through his truck series the trucks got smaller as the landscape enlarged around them.” Porter responds with a laugh, “They drove away—and finally just drove out of the paintings!” Porter remained, however, and has been represented by Cumberland Gallery from his undergraduate days through his graduate art studies at Ohio University, then back to Nashville and Vanderbilt.
His paintings have been steadily in demand by private, university, and corporate collectors. “Everyone who owns a Porter work owns more than one,” notes Stein.
“I think my years as a professional jazz and R&B drummer, sitting behind all those other musicians, looking out at audiences, gave me plenty of time to think about what I wanted to say. You know drummers don’t say much, there at the back of the band,” Porter laughs. “I realized I could survive as an artist if I could survive as a musician—doing what I wanted to do, seeing things in a different way from most folks. I knew all along that one day I would be a painter. It was something I knew I had to do.”
by Cindy Steine | photography by Lawrence Boothby
An exhibition of Ron Porter’s work shows at Cumberland Gallery September 25–October 30. A reception for the artist will be held at the gallery Saturday, September 25, from 6 to 8 p.m. Cumberlandgallery.com