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Dance Insider & Arts Voyager editor and publisher Paul Ben-Itzak, who has also written for Reuters, the New York Times, and many others and also publishes Art Investment News, is looking for work in France, where he lived and worked for 10 years. He is ready to include his magazines in any deal. Interested parties can e-mail Paul.

Arts Voyager Gallery, 10-7: Robert L. Berry's JazzXpressionStudio
"I am already validated the moment I create a piece of art"

Robert L. Berry, "Monday Night Blues." Copyright Robert L. Berry.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2013 Paul Ben-Itzak

FORT WORTH, Texas -- While fixing the base of a painting as yellow may be an unusually bold choice, it's an appropriate one for a visual artist whose subject is a musical art which is also constantly re-creating its own distinct milieu: Jazz. But what makes Robert L. Berry and his JazzXpressionStudio unique in the landscape of local artists in this city whose promoters somewhat ambitiously refer to it as the capital of "Cowboys and Culture" is that his boldness is not confined to artistic choices, but extends to the business of art. After eight years of participating as a showcased artist in Arts Goggle, the business association Fort Worth South's twice-yearly art crawl, returning October 12, in which restaurant, office, and store owners feature work by local artists that ranges from the distinct to the daughter's, Berry decided to up the ante a year and a half ago and rent a street-level boutique space in a mid-sized office building on the district's marquee avenue, W. Magnolia, so that he could display and sell his work in the neighborhood year-round.

On paper, it was a good idea. Magnolia is the thoroughfare of the Fairmount neighborhood, which touts itself as the oldest historic preservation district in the southwest. For the past decade, middle-class whites have been buying up and often restoring the area's charming Craftsman-era houses, as many of the Blacks and Latinos who for years formed the area's core population move out or on to the poorer, more dangerous fringes of the neighborhood. With them has come a mini-explosion of restaurants, bars, nightclubs, boutique public relations firms, coffee houses, and the ubiquitous (and polluting) food trucks. But the first sign that this upwardly mobile caravan didn't necessarily have room for high art was when plans for Fort Worth's first art house cinema, announced by the vegan eatery Spiral Diner, appeared to have stalled if not fizzled out. Then this year, Fort Worth South took the ill-considered step of charging the very merchants who persist in the face of this apathy in bringing art to the 'hood $100 just to participate (and artists $25), unless they are members of the organization -- they now have to pay for the privilege of promoting the neighborhood, not to mention artists starved for resources and outlets, in a town that recently cut $250,000 from its cultural budget. (That Fort Worth was the fastest-growing city in the U.S. from 2000 to 2010 hasn't stopped its cultural budget from shrinking, nor increased the likelihood that it will ever get a decent public transportation system; at the instigation of downtown business interests, the irresponsible City Council even *gave back* $25 million in federal money it had received for light-rail transportation that would have made it easier to get to the Cultural District, the downtowners worrying that it would draw tourists away from their shoppees to fine art.)

Robert L. Berry, (l-r), "Jazz Ghost Guitar," "Ghost Jazz Guitar Player 1," and "Jazz Ghost Guitar Player." Copyright Robert L. Berry.

Meanwhile, the city's handful of art dealer - galleries seem to recycle the same small clique of artists over and over again, small-town legends with little national traction. And the major local museum whose mission is to feature American art, the Amon Carter, shows little interest in cultivating and nurturing local talent. On the other end of the spectrum, the Fort Worth Community Arts Center occasionally offers some jewels, but trust in its curatorial vision is diminished by the fact that most of the featured artists simply rent the gallery space.

It's one thing to produce art in a city like New York, whose Chelsea District is if anything over-stocked with galleries, leaving lots of room for talent to emerge. But what about a city whose barometers of taste and discernment are at best dubious, and where public funding of the arts is so spartan? What motivates an artist to persevere in such a barren landscape? The late Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski once told me that in creating his dreamy opuses, he didn't worry about public response; if he touched even one person, that was enough. In persisting with his own multi-media visual explorations of jazz -- his latest innovation is hand-painted ceramic bisque and slate jazz coasters -- Robert L. Berry seems to model a similar determination. Of the 200 artists featured at the upcoming Arts Goggle, he's the only one who's invested in his own year-round boutique -- to actually guarantee that art has a year-round presence on W. Magnolia, and is not just a passing fancy -- a two-way promotion that evinces his own commitment to the city's southside. (Maybe Fort Worth South should consider taking some of the income from those new fees and paying or at least subsidizing Berry's rent, to ensure that he can stay.) Herewith our interview. The images featured are of work most of which uses acrylic with cerne relief outliner on canvas, sometimes with the addition of DecorArt dazzling metallic paints.

Robert L. Berry, "Eyes of Jazz." Copyright Robert L. Berry.

When did you decide to devote yourself to making art as a profession?

I have always thought of myself as a professional, whether it was with art or serving in the military, school, or life in general. I have been devoted to art since I can remember -- starting at about four or five years of age. I think I was just born with the creative ability. To answer the question more directly, the first time that I ventured out in the public to show my work as a professional was about 25 years ago.

In your biography on your JazzXpressionStudio website, you state: "I believe that in the quest for individuality, art is the highest expression of 'human victory.' I was startled by the juxtaposition of this with your experience as a veteran. How did your time serving in Vietnam influence, if at all, your devotion to your art?

I have always wanted to be individual with my work. I once had a professor in college who thought that I could not draw, so he gave me an 'F' in his drawing class. That incident, I am sure, fueled not only my individuality, but my passion for creating art. That event was during the Vietnam War. I was about to be drafted into the Army, but I decided to join the Air Force. As it turned out I wound up in Vietnam anyway. The Vietnam experience cut short my art aspirations, but art was something that I would not ever give up no matter what. Not even an 'F' in drawing could make me give up. You might say that being in Vietnam enhanced my resolve to be the best individual artist I could be. That 'F' in drawing was during my first semester in college. I did get 'A's in color and design, though.

Do you listen to Jazz when you're painting?

Yes. I listen to Jazz and Blues and some R & B when I am painting. Music is a part of my everyday routine since I do not like TV. Too much non-reality.

Do you think of your works as interacting with Jazz.... Or perhaps reflecting it...? Playing with it...?

Yes. Interacting with not only Jazz, but music in general. I can relate to what the musician may be feeling or the creative nature of what he or she may be trying to convey. All artists are expressing their feelings in their own individual ways. It all goes back to that highest expression of "Human Victory." I learned that from practicing Buddhism for over 30 years. Life is about your own personal happiness and winning in life. Nichiren Buddhism philosophy is about individual happiness for oneself and others along with world peace, so a number of factors, including the Vietnam experience, influence what I create. I guess you might say it's all about having a positive attitude.

How does Jazz as a music form lend itself particularly to a visual art?

I think Jazz lends itself rather well, because both Jazz and art can be improvisational and individual. In both instances, the artist either has no rules or breaks the rules that exist to express his or herself -- the way they see the world or how they may feel about a certain issue.

When you listen to Jazz, are you always visualizing it, seeing pictures?

Yes. I am visualizing and I enter the world of Jazz, listening to every instrument and vocal. Jazz can seem abstract, but then that is the idea. Put it all together and you get an array of wonderful colors, like colorful notes from, let's say, a saxophone or guitar.

You've chosen a sort of combination of abstract and figurative. Was that on purpose?

Sometimes it is on purpose. I mostly just play around to see what I can come up with and to shock and awe. Like when I create characters, I might make the instrument and the character a part of each other.

How do the materials you work with -- mostly acrylic and cerne relief outliner -- fit your subject; why did you pick them?

I have always used mostly acrylic. I like the texture that it gives. The cerne relief outliner paint came later, around 1998 or so. I like it for the same reason I like acrylic, the texture that I can achieve, and of course the drawing quality; it has made me more determined that I can draw.

You decided in mid-2012 to step up from just doing the twice-yearly Arts Goggle shows on Fort Worth's southside to actually renting a public boutique on Magnolia throughout the year. How has this worked out? What kind of interaction do you have with the public? What hours are you normally there? What's the foot traffic like on Magnolia? Is it different at night than during the day? Do you get a lot of walk-ins? Do you think you'll continue?

I still do Arts Goggle. I have been doing it for 10 years. I wanted my own gallery space because artists are often left out of galleries and other, political, art shows. The experience has been both good and bad. Good because I can say that I did it. Bad because the public has not really embraced what I am doing in the area. I have had little interaction with the public. I see people going to eat next door and occasionally they will look in the window, but I do not see a lot of interest. Very little foot traffic. I am there during the lunch hours between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.. I have been there at various times and it is about the same. I may continue for a few more months, but I am close to moving on.

What do you think of Fort Worth's appreciation (or lack of) for art and artists? Does Fort Worth nurture its 'local' artists?

I see appreciation for some artists, the chosen ones so to speak. I know a lot of artists who do not feel too appreciated, including myself. I see little support for local artists. The ones that are supported may disagree with me.

On a person to person level, how do you find Fort Worth residents' appreciation of or perception of art and artists?

I think that for the most part, most residents do not have a clue about art or artists. I have heard people admit that. The education process has a long way to go.

What do you think of Fort Worth South's decision to start charging the artists $25 and non-member venues $100 to register for Arts Goggle?

I think that $25 is reasonable for artists. The $100 for non-members could be a problem. You may actually weed out some of the less professional types.

Does the artist need validation, be it critical or consumer? How to do without this?

I do not believe that the artist needs validation, but I am only speaking for myself. I am already validated the moment I create a piece of art. I know who I am and what I want to do as an artist. Everyone will not like what you do, so you have to do it for yourself and seek out those who embrace your work.

What are your current inspirations?

My only inspiration is to forever keep doing what I do and make a million dollars selling art.

What are you working on right now?

I'm working on an 30" x 40" abstract piece called "Red State of Mind."

The JazzXpressionStudio at 1208 W. Magnolia Avenue, Suite 100, is open Tuesday through Thursday from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., or by appointment by calling 817-480-3305. Fall Arts Goggle takes place October 12 from 4 to 10 p.m.. To see more images of art by Robert L. Berry, click here.

Robert L. Berry, (l), "Blue State of Mind" and (r) "Sax Guitar." Copyright Robert L. Berry.

Robert L. Berry, (l) "Jazz Faces 2," and (r) "Chocolate Jazz." Copyright Robert L. Berry.

Robert L. Berry, "Fool Face 2." Copyright Robert L. Berry.

Robert L. Berry, "Abstract 2012." Copyright Robert L. Berry.

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