(1940 - 2015)
Ben'h Usry was active/lived in Florida, South Carolina. Benh Usry is known for collage, minimalist images, abstraction, drawing, painting, lithographs.
Biography from the Archives of askART
Biography from the Archives of askART
(1940 - ) South Carolina
Painter and print maker Ben'h Usry is known for Abstract Torn Board Collages and Minimalist style images that focused on the interrelationship of color, shapes and edges during the 1970's. After witnessing the Apollo 11 lift-off, Usry's work moved from a traditional perspective to aerial abstract landscapes. This was later followed by linear line symmetry bands painted on the reverse side of plexiglass that allowed environments and space to interact with his work. In 1995-98 he painted the first and only known visual interpretations of the Twelve Step Program of Alcoholic Anonymous. 2005 Usry began his 'American Icon' series of large traditional style charcoal drawings, acrylic paintings and lithographs of bacon and eggs as subject matter. In 2011 Usry began a representational series of paintings called 'Florida Water Days' that document the change in water and atmosphere along the Florida coastline from the Gulf to the Atlantic.
Ben'h Usry was born in 1940 in Aiken, South Carolina. At age fourteen he studied painting under South Carolina artist Elizabeth Bates, who became his mentor until his mid twenties. In 1961 his Army Reserve unit was activated during the Berlin Crisis. Usry was sent to Fort Polk, La where he served as an Army illustrator until August 1962. He then moved to Jacksonville, Florida and worked shortly for the May Company Department store as an illustrator in Advertising.
In the summer of 1963, Usry went to Europe to experience first hand the art and the culture. He continued to revisit Europe during his twenties to explore museums, galleries and to search out major works of art. He is a self-taught artist and attributes his art education to these summers in Europe and to his mentor Elizabeth Bates. It was in 1970 that Usry first encountered the work of Mark Rothko at the Tate Museum in London. Rothko's work had a profound influence on him. Usry stated that Rothko has created masterpieces within my life time, and they are as spiritual as any created in the past. It was Mark Rothko, Pier Mondrian and Joan Miro that had the greatest influence on Usry's works.
Ben'h Usry began exhibiting his work in 1967 with solo shows at Studio Gallery One and the Phillips Gallery at Jacksonville University. Russell Hickens, Director of the Jacksonville Museum of Contemporary Art, approached Usry regarding a major One Man show at the museum. Usry spent two years producinq art for this exhibition. Usry always worked in series that started with a "germ of an idea" he said. The Jazz Abstract series were large scale works of bright juxtaposed patterns. Usry called the Jazz paintings "organized chaos". They were inspired by the marketing frenzy of the urban American landscape he saw after returning from a comparatively clean, orderly Europe. This series was exhibited at the Jacksonville Museum Contemporary Art in 1971.
In July 1969, Usry went to Cape Canaveral to witness the launching of Apollo 11, the first maned trip to the moon. This experience later surfaced and was reflected in his series of torn board collages of modernistic aerials and geological forms that occupied him for nine years and lead to his subsequent paintings of abstract aerial landscapes. These works helped define his career.
Usry's work was selected for 'Florida Creates 71-72' a national touring invitational show and in 1972, Usry and his art were the subject in the film American Artisf produced under a grant from the Ford Foundation.
Ben'h Usry was a member and co-founder of 'Art Celebration' a group of thirteen regional artist that exhibited biannually as a group from 1972 until 1995. Memphis Wood, Joseph Jeffers Dodge, Charles Moses Brown, Margaret Koscielny, Enzo Torcoletti, Mark Howard, David Engdahl and Allison Watson were members of this group. Selected artist for this group was determined by medium rather than style.
Usry was represented by galleries in Washington D.C., Pittsburg PA, Sarasota FL, Jacksonville FL and Central America. Usry's work was placed in more than a hundred corporate collections throughout the U.S. In 1976 he was commissioned by Ira Koger to do the Yen-yan window in the Koger Chinese Wing of the Jacksonville Museum. His work is included in the City Collection, the Preston Haskell collection of American Contemporary Art and the Jacksonville Museum of Contemporary Art.
In 1980 Usry began painting Minimalist hard edge linear bands and stripes on the back side of plexiglass. These works allowed the environment to reflect in the solid dark areas and become part of the piece. His preoccupation with space exploration again surfaced in these large scale works.
From 1984 until 1986 Usry served on the Federal Design Council in association with the National Endowment of the Arts in Washington D.C. to create and establish graphic art standards for all Federal Government documents and publications.
In 1986 Ben'h Usry's life took a different turn with the knowledge of his father's terminal cancer. Their relationship had been difficult during his early life due to his father's lack of support for his art and other issues that were unresolved. He spent time in South Carolina with his mother and father until his father's death in 1988.
It was in 1989 that Usry entered the recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous. During the following six years he did not produce any art and focused instead on recovery. After six years in recovery, in 1995 Usry began painting his interpretations of the Twelve Step Program of Recovery. It took him three years to complete this series. With abstract forms, evocative colors and words, each painting relays a message and a mood. Usry said he wanted to leave them open enough to allow viewers to recognize their own experiences. "I tried to capture the essence and principle of each step," Usry wrote. In Step one deep purple and black dominate the space and part of the first step is written in script at the bottom- "we admitted we were powerless over everything" - the word "powerless' stands out in blue. These mixed-medium paintings were the first and only visual interpretation of the Twelve Step Program. Later he made prints of these paintings for hospitals, treatment centers and individuals.
After a ten year absence, Usry opened in 1998 with a one-man gallery show with a new body of large works called Tapestry Paintings. These Abstracts consisted of heavy impasto pattern areas with rope and string interwoven and pulling linear lines across the surface. There was a relationship to the earlier plexiglas pieces, but these were less formal. The ropes suggested tension within the complex patterns. Some paintings had metal attachments that allowed the lines to cross paths on the surface.
In 2003 Usry began working on drawings, paintings and lithographs of Bacon and Eggs as subject matter that he called the "American Icon" series.
In 2010 Usry was in south Florida when the Gulf Coast Oil Spill disaster occurred. This was devastating news to Usry because he had spent vacations in Panama City Beach on the Gulf. Returning to Jacksonville, he began working on abstract minimal paintings that documented events following the spill. In 2011 he had an Installation Show called 'Gulf Water Days' with paintings and narrative of the Gulf Oil Spill.
2011 Usry began painting the 'Florida Water Day' series that document the change in water and sky of the Florida coastline from the Gulf to the Atlantic.
*Art Critic Elihu Edelson wrote in the Times Union Journal review of the 1980 Usry show:
"At first glance they have a superficial resemblance to the well known purist space division paintings by the pioneer abstractionist Piet Mondrian. However, upon analysis one immediately notes significant differences. The main resemblance to Mondrian is in the strict rectangularity of design. The main difference is that the grid of stripes does not completely break up the space. Instead, the stripes (or lines) are broken, allowing a flow of space, and in only one picture do they reach the edges. Usry's technique is also unique. The painting is done in solid colors on the back of clear Plexiglas through which we look at the image. This means that the colors have to be applied in the reverse order from the usual way - white stripes first and background last. As a result there is a slight illusion that the stripes are raised from the background (instead of being literally imbedded in it), so that they look like stripes of thin tape.
To Usry, the change from torn imagery to purist geometry is not so much a matter of style as it is one of viewpoint. Where the torn images suggested geologic formations, the new ones symbolize a turning of perception from earth to the sky. It is a concept which had been germinating in the artist's mind for several years. Usry was deeply affected by the first pictures brought back to Earth by astronauts - particularly the image of our water planet against the darkness of space. That darkness becomes the background of the new paintings. But space itself is a barren subject. A figure is needed to play against the dark ground. Hence the grid work of lines and rectangles. These represent the presence of man. Straight lines and rectangles are rarely found in nature, so here they symbolize that which is man-made. Now we see that by not having a complete break-up of the picture plane Usry is saying, visually, that man cannot make boundaries in space. He may enclose some limited areas, but this is insignificant when viewed against the infinite universe.
Usry's dramatic change in style has been a calculated risk - one that paid off handsomely in terms of the esthetic product and the experience provided the viewer."
"Source: "Radically Changed Usry Work Exhibited" by Art Critic Elihu Edelson February
15,1980, Times Union Journal. A portion of review.
* 'Rebirth of An Artist' by Art Writer Melissa Pracht. ARBUS, Arts and Business Oct-Nov 2005. A portion of review.
Suffice to say that after this exhibition and future shows to be held as this series unfolds, it will be hard to look bacon and eggs the same way. Usry's charcoal drawings show raw eggs, still in their shells, and uncooked bacon in it's fat marbled glory, larger than life, in different combinations and situations. Once the viewer gets over the idea that he's looking at bacon and eggs, probably the most common meal in existence, different evocation begin to occur. Somehow, a fried egg in a pan and, beside it, a raw egg still in it's shell conjure up visions of a universe with planets and solar systems and milky ways. A close-up of three pieces of uncooked bacon laying side by side, their complex fat designs running into one another, is a relief map of a fantasy country abundant with rivers, mountains, lakes and islands. At first, this very specific subject matter might seem out of step with Usry's previous work, which is abstract and sometimes geometrical. But from the early years of his career, Usry has been preoccupied with the first photos of earth taken from space. His geometrical paintings in the '80s probed the presence of man and the habitat he has carved out in a tiny piece of the infinite unknown. His torn collages of the '70s are elegant, layered forms that look like rivers, lakes and mountains as seen from far above. Likewise, the re-interpreted bacon and eggs form microcosmic universes that we might see from above if we are looking.
* Source. Melissa Pracht. ARBUS magazine Oct-Nov 2005. Pages 60-64
* In 'Water Days', reviewer Madeleine Peck Wagner wrote;
In Water Days he uses the Gulf oil spill as a point of ideological departure, the imagery itself has more in common with color field painters, specifically Rothko, albeit with a kind of Katz-ian edge to it. As if the time spent in the crystalline light of the Florida Gulf has Sharpened all the edges. "When viewed from the air," explains Usry, ''the oil doesn't look black; it looks red." It is the redness, in a vast sea of blue that electrifies an otherwise serene scene. As an element, the Chinese poppy red line is deeply satisfying: however it takes on distinctly sinister overtones when it revealed that the line is neither reflected light, nor an artistic gesture, but oil itself, creeping towards the shore. The red becomes the embodiment of an unstoppable, mindless evil against which there is no recourse. Compositionally predicated on the horizon, the new paintings are titled by day; In the piece Day 48, Arrival, the oil exists as thin line far in the distance while in the piece Egg in the Gulf, an egg, the symbol of fertility and life (and one of Usry's favorite symbols), is coated in the palpably deadly substance.
* Source. Madeleine. ARBUS May/June 2011. A portion of review. Pages 68-71
Exhibitions (Partial List)
Phillips Gallery, Jacksonville University
Jacksonville Museum of Contemporary Art
Art Sources Inc.
Museum of Modern Art, San Salvador
Cum mer Gallery of Art and Gardens
Florida Creates 71-72 Touring Exhibition
Palm Beach American Painters Expo
Norton museum, Palm Beach
Loch Haven Art Center, Orlando
University of South Florida
University of Florida, Gainesville
St. Petersburg Gallery of Art
Ringling Museum of Art
Karpeles Manuscript Museum
Corporate & Public Collections (Partial List)
Jacksonville Museum of Contemporary Art
Computer Power Co., FL
Alper Investment Corp, Atlanta
Hilton Head Inc., South Carolina
Clearwater Saving & Loan, FL
Twin Towers, Dallas TX
Amelia Island Plantation Inc., GA
Barnett Winston Bldg, Jacksonville
First National Bank, Washington, D.C.
Ira Koger Properties Inc,
Museum of Arts and Sciences, FL
Independent Life, FL
Treemont Management Co., Dallas TX
Preston Haskell American Collection FL
Bank of America
Atlantic National Bank, Palm Beach
Jacksonville City Collection
Tupperware Collection, Orlando FL
French Embassy, San Salvador
Southern Bell Tower Collection
Commissions (Partial List)
International City Corp, Atlanta
Koger Chinese Museum Wing
Treemont Management Co. Dallas
First National Bank, Chicago
Atlantic Bank, Palm Beach
Omni, Atlanta GA
Omni, Norfolk VA
French Embassy, San Salvador
Amelia Island Plantation Inc.
Bank of America
Barnett Bank of Palm Beach
Owens & Merrill Architects, Chicago
Museum of Contemporary Art (M.O.C.A.)
333 N. laura Street
Museum of Science and History (M.O.S.H.)
1025 Museum Circle
1971 Dr. Allen S. Weller Florida Creates 1971-1972
2002 Debra Murphy Passion & Clarity The art of
ARBUS 2011 May/June "Water Stories"
By: Madeleine Wagner
ARBUS 2010 Sept/Oct Front Cover
Art & Antiques 2007 Oct "Southern Art"
By: Richard Allport
ARBUS 2005 Oct/Nov "Rebirth of an Artist"
By: Melissa Pracht
ARBUS 1998 Sep/Oct "Exhibition"
Art Voices South 1979 Nov/Dec "Ben'h Usry"
By: Judy Wells Martin
House Beautiful 1975 June "Space Imaginatively"
By: Ruth Weil
Jacksonville 1975 Vol. 12 "28 of City's Finest"
By: Elizabeth Kaufman
SIGNAGE OF ART WORKS
Art Works done in his youth and early twenties were signed Ben'H with a capital B and capital H.
Works since 1965 - 2012 have been signed with his full name ben'h. usry (lower case) on the front
of all Drawings, Silk Screen Prints, Lithographs and Torn Collage Assemblages.
Paintings have his last name only. Painted usry (lower case script) on the front or on the side in
some cases where he did not want to disturb the front surface of the painting.
USRY is always signed in lower case. (usry) * (After 2008 a few graphic prints were signed only usry with pencil)
1940 -1065 first name only Ben'H (caps on the letters B & H)
1965 - 2012 full name signed ben'h usry in pencil (lower case) on Drawings, Prints, and Torn Collages Assemblages.
1965 - 2012 last name usry - (lower case script) on all Paintings
Alan C. Ransdell, Personal Property Adjuster & Appraiser
Following is an obituary of Ben'h Usry:
** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Mr. Ben'h Usry, 74, a resident of Jacksonville for fifty-four years and a very well-known Contemporary Artist, entered into rest on Monday, March 2, 2015.
Born in Aiken County, South Carolina, and a resident of Jacksonville, Florida, for fifty-four years, he was a son of the late Woodrow W. and Rachel Usry. Ben'h was a Friend of Bill W.
Several pieces of his artwork are featured at the Betty Ford Center. Additional family members include siblings, Kim Usry and his former wife, Cathy, Beech Island, SC, and Kathy Baxter and her husband, William H. "Butch," Aiken, SC; as well as several nieces and nephews that he dearly loved.
A Celebration of Life Service will be held on Saturday, March 14, 2015, at 3 o'clock in the chapel of Hatcher Funeral Home & Cremation Service, Langley, SC, with Pastor Clarence Thompson. The family has asked that if so desired, memorials in his memory be made to the Betty Ford Center.
Submitted by Holly Connell
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