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Retired UGA professor Jim Herbert reflects on life’s work in film and painting | Arts & Culture

Tucked away in an old gymnasium on the outskirts of downtown Athens is a studio filled with more than 1,000 12-by-12-foot acrylic figure paintings by artist Jim Herbert.

The painter and filmmaker taught at the University of Georgia’s Lamar Dodd School of Art for over four decades and has art in prominent museums around the world. Now retired, the two-time Guggenheim Award winner continues to create art with studios in Brooklyn, New York and Athens, Georgia.

Herbert sat across the room in a fold-out chair, dressed in a hat and his painting clothes. As he described his life in great detail, he spoke with his hands, the same hands that have built his career.

Herbert’s story as an artist began with the support from his parents in his early artistic pursuits. Both his mother and father encouraged his creative abilities and his wish to create a career for himself in the arts.

“It was something I was automatically attracted to as a young person,” Herbert said.

For his undergraduate degree, Herbert attended the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island. Because of his progressing artistic efforts, particularly in painting, Herbert was offered a paid education at Dartmouth College, where they were looking to fill their newly established art program.

It was during his second year at Dartmouth that Herbert was offered a position to teach painting to other students in the program because of his accelerated skills.

It was also at Dartmouth where Herbert developed an affinity for creating art depicting human anatomy. His paintings drew the attention of the local medical center for which he created anatomical drawings for their books and magazines.

After graduating from the University of Colorado with a master’s degree, Herbert got his first job at the University of Georgia teaching at the Lamar Dodd School of Art in 1962.

“It was a wonderful time for cultural change and excitement and people were very enthusiastic. They were enthusiastic about things related to the arts,” Herbert said.

The ‘60s was a historic decade locally and nationally for the arts. In Athens, Lamar Dodd spearheaded the visual arts.

“There was a scene here that was happening and the art department was kind of the center of it,” Herbert said.

Herbert continued to create art pieces styled after the human body, his artistic muse. During the ‘60s, nudity was seen as a form of beautiful expression, void of sexuality and much less taboo.

“I think that the tribal thing of the nudity thing, though, the nakedness thing or whatever you want to call it, partly came from the experience of the hippie era,” Herbert said. “There was a sort of naturalism about nudity.”

During his 45 years of teaching at UGA, Herbert came to develop an affinity for filmmaking. Much like his paintings, Herbert created nude films without the intention of sexuality. Instead, he depicted the innate, raw human state of existence.

“I was always always fascinated with the human figure and all the variations,” Herbert said. “There’s a whole language.”

Herbert has created 51 films in his career, three of which were showcased at the Sundance Film Festival. Film has even intersected into Herbert’s art with some of his art pieces included in filmmakers Gus Van Stant and Martin Scorcese’s personal collections. Herbert also tried his hand at music videos.

Athens’ own R.E.M. asked Herbert to film the music video to their hit song “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” At the end of this video, a dog can be seen walking into frame and licking the person’s face. According to Herbert, this moment was unscripted, and he couldn’t have been happier with this unexpected occurrence.

“The idea of things falling into place or things just happening out of the process of making was always the way I work,” Herbert said. “I wanted the distortions and the magic that can come just out of spontaneous combustion.”

Herbert has balanced creating both paintings and films for most of his career. However, the transition to digital filmmaking proved to be a problem for the artist. He was used to sending the film to the lab to be developed, and did not know what he shot until it returned.

“I didn’t like seeing what I was doing while I was doing it,” Herbert said. “Painting, though, was always my first love and filmmaking was my mistress.”

Herbert has focused on different mediums throughout his life, from film to painting. For 10 years, Herbert lived in Brooklyn, New York, focusing solely on his paintings. This is where he expanded his large collection of work.

The immense size of the paintings was inspired by the size of one of the walls in his own home.

“That’s what I decided was a good size for paintings, a very human size,” Herbert said. “If you grew up in the abstract expressionist period, which I did, that was always about large scale paintings, because the idea was that the painting ought to be as big as you are, as big as you can stretch your hands.”

Herbert paints with his bare hands using acrylic paint. He uses this unique method in order to cover more of the canvas at a faster pace. He also rotates the canvas, painting upside down to avoid using ladders.

Because of the large scale of his art, Herbert decided not to sell most of his life’s work. Instead, an old friend from UGA, Ian McFarlane, has taken on the role of curator and caretaker of Herbert’s collection. He has overseen and continues to oversee the transportation of the foldable paintings to the Athens warehouse from New York.

“70% of them will paint in the location. And about 30% of about 300-400 of them were probably painted in New York and shipped down to me over the years in different truckloads,” McFarlane said.

McFarlane and Herbert have known each other for three decades and share a mutual respect for each other as artists. McFarlane even has a studio for his own artwork on the floor above Herbert’s warehouse studio. However, McFarlane does not consider his position as caretaker a business opportunity.

“I’m not his business manager. I never want to be his business manager in the future,” McFarlane said. “I’ll probably be more like the custodian and just the overseer to make sure everything’s protected, make sure everything’s taken care of [and] make sure the building is taken care of.”

Today, Herbert is doing what he does best — painting intricate large acrylic paintings of the human form and its many contortions at his Athens studio.

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