Brushstrokes

Brushstrokes: The artist’s arithmetic

January 14, 2014 

Scott Laird never met Durham artist Vernon Pratt.

But through Pratt’s artwork, he is getting to know the prolific and gifted artist, who died Feb. 27, 2000.

“One of my colleagues, John Morrison, told me he had learned of an artist that I needed to know about,” said Laird, who is the music instructor and fine arts coordinator at the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics in Durham.

Morrison, who had learned of Pratt through meeting his widow Debi Pratt, put Laird in touch with her, and a marvelous journey began that has led to an exhibit of Pratt’s work that opens at NCSSM on Feb. 7 with a 5 p.m. reception in the auditorium lobby. It is free and open to the public, and will be followed by a concert including works by Brahms, Mozart and Bach among others.

Laird felt an instant affinity with Pratt when he saw his paintings and sculptures, many of which explore geometric patterns and numeric systems.

“That strikes me since I teach about Bach, who was interested in systems. He lived in a time when scientists were learning about astrological systems, and Bach was figuring out musical systems and putting that into his work.” Laird thinks this work will resonate with the NCSSM students.

Pratt was born to be an artist, Debi said. But he was many other things: an avid sailor, a cyclist, a superb saxophonist, a humorist, a dedicated father and husband, and a teacher. From 1964 until his death, Pratt was an associate art professor in Duke’s Department of Art and Art History.

“He was also a mathematician,” Debi said. “He was always working on math problems.”

His works have titles like “All of the possibilities of filling in 16ths,” and “Filling in between white cycle, to 65.537 Grays (the first 65).”

Morrison taught math at NCSSM until 2005, when he founded its computer science program, in which he has been teaching since. “Vernon Pratt’s work presents come very provocative ideas involving mathematical relationships and patterns,” Morrison said. “I also really enjoy his representational pieces, especially the life-sized painting of the bathers in the Durham quarry. It represents a symbol of the Triangle in an affectionate and playful way.”

“There is a certain complexity to Vernon’s art, yet there is a simplicity,” Laird said. “When you look at musical notes on a page, it is the same thing.”

Laird feels there is a strong music theme in Pratt’s work, some of it overt, like in Pratt’s series he did about John Coltrane that is immediately recognizable by a viewer. “What you see in his work is form, and form of course crosses all of art media. When I am looking at the way that Vernon put together these geometric figures, it could easily relate to rhythm in a great piece of music,” Laird said.

When Laird became fine arts coordinator at NCSSM in 2007, he wanted to ensure that the school represented all the arts.

“We had a fine music program, a relatively new dance program, and had just hired someone to do theater, and I thought art exhibits would be a nice addition,” he said.

A gallery space was created in the lobby of the school’s public auditorium with the inaugural show showcasing Olivia Gatewood’s work. Laird met with Debi Pratt at a Durham warehouse where her late husband’s work is stored to see if a NCSSM could be arranged.

“Debi opened the door, and I was blown away by the sheer volume of work,” Laird said. Over 2,000 works reside in the vast space. “It grabbed my attention,” Laird said. “I liked it too.”

Pratt was intrigued by pyramids and one of the pieces that Laird chose for the show is a 1979 painting of a pyramid called “One Stencil Forms All of the Possibilities of 3 into 4.”

‘Oh, the parties ...’

Until his untimely death resulting from a bicycle accident while on sabbatical from Duke at one of his favorite places, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Pratt was a well-known, vibrant, and much loved Durham presence.

“He had an art studio down on Parrish Street which he would open up for the public to walk through, and musicians would come to play jazz. Oh, the parties we had down there,” said Debi. “He was inspired by the loft we had in Soho. It really had an influence on him.”

In the early ’80s, Pratt started the Duke in New York Arts program and, with his family, would live in the city for a semester. “He said to me that ‘these kids needed to go and do apprenticeships so they could deepen what they love to do,” Debi said. “He wanted them to search and dig deep within their souls, and he helped his students deepen that basis for bringing out their own depths of artistic ability. That is why his students loved him so much. He was always evolving his students, lifting them up.”

Pratt also lifted up his community through volunteering with local art groups and creating the education wall on Raleigh’s government mall.

This 1960 graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, who eventually became known as“Art Rat Vernon Pratt,” was influenced by Edward Hopper, Hans Hofmann, and Jackson Pollock. But his great friendship with the figurative artist James Weeks affected him the most.

“They were really close friends,” Debi said. “Vernon used to do figurative paintings. There are so many collections at the warehouse that you can see.”

It is a shame that everyone can’t see the tremendous collection that has turned this warehouse into an art wonderland.

Pratt showed his work internationally, and played his sax in far-flung places.

“I don’t know how he did it all,” Debi said. “I don’t know how he got all this art accomplished.”

Laird hopes that this show will be followed up by a larger one at NCSSM next year.

The exhibit will run through May 11 and is open to the public during community events, which can be found on Facebook.

Deborah R. Meyer writes about the visual arts each month. Contact her at writetoeloise@gmail.com.

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