Everyone has a story. Some people are great storytellers. But not all of our stories are oral or written. Imagine the stories of an artist whose artwork provides the narrative. Then it interweaves with your own thoughts and experiences to form your unique interpretation of the story. Such is the work of R. Sumner, who has gallery space at the Charlotte Art League.
“I want people to draw their own conclusions; I want them to see a reflection of their own experiences,” said Sumner, who is an award-winning fine art photographer, having won three Best in the City Awards, not to mention a couple of Arts and Science Council grants. Additionally, The Artisan’s Palate is hosting a solo show of Sumner’s art once bars and restaurants reopen (check theartisanpalate.com for updates), and although juried shows in several states have shown his work, Sumner is especially proud that two of his pieces are included for shows in a pair of French châteaux this October (photosdefemmes.org).
Both cerebrally challenging and visually exciting, Sumner’s photographs provoke a variety of emotions as you enter his space; the nude figure “figures” prominently, often organically entrenched in the landscape, even if the landscape is a narrow alleyway between two buildings in Amsterdam or a fantastic rock formation in the Western U.S.
“I feel like humans in their natural form are nude,” Sumner said. “My work often references the history of human spirituality, which was largely for most of our history based on the intersection of our lives with nature.”
While his work often involves nude figures and sometimes has a sense of eroticism, it isn’t overtly sexual; Sumner said, “I try not to do anything that isn’t asking a question or isn’t commenting on something broader than just being titillating.”
A self-described Classicist, Sumner is heavily influenced by the Greeks and Romans and the Renaissance. Growing up in Raleigh, Sumner spent a lot of time as a child in the city’s fine art museums. “It was cheap babysitting to drop the kid off at the art museum; it was the ‘80s,” Sumner said (a sentiment some of us Gen Xers can likely identify with). After college, Sumner worked in museums for about a decade as an exhibition designer both at the Levine Museum of the South and the Charlotte Museum of History.
The influence of art history on Sumner is evident, as his work often references religious iconography, particularly Catholicism, and the themes of birth, death, and resurrection, as well as religion and sexual shame. “I’m doing a little bit more with death, because I’m aging now, and explorations of some darker emotions as well,” Sumner said.
“I see myself as a storyteller: some of the stories are mine, some are friends, some are archetypal stories, and some are just stories,” Sumner said. Perhaps one piece that some of us may particularly relate to as we practice social distancing was shot in an abandoned 19th century insane asylum in Virginia. According to Sumner, “this piece suggests a story of a wild woman living in this insane asylum by herself, possibly for years, possibly interacting with ghosts.”
Another piece, Penelope, may resonate with us even more. “Penelope was the wife of Odysseus, and waited years for him to come back from the war. That is definitely someone who is lonely and who is waiting. A lot of my figures are solitary,” Sumner said. In this work, religious icons hang on the wall, sort of looking down upon a nude figure reclining on a bed, in the throes of deep emotion, somewhat reminiscent of the Ecstasy of St. Theresa.
Part of what makes a great work of art is its ability to speak to the viewer throughout various political, economic, and sociological environments. Sumner’s work spoke to me on a sensory level when I first viewed it, as I pondered the exploration of shapes, angles, and forms of each work, but as I write this, during my homebound seclusion, it now speaks to me on a whole different emotional level. The themes of isolation and captivity, of course, linger in my memory, but even more so are the pictures that tell the stories of humans’ relationships with the earth and nature, the memory of images of humans in the fetal position encased in egg-like natural rock formations like babies in the womb. Sumner’s work also references earth-based religions. “How we come from the earth, we come from nature; those ideas were very important to our ancient selves,” he said. The themes he explores in his work speak to us on many planes.
While most of Sumner’s photographs are printed in black and white and are either traditionally matted and framed or mounted to panels and encased in encaustic wax, his gallery also features anaglyph prints, the kind you view with red-cyan colored 3D glasses.
“I’m a hybrid photographer, using both digital and film techniques,” Sumner said. “The way that I make the three-dimensional photographs starts with captures from antique ‘stereo’ cameras. I have a German one from the 1930s — that’s my nice one, then I have four [or] five Soviet ones from the 1950s. They take two shots side by side then I scan them; I turn one red and one cyan, finally overlaying them to create an anaglyph.”
He uses traditional media and brings it to a more contemporary art form, combining a very old film technique with a digitized output. So he develops two-dimensional art then uses the colored glasses to trick your eyes into seeing the illusion of 3D.
Sumner sees himself as a NoDa-based artist. “I started hanging out in NoDa when I was in high school in the ‘90s. I live over by North Charlotte Park and my studio fronts North Davidson Street; I like to keep things in the neighborhood and be part of keeping the arts in NoDa.” Sumner continued, “I’m really excited to be part of the Art League; the First Friday gallery crawls bring in fairly large crowds and it’s nice to be so conveniently located right off the light rail, so we are easily accessible to all parts of town. There are a lot of great artists here. It’s nice to be part of a community of artists so we can inspire each other and help each other out.”