The Colgate Scene
July 2001
Table of contents
The temptation of the feasible

by John D. Hubbard
Jim Sperber '91 shares his small but fertile apartment with the art he makes there, and it is impossible to tell where the living begins and the work ends.

     Polaroid portraits snapped during television broadcasts hang near the pastels the artist has made continually since he was a boy. Large paintings section off the kitchen and narrow the hallway. The six-floor walkup, despite its limited square footage, manages to be a gallery, studio and home. Sperber couldn't be happier.

     The paintings, for instance, will soon be shipped to Massachusetts for a show at the Brooks School. The Polaroids, shot with a camera Sperber found in the back seat of a taxi three years ago, link to the video art he began making at Colgate, and the pastels, swirls of splashing color, make statements of consistency -- roots for a restless talent.

     "I'm making art in as many different directions as possible," says Sperber, who is also writing, has invented a board game, and is dealing with the vestiges of his appearance as a tempter on Fox's Temptation Island during the winter.

     Fame is fleeting, of course, so Sperber paints -- houses -- to finance his real painting and various other creative pursuits. He's just back from a job on the bay in Long Island and has work lined up on the Jersey shore and later, Fire Island.

     "It's such gratifying work," says Sperber, who celebrated the completion of the Long Island project with a rooftop barbecue. "When it's done you can see it."

     Working 14-hour days to pay the bills, the artist still has plenty of creative energy. Teachers helped nurture it in high school, at Colgate and in graduate school.

     "John Knecht [professor of art and art history] totally inspired me. He pushed me to make better art and told me to go to Cal Art, where I broke out of my sheltered New England upbringing." It wasn't easy. His father balked at financing a studio arts education, so Sperber majored in art history.

     Sperber's passion, though, was making videos, and each of the ten he completed in graduate school showed in galleries. His last edited piece was a 24-minute work on the 1992 torchlight ceremony that played at the Academy Theater in North Hollywood. He calls Incunabulum "intense."

     The videos led to film production work, but Sperber's heart, and his muse, weren't in producing infomercials.

     "All my work in videos had a lot of issues about being white on the East Coast and going to school. I was always painting but I can't talk about them as much. Painting is my escape from issues. It is my pleasure, my joy."

     Most of the recent work is on four-and-a-half-foot-square canvases ("5 x 6 is the largest I can get up the stairwell") and evolve from concentric polygons, shapes Sperber started drawing as a six-year-old.

     "I deal with formal structural issues," he says. And a whole lot more.

     "I'm trying to prove something to my parents, myself and others. I'm not just screwing around."

     There isn't a whole lot of time for that, actually. In addition to the show at Brooks, Sperber is mounting an exhibit at Joya, a restaurant in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. He is still trying to turn out a Polaroid of professional basketball player Kobe Bryant that pleases him as much as the Dennis Rodman portrait he calls "Rodzilla." And now that it is beach weather, he has started working in pastels again, too.

     Then there's the board game, an ingenious invention titled "Taxi Manhattan." The game board is a seven-foot map of Manhattan, players are city cab drivers and the object is to earn 50 bucks.

     Finally, Sperber is constructing a manuscript from documents, letters and journals that tell the story of an adopted child. CRADLE begins with letters between the adoption agency and Sperber's soon-to-be family. It includes letters home from camp, correspondence between friends, journal entries from school days and college and culminates with a series of 14 letters between Sperber and his biological mother, whom he located through the agency and a detective but has yet to meet.

     What emerges through the course of more than 450 entries is a complete character portrayal, of a child, the product of a one-night stand in Miami, living a typical life and becoming a man.

     The book has been shopped and rejected twice, but Sperber is undeterred. He is writing introductory copy for the various sections and will make another round of visits to publishers in the fall. Like so much in his creative life right now, the book feels right.

     "The stars are definitely lined up."

     Art even played a key role in landing Sperber on Temptation Island, a Fox entry in television's battle of reality shows. Sperber, who is a self-proclaimed "huge Survivor fan," made an audition tape for the Australian version. A friend, who knew of the fixation, clued Sperber into the Fox idea.

     "I went to the auditions at the Hard Rock Café because it was a singles day. The place was packed and after talking to the producers for ten minutes they told me to come back in three hours, so I found the only dive on 57th Street."

     The liquid interlude made the second interview no less embarrassing.

     "They wanted to know if girls find me attractive and my whole rap was about being an artist."

     A week before the "cast" was to leave for a resort off the coast of Belize, Sperber found out he had made it.

     "I wasn't very comfortable with the concept. Besides, picking up girls with boyfriends is hard. I died a slow death. I never got kicked off the island, but I didn't get any dates, either."

     The peculiar on-island experience turned bizarre once Sperber returned to New York and the show aired. He was working as a substitute teacher but left the classroom when the schedule of events and openings became too much. His picture, captioned "Hottie," was in TV Guide, he was recognized on the street and everyone, once they learned he was on television, wanted to talk to him.

     "I couldn't turn down the fun that went with it," says Sperber, who nonetheless never believed the hype. "This interview signifies the last tick of my 15 minutes of fame. The fantasy life of Temptation Island is fading into being just a good story I try not to tell."

     Jim Sperber is dedicated. "I am totally focused on making the art work. It's all about making this art career happen. And I'm thinking it's becoming more feasible."

Top of page
Table of contents
<<Previous: "A hand up" Next: "Colgate collects" >>