The Oregon Coast Council for the Arts is pleased to present new works by Lincoln City artist Ben Soeby in the Newport Visual Arts Center (VAC) Upstairs Gallery through Sept. 27. Titled “Fresh Fish… And the Other Side of the Story,” the show highlights Soeby’s sculptural multimedia pieces covered with Prismacolor colored pencil patterns and drawings on wood. The public is invited to an opening reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 1 at the VAC.
In “Fresh Fish,” Soeby – and his alter ego, Rev. Benny Bob – explore and interpret nature’s truths through Prismacolor on reclaimed wood. Many pieces are composed of dense patterns of precisely placed fish figures, or inlays of small wooden tiles displaying fish figures in boxes or cases; playful sardine can lids are screwed open to reveal more tiny fish wooden tiles; thin strips of wood oriented horizontally display elongated, swimming fish. The show’s subtitle, “And the Other Side of the Story,” is a play on words describing the artist’s habit of painting looser, sometimes narrative art on the backs of these pieces – a practice he’s employed since high school.
Born in Newberg in 1971, Soeby was exposed to art at a very young age. His parents both attended Oregon State University (his father was a talented potter and art instructor) and were both teachers in Newberg. He moved with his family to Lincoln City in 1975. Growing up, he found outlets for his creativity in skateboarding, pop culture, and recreational fishing as well as in painting, drawing, and sculpture.
“Fishing saved my life,” he declared. As a youth, he formed a connection with a stream surveyor who also fished, which led to Soeby’s own seasonal employment for 12 years as a stream surveyor. Fishing focused him, and gave him “an attachment to the moment,” as well as meaningful perspective on nature and life.
After high school in Taft, Soeby graduated from Oregon State University in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in fine art, with emphasis on sculpture. At OSU, he was inspired by “outsider art,” symbolism, and the work ethic of OSU professor Yuji Hiratsuka, an Osaka-born instructor of printmaking and drawing. As an independent study exchange student, he studied art in Europe, which helped him “move away from a sophomoric feeling,” he said. “[Travel] changed my life over to making things informed by experience.” He vividly remembers being “blown away” upon viewing Picasso’s “Guernica” in person, at full scale; his encounters with art and people at the Venice Biennale in 1993 also contributed to his focus on his personal experiences in his art.
Soeby has found local inspiration, as well, especially in the works of Frank Boyden’s fish and bird drawings, ceramics and sculptures. “The dark rich colors and textures in his work are fascinating,” he said. He still hopes to study one day with Rick Bartow, a source of inspiration since Soeby attended a lecture given by Bartow. “He said something that affected me so powerfully: that what he painted was affected as much by what he had lost as by what he had gained in his life.”
In 1994, Soeby traveled to Samoa, where he created an “incredible series of work, that has still never been shown except very selectively,” he recalled. In the 1990s, he was assigned to the Peace Corps in Panama, but moved instead to the Chiapas area of Mexico during the Zapatista uprising, where he created a series of tiny books and other work. In 1999, he moved back to the central Oregon coast and began his career with ODFW on salmon-related projects, working for 12 years on projects spanning all phases of the salmon life cycle, in watersheds up and down the coast.
Following a fall from a ladder in January 2012, Soeby sustained a horrific injury to his left ankle and foot that required extensive hospitalization, as well as surgeries as a result of an infection in May of that year. As a left-hander, he was devastated to find he had also broken a bone in that hand. He remembers laboriously teaching himself to use his right hand, at first writing, and then, “because I was in complete withdrawal from making art,” drawing and painting.
His final surgery – to remove the metal holding his bones together – was in January 2013. “I was so thankful once I was able to get up and around – here I was, this athlete, former skateboarder, very physically active – and again, fishing and being on this river that I love [the Siletz] has meant the world to me,” he recalled. His successful show in September 2012 at the Lincoln City Cultural Center reaffirmed his commitment to art.
See more of Soeby’s work at his Fishboxes Gallery, 1266A SW 50th Street in Lincoln City. Gallery hours are by appointment; contact Soeby at 541-921-8565 to view.
The Runyan Gallery is open 12 to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, please call 541-265-6569 or email email@example.com.