Ben’h Usry: The Artistic Legacy of a Jacksonville Icon

Ben’h Usry, born in Aiken, South Carolina in 1940, had a strong association with Jacksonville, Florida throughout his career. In 1962, after serving as an Army illustrator during the Berlin Crisis, Usry settled in Jacksonville and briefly worked for the May Company Department store as an illustrator in Advertising. It was during this time that he began exhibiting his artwork, with solo shows at Studio Gallery One and the Phillips Gallery at Jacksonville University in 1967.

Usry’s connection to Jacksonville continued to grow, and in 1971, the Jacksonville Museum of Contemporary Art hosted a major solo exhibition of his work. For two years, Usry produced art for this exhibition, which included his Jazz Abstract series. These large-scale works of bright juxtaposed patterns were inspired by the marketing frenzy of the urban American landscape he saw after returning from a comparatively clean, orderly Europe.

In 1976, Usry was commissioned to create the Yen-yan window in the Koger Chinese Wing of the Jacksonville Museum, demonstrating his significant impact on the city’s art scene. Usry was also a member and co-founder of ‘Art Celebration,’ a group of thirteen regional artists that exhibited biannually as a group from 1972 until 1995. Members of this group included Memphis Wood, Joseph Jeffers Dodge, Charles Moses Brown, Margaret Koscielny, Enzo Torcoletti, Mark Howard, David Engdahl, and Allison Watson.

Usry’s work was represented by galleries in Jacksonville, as well as Washington D.C., Pittsburg, PA, Sarasota, FL, and Central America. His art was included in the City Collection, the Preston Haskell collection of American Contemporary Art, and the Jacksonville Museum of Contemporary Art.

Usry’s association with Jacksonville was not just limited to his art career. In 1984, he served on the Federal Design Council in association with the National Endowment of the Arts in Washington D.C. to establish graphic art standards for all Federal Government documents and publications. However, Usry’s life took a different turn in 1986 when he learned of his father’s terminal cancer, and he spent time in South Carolina with his mother and father until his father’s death in 1988.

In 1989, Usry entered the recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous. For the following six years, he did not produce any art and focused instead on his recovery. After six years in recovery, in 1995, Usry began painting his interpretations of the Twelve Step Program of Recovery. It took him three years to complete the series, which were the first and only known visual interpretations of the Twelve Step Program of Alcoholics Anonymous.

In 2011, Usry began a representational series of paintings called ‘Florida Water Days’ that documented the change in water and atmosphere along the Florida coastline from the Gulf to the Atlantic. This series was another example of his deep connection to Florida, specifically the Jacksonville area, where he spent a significant portion of his artistic career.

Sadly, Ben’h Usry passed away on May 9, 2015, in his home in Jacksonville, Florida, at the age of 75. His passing was mourned by the local art community and his admirers, who recognized his significant contributions to the art scene in Jacksonville and beyond. Usry’s legacy lives on through his artwork, which continues to inspire and captivate viewers with its bold colors and abstract forms. His dedication to his recovery and the creation of the Twelve Step Program series also serve as a testament to his resilience and the transformative power of art.

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