Two former MCA faculty members honored with exhibition

Murray Riss, whose work "Nancy" will be shown at MCA's exhibit, founded the school's photography program. But digital photography has allowed Riss to return to his origins as a painter.

Murray Riss, whose work "Nancy" will be shown at MCA's exhibit, founded the school's photography program. But digital photography has allowed Riss to return to his origins as a painter.

Memphis College of Art honors two of its own in the Founders' Day Exhibition, "Once More with Feeling," featuring work by photographer Murray Riss and sculptor and book artist Dolph Smith, both well-known figures in the Mid-South.

The exhibition in MCA's Rust Hall runs through Jan. 30. There will be a reception Jan. 18, from 6 to 8 p.m.

Smith, who earned his degree from the old Memphis Academy of Art in 1960, returned to the school as a faculty member in 1965, teaching until his retirement in 1995. Riss, originally from Brooklyn, founded the college's photography program and taught at MCA from 1968 to 1986, also serving as adjunct lecturer in film and photography at Rhodes College from 1971 to 1986. Riss is a longtime member of the board of trustees of Memphis College of Art.

Dolph Smith's wood sculture  "Humpty Dumpty," part of the exhibit "Once More with Feeling," by former Memphis College of Art faculty members Smith and Murray Riss, shows his transition to sculpture.

Dolph Smith's wood sculture "Humpty Dumpty," part of the exhibit "Once More with Feeling," by former Memphis College of Art faculty members Smith and Murray Riss, shows his transition to sculpture.

Neither portion of the exhibition is a retrospective covering the artist's career.

"If I put one piece up for each stage of my development, people would wonder who this guy is," said Smith, 79. He began his career as a watercolorist, or as he put the case recently, "I was typecast back with the watercolors." Those expressive depictions of rural scenes, focusing particularly on old barns and outbuildings, brought Smith great regional success. "Later," he said, "people asked why I stopped doing those watercolors, but I never let success stop me from change."

Smith transitioned to cast-paper, wood and mixed-media sculptures that he devoted to the mythology of "Tennarkippi," the imaginative and spiritual landscape of the Mid-South as he conceived it. In a way, he never left the magical realm of Tennarkippi, a symbol of "the Southern gene for storytelling and narrative."

The artist teaches now at MCA as an adjunct in papermaking and book arts. His portion of "Once More with Feeling" concentrates on recent work in the fine art book genre, though Smith's view of what constitutes a book expands the notion from objects with pages and cover — albeit handmade and exquisite — into intricately crafted sculptures.

Riss' portion of the exhibition also consists of recent work that takes him full circle to his origins as a painter; that is, in composing painterly photographs, he daubs (easily washable) pigment onto his subjects' faces and then manipulates other aspects of their eyes and expressions and the backgrounds on the computer. "The digital era has allowed me in essence to become a painter again," Riss said. "I loved being a photographer, but I always missed being a painter."

Riss, 72, and Smith have known each other for more than 40 years.

"You know, I'm from Brooklyn," said Riss, "and when Dolph and I met, he told me that he was from Ripley (Tenn.) and what the population was, and I said more people than that live in my apartment building. And he said that in Ripley everybody knows each other, and I said that in my apartment building, no one knew anybody."

"Oh, yeah," said Smith, "it's just a case of a New York guy and a ... Southerner who love laughing at each other."

"At heart, we're jesters," Riss said. "Our work is all about the element of play."

Dolph Smith and Murray Riss, “Once More with Feeling”

At Rust Hall, Memphis College of Art, 1930 Poplar in Overton Park, through Jan. 30. There will be a reception Jan. 18, from 6 to 8 p.m. Call 901-272-5100.

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