Claire Darcy, Contributing Writer
Hundreds of miniscule buildings, including skyscrapers and rotundas, are contained within a 22-inch diameter circle. Swirling cityscapes, mountains and hints of human anatomy drawn with microscopic detail extend beyond the paper in “Leitmotif,” the latest piece by visual artist and VCU alumnus Ben Sack.
The title of the piece is a musical term that signifies an association with a particular subject. Examples include the “Jaws” theme or “The Imperial March” in “Star Wars.” “Leitmotif” was completed on Oct. 24 and will soon be shipped to the Robert Fontaine Gallery in Miami for auction.
Sack graduated from VCU in 2011 with a degree in communication arts. The artist’s pen-and-ink images have been featured in dozens of exhibitions since his graduation. He creates large-scale drawings of city architecture that often span over six feet long and are full of meticulous detail.
“I have found cities to be an excellent sort of medium — a paint, in a way — to convey a lot of different meanings and stories. … It’s a very infinite sort of medium,” Sack said. “[I] kind of jump into a map and make my own, so to speak, through my art.”
Sack only uses a black, fine line pen and paper, which adds a level of simplicity to the complex images he creates. The artist said his only other tools are patience and persistence.
“I try to keep the process as simple as possible … because one can get lost in the details,” Sack said.
Sack said his interest in geometry and maps started from a young age, and he recalled creating architectural drawings and playing with Lego bricks as he grew older. He drew inspiration from visiting local model houses with his family for fun.
“I would always be drawing architecture, planning my own houses and castles,” Sack said.
Sack said classical music and historical cartographic drawings are among his primary inspirations. Many of his installations’ titles reference music and academia.
“Art, music, drawing and poetry — they’re all the same,” Sack said. “I like to borrow from the poetic lexicon as well.”
Sack also cited M.C. Escher, a Dutch graphic artist known for his mathematically inspired ink drawings, as a stylistic influence.
Sack’s art has traveled around the world, including in France, Switzerland, Mexico and Germany. He has lived and completed artist residencies in Virginia, Italy and aboard a cruise ship. With his art rooted in cartography, the opportunity to travel the world has been an inspiration to the VCU alumnus’ work.
“Everyone when they graduate, they want to travel,” Sack said. “I was very much like that.”
Attending school in Richmond was a “fascinating” experience to Sack, who took notice of the countless architectural styles found throughout the city. He said he reflects fondly on his time at VCU, and that he is grateful for the influence of his professors — especially the late painting professor Albert Epshteyn.
It was at VCU that Geraldine Duskin, a Richmond gallerist and interior designer, first discovered Sack and his art.
“[Sack’s pieces] have a kind of universal appeal, and they have an intellectual component as well,” Duskin said. “I think architecture is something that has a big impact on people’s lives, whether they recognize it or not.”
In January 2013, Sack had his first solo exhibition in Richmond at Ghostprint Gallery. The gallery, which was open from 2007-17, was owned by Duskin and her daughter, Dorothea Duskin.
The exhibition was called “Eroica” — a reference to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 — and contained four large cityscapes, each of which corresponded with a movement in the symphony. One piece in the exhibit, “What says the Deep Midnight?” takes on the pattern of Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”
“It has depth. It has the ability to bring you into the work, and it’s got such a rich sense of detail that it absolutely captivates your attention,” Duskin said of the artist’s style. “You can just be looking at it for ages going from one very special, beautiful moment to another.”
Duskin referred Sack to the Robert Fontaine Gallery, where he is now a permanent member. Owner and namesake of the Miami-based gallery said he was blown away by the “sheer patience” Sack had after watching a timelapse of his art on YouTube.
“Good art is art that’s new to the eye, and this work was very new,” Robert Fontaine said. “As a composition, he was creating something that I have visually never seen before, and that’s what led me to beg him to come on board.”
A custom circular frame for “Leitmotif” will be used by the gallery to display the work. Fontaine expressed confidence that the piece will soon have a buyer.
The gallery owner described Sack’s art as contemporary with a “classical edge,” a clear academic influence and an element of the mythological.
“These kinds of works don’t last long on the market,” Fontaine said. “They’re highly sought after.”