More than a decade ago, Elliot Perry — then a point guard for the Phoenix Suns — was sharing a flight to Japan with fellow NBA'ers Charles Barkley and Darrel Walker when the conversation turned to art.
"I had no interest in it at the time," Perry, a University of Memphis alum who earned a record-breaking 2,200-plus points for the Tigers before graduating in 1991, quickly confesses, "but Darrel showed me books and catalogs and some things from his collection."
He was immediately hooked.
Talk to Perry for five minutes, and he'll discuss the merits of Mississippi-born painter William Tolliver and dissect the life and work of the 20th-century African-American master Jacob Lawrence before making predictions about his beloved Tigers' upcoming season.
Today, his zeal is reflected in his collection, which includes hundreds of pieces in mediums that range from photography and painting to drawing, sculpture, and video.
For the next month, 15 choice works are on display at Rhodes College's Clough-Hanson Gallery. The selection includes pivotal pieces such as Glenn Ligon's neon sculpture Untitled (Negro Sunshine), Renee Cox' portrait American Beaute, and Wardell Milan's Cibachrome collage of lush greenery, dinosaurs, and African figures.
"Most African-American people don't grow up appreciating art," Perry says. "They'll like a cotton-picking scene or a portrait of a mother and child — something figural we can all relate to. For me, it's been a growing process. In the beginning, I couldn't appreciate abstraction or anything conceptual.
"Over the last four years, I've made a 360 on the work I collect and began moving toward young contemporary artists, artists of my time. I read about when [noted African-American art collector Dr. Walter Evans] started collecting in the '70s and how he built friendships and working relationships with artists. I thought, Hey, I can do the same thing. So I started getting in touch with young contemporary artists."
Clough-Hanson's director, Hamlett Dobbins, says, "It's one thing to buy something, and another thing to build that relationship. And in that way, Elliot is like a patron, someone who is aware of how important his support can be to a young artist."
After crossing paths at a Brooks Museum exhibit that featured work on loan from Perry's collection, Dobbins began laying the groundwork for "Taking Aim: Selections from the Elliot L. Perry Collection," which will be on display at Clough-Hanson through October 11th.
Dobbins and Perry handpicked the pieces from 15 different artists, including hoop-dreams-themed works like photographer Hank Willis Thomas' luminously deceiving Basketball and Chain, Michael Ray Charles' Untitled (an arresting, nearly 5-foot tall painting which features a cartoonish figure stuffed into a fishbowl, while a carrot, a basketball, and words like "prosperity" and "influence" dangle above him), and Robert Pruitt's ominous Sandinista, a drawing that depicts a figure dressed in half-bushman, half-NBA attire, a fatigue-styled cap on his head and a pistol at his feet.
The oldest pieces in the show, mixed-media work such as Kerry James Marshall's The Face of Nat Turner Appeared in a Water Stain and Radcliff Bailey's Untitled, date back to the '90s; everything else is 21st century and as breathtakingly contemporary from a socio-political standpoint as they are on a purely artistic level.
"People paint what they know," Perry says. "This collection tackles so many different issues. It shows the rich heritage of African-American people in so many diverse ways.
"Since I began collecting, I've always wanted to share art with other people," he continues. "For me, it's an inspiration. People think of it as a rich person's game, but I know guys who have built significant collections by paying out a little bit at a time, doing their homework, and going out there and being a part of the scene."
Now, Perry, a part owner in the Memphis Grizzlies, sees his collection as much more than a monetary investment.
"Being a collector has broadened my horizons," he says. "I've gained an appreciation not just for visual art but for music, from opera to classical. Dance and performance art too — the whole nine yards. Wherever I go, whether it's basketball season or not, I'm always talking to people and always collecting."