Artist Profiles | Visual Arts

Jim Frazer: The Explorer in Mind

Jim Frazer in his Salt Lake City studio.

by Heather Wunderlich | photos by Manju Varghese


Jim Frazer, whose “curiosity boxes” are on exhibit this month at Finch Lane Gallery, is primarily known in these parts as a landscape photographer. One might catch him tooling around town with his teenage daughter, Katie, in their blue Land Rover. Or you may have seen his digital photographs of botanical gardens and landscape rock features in local galleries or the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia in Atlanta. And while he has a large body of work to support this off-the-beaten-path explorer-type image, Frazer is even much more of an explorer than you might imagine. The heart of his work is all about discovery and experiment, journey and abstraction, with a heavy dose of science. Step into his studio (and around the magnet experiments and Prince Rupert’s drops) and you can see the evidence of a mind in the business of working it all out.”

Not surprisingly, Frazer began his career in photography during college at a science lab in Wood’s Hole Massachusetts. His early college work was semi-abstract, primarily black and white water and rock landscapes that evolved during grad school to include urban-inspired work, still abstracted, using the element of line. One can see similarities between Frazer’s work and the photographs of John Pfahl, whom Frazer cites as an early influence. After graduating with his MFA from Georgia State, Frazer helped to form Nexus Inc, which is now the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. He also taught photography at the Atlanta College of Art, Mercer University and Georgia State while continuing to develop his own art career. Frazer was the first local photographer to have a solo show at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in 1981 and has exhibited his work in museums, colleges and galleries in just about every state in the Union as well as in France and London.

Inside Jim Frazer’s studio

But Jim Frazer’s exploration is not confined to the art arena. He is literally an explorer. In the 1990’s Frazer published several articles about his trip into the Belize jungles and created a video about jungle exploration. He has also written an — as yet — unpublished book called, Nearly Forgotten: Tales from the Chiquibul Forest of Belize, combining a narrative of his jungle trips along with the oral history and experiences of the people who live and work there. Frazer also wrote articles in 2003 and 2004 for South American Explorer about Confederate expatriates in Brazil and rain forest pharmaceuticals.

In 1999, Frazer was led to Utah by the University of Utah’s dance program, which his oldest daughter, Jamie, entered. His son, John Nisbet, also studied dance here and currently performs with Ballet West. Frazer was also intrigued by the photographs of the early exploring expeditions of the American West. Once in Utah, he spent a good deal of time photographing our deserts and traversing our unique wilderness areas while he continued to exhibit in solo and group shows in his home state and in Utah.

Before long, Frazer’s landscapes started becoming more and more abstracted and manipulated to be almost unrecognizable from their original form. Elements were extracted and text was added. During an installation exhibit at the now defunct New Visions Gallery in Salt Lake, Frazer stopped cutting and digitally manipulating his images and began creating universe/space type objects from scratch-oddities that hung from the ceiling, lit up or made weird noises. This is the exhibit where the tinkerer and explorer made the big jump and began to really experiment. Frazer has always had a strong interest in scientific and theoretical possibility; by the reality that some of what we believe to be true now will in the future be seen as foolish and what we think of now as crackpot may someday be accepted as fact. This brings us to his boxes.

Frazer’s “Curiosity Boxes,” which will be on display from June 8 to July 27 at the Finch Lane Gallery, are a culmination of many of the artist’s wonderings and wanderings up ’til now. The boxes refer to the Baroque wunderkammer, which often mixed genuine natural history specimens with fantastic items such as unicorn horns, and displayed them alongside works of art.

Frazer’s boxes contain microorganisms that masquerade as jewelry and scientific diagrams that function as decorative elements while text from fiction is used as scientific labels. These uniquely constructed boxes, made from a variety of materials, open to reveal worlds of tiny discoveries and ideas. They are like those elaborately decorated blown Easter eggs that you crack open to expose wondrous and fascinating things inside. Except the egg is Frazer’s brain and the things inside are more marvelous and beautiful to look at, even as the artist explores such topics as the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider Experiment in Long Island and the Poincare Conjecture.

One of Frazer’s “curiosity boxes” addresses the anxiety surrounding the possible reversal of the Earth’s magnetic force. A small oak box opens to reveal a magnified ammonite, set within compass points, on a bed of crystal-looking bismuth and magnets. The magnified fossil spirals down to its center while the tiny compasses at the four corners of the box have needles that point in every direction. The inside lid of the box contains a mathematical illustration plotting the earth’s slowly changing magnetic field. Since ammonite is often used as an indicator of geologic time, the spiral literally and figuratively looks back through time

Anyone who knows Frazer knows his fascination with the Fugitive Ray, a fictional phrase that has made an appearance in the text of several of the artist’s past works. In this exhibit, Frazer actually makes a box to hold a Fugitive Ray. Of course this box also contains both real and pretend scientific gauges, which may or may not measure some aspects of the ray it holds inside. The Fugitive Ray is a prime example of potential and imagined science transformed into reality through art. Frazer is able to step in and out of both worlds of science and art, to mingle and transpose them so well because he perceives each as having the same fundamental purpose of exploration and experimentation. Some viewers may theorize that he is merely manipulating our perception of reality vs. fantasy. Not so. Frazer aims to give equal validity to both, and to all possibilities, with his art. To borrow one of Frazer’s favorite quotes from filmmaker Trent Harris, “Just because I made it up doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”

Jim Frazer’s Curiosity Boxes will be on exhibit at the Finch Lane Gallery June 8 through July 27 with a reception June 8th, 6 to 8 pm. More of his work can be seen at

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