John Gerdes lives alone in his Orlando home. It is a cocooned
environment, with drapes pulled closed and windows tightly
sealed. He’s affable, so long as the conversation remains
centered on the craft of his art; otherwise he seems the quintessential
throughout his home are his "inlaid paintings";
each one is made of hundreds of squares of wood, which turn
out to be carefully painted renditions of squares of wood.
He turns on a lamp, and a wall of paintings suddenly comes
alive, inviting the viewer into a parallel world -- Gerdes’
belongs to a breed of folk artists who during the last decade
have been reconsidered by the art establishment and now fall
within the fold of museum culture. Known as "outsiders,"
their mark-making is their way to mine the impulses that lie
deep within them. Generally creating works that are immediate
and imaginative, these people have had no formal affiliations
with the art world, so they’ve lost nothing to the refinement
of a structured education. Usually outsider artists don’t
consider their work to be "art"; they simply have
a calling to create.
outsider artists can’t draw a straight line or paint
within boundaries. Color is less a matter of theory than of
fun. Composition is a foreign concept. They don’t care
about art for art’s sake. These are people who would
love to break the rules -- if they knew what the rules were.
Outsider artists are daring without even trying, automatically
on the cutting edge. But Gerdes has the distinction of being
outside the outsiders. He actually draws straight lines and
paints within the borders of his illusionistic, geometric
faux finishes of his approximately 240 inlaid paintings mimic
different types of wood, using an impressive array of grains
and knots. Marble and granite sometimes highlight the pieces.
With deft drawing skill and a fantastic ability to go beyond
any presupposed limitations of pattern, repetition and design,
Gerdes offers an element of surprise in his work. Illusion
may be as convincing as the real thing, and even more delightful.
also creates sculptures, which are almost three-dimensional
versions of his geometric, perspective-based abstractions.
Using discarded computer-circuit boards, Gerdes constructs
elaborate edifices: casinos, churches, skyscrapers. His "Industrial
Site" is right out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
Some, like his "Hyperion Tower," are lamps. In all
the works the circuit boards lose their dehumanizing element
as the computer pieces are bound into squares to light up
a room with a warm, homey feel. Tiny bulbs blink strategically
in the paintings and sculptures, pulsing in harmony.
flips a switch and his "computer-animated sculptures"
come alive as red lights flicker in sequence. In all of his
art an organized intelligence is concealed by lyricism. After
the initial impact of his technical skill fades, the viewer
experiences the complexity of the artist’s mind and
senses the humanity that resides in the heart of each piece.
For example, his 5-foot, 6-inch robot, "Flasher S.A.M.
(Sequential Access Memory)," adorned by inlaid paintings
that resemble medals of honor, is programmed to turn, reach
possible that Gerdes’ artistic tendencies go all the
way back to his infancy. His immigrant mother, arriving from
Germany with the baby on her shoulder, accidentally sent the
child sailing in the excitement of greeting her sister. Having
been dropped on his head as an infant caused blindness in
his left eye as well as emotional trauma, which may have contributed
to his artistic impulse. More likely, he was born an artist
whose refined craftsmanship facilitated his desire to create
father, a watercolorist and cabinetmaker, was his role model.
Gerdes developed a deep familiarity with wood, which led him
as a young boy to paint wood rather than paint on it. By age
10 he was making chess boards, painting squares to look like
wood rather than actually inlaying pieces of wood. As the
Depression ended he landed a job finishing expensive furniture
in a Cleveland manufacturing plant. In 1935, at 22, he began
to craft the illusion of inlaid wood for solely creative ends,
with a keen sense of perspective and daring design. He continued
to work in this manner until 10 years ago, when his vision
began to fail.
electronics education came during the early days of radio,
when Gerdes learned to work with crystal units. Through the
’40s he had a successful career in radio technology,
and in the ’50s he branched out into phones, intercoms
and public-address systems, becoming skilled in electronics.
1970 he retired to Maitland. His wife is recently deceased
and most of his children live out of state, but Gerdes remains
in the family’s ranch-style home along with 40 paintings
and sculptures that cover the walls. He carefully maintains
files that describe each piece’s production, phase by
developed an elaborate method for his paintings. He began
by shellacking Masonite to seal the boards. Next he applied
a white undercoating and sanded it -- "as smooth,"
he says, "as a little baby’s fanny." Then
he put down a layer of flat-white house paint, followed by
a coat of white enamel. The boards were gently wet-sand papered,
dulling the surface. Then, working from the outside in, he
penciled his symmetrical, intricately conceived designs that
conform to linear perspective. With pigments made by adding
beer or vinegar to colored powders he painted the borders,
one small section at a time. As he dragged the brush he would
slightly change its direction, which left the impression of
grain. To depict a knot, he would spin the brush as if turning
a compass. To avoid any abrupt boundaries that would spoil
the illusion, he would paint slightly beyond the edges, then
wipe away excess paint with a cheese cloth. After a month’s
labor, Gerdes finished each piece with coats of shellac.
Gerdes shows the table that he constructed to enable him to
work, he revolves it and explains that it allows him to remain
in one position and take advantage of the studio light. "All
this knowledge is dying with me," he notes.
most elaborate works are his kaleidoscope mandalas. The Escher-esque
pieces mesh concrete plans and mental projections. Cityscapes
play significantly in many of his compositions, calming the
chaos of culture -- or masking it.
Gerdes, all the conceptions are an homage to wood. Although
he thinks of his art in formal and even technical terms, the
impact reaches far beyond their amazing veneers. He has addressed
alienation like few other contemporary artists have done,
but it’s hard to reach this conclusion at first glance
because the work is so highly decorative. Unintentionally,
Gerdes zones in on contemporary society. His work appeals
to those among us who consider the dehumanizing effects of
our ever-increasing technological society, while it placates
others who prefer to be teased and delighted by the formality
of abstract art.
can come face-to-face with "Flasher S.A.M." at Orlando’s
new Mennello Museum of American Folk Art, in Loch Haven Park,
which houses an extensive exhibit of works by Florida folk
artist Earl Cunningham. As this new museum garners national
and international attention, the mental wanderings and explorations
of some outstanding artists -- hitherto unrecognized or under-recognized
-- will become part of our experiences. A visit with "Flasher
S.A.M." will give a sample of the delight and insight
that Gerdes’ works provoke.