HAROLD GARDE, ON AND OFF THE WALL 


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Let's not dance around the obvious: Artist Harold Garde is an old fella – 85 years old, to be exact, born in 1923 in New York City. Now a settled resident of Florida, Garde works from his scenic home in New Smyrna Beach, except when he summers at his second homestead in Maine. Currently, the three galleries in the Museum of Florida Art in DeLand are packed with his works for the massive undertaking that is the Harold Garde. Painting. 50 Years retrospective, which opened in early December and continues through Feb. 15. This weekend, a new documentary film about Garde makes its debut, adding another dimension – and another draw – to the remarkable show.

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Haven't heard of Harold Garde? A peer of Warhol, Pollock and Rauschenberg, Garde is said to have avoided a life of celebrity by choosing to be a family man, raising four children and drawing paychecks as a commercial interior designer and educator until he retired and refocused his attentions on his own continuing development as an artist. But he's always been an artist. Commercially speaking, though, his time has finally arrived, says Jeannie Dowis, the curator of the exhibition and a longtime neighbor and friend of Garde.

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"He wanted to paint instead of pursue the market," says Dowis (aka Flyin' J of the Florida Rollergirls). "He just never pursued the art market or sales or anything on the level he should have, considering the kind of work he does. So he's catching up that way. He should already be a lot more known and sold and shown than he is, given the quality of his work. … He really loves to paint so much he doesn't pay that much attention to the market."

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The collaboration between Garde and Dowis, backed by support and funding from the museum and the Abram & Ray Kaplan Foundation (where Dowis works as the grants administrator), has grown into an assemblage designed to travel and spread the word. And the word is catching on quickly. Just this week, Millenia Fine Art Gallery in Orlando announced its March 13 opening of Harold Garde: Bring Me No Preconceptions, a coup for the Museum of Florida Art, and what they hoped would happen: an eager integration of the critically acclaimed Garde into the commercial market.

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"Bring Me No Preconceptions" is one of his many series and themes, and the phrase comes up in the film, says Jennifer Coolidge, the executive director of the museum and also a friend of Garde's. She's thrilled about the continued exposure. "It's a dream come true for Harold, and he's looking forward to the show touring. Millenia is the largest contemporary gallery in the Southeast, and to be working with that level of gallery is what we wanted. Yes, it all started here, but we want to get out in the state and beyond."

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With self-described roots in abstract impressionism, Garde explains on his website that he's forged his own path since his schooling. (He earned his M.A. in Fine Arts and Art Education from Columbia University.) "I am interested in what paint can do, making marks that expressively respond to my thoughts and actions," he writes.

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Notably, Garde is credited as the creator of the "strappo" technique, which he'll demonstrate from 9 a.m.-noon Saturday, the same day as the fancy film event. (The $30 price of the premiere includes a copy of the DVD, but the next day, the film will be screened at 2 p.m. for free, and the galleries themselves are always free to the public on Sunday.) In fact, Garde continues to be been active in the extensive lineup of enhanced programming attached to the exhibit. But there's a fresh validation for the artist since one of his strappo pieces was recently purchased by the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.

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In ordinary terms, his strappo process starts by layering acrylic paint of differing colors and brushstrokes on a piece of glass, covering it with gesso and then peeling up the dried paint and placing it on the canvas. The results, says Coolidge, "allow you to be drawn in by just what you see – responding to the color, to the composition, the shapes, the beauty of the paint – and that's just one level of the work." Beyond that, she says, he conveys a great deal of emotion and social commentary. And he does have certain themes that he revisits again and again, such as kimonos and man-woman relations.

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"He is a person who has lived a long, rich and diverse life with all that experience coming out through his work for a tremendous amount of interpretive possibility," she says.

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Independent filmmaker Dale Schierholt of Maine agrees. He hopes his film helps viewers understand Garde's "very powerful and beautiful" work. He says that he lets Garde "give us a tool set to understand the work on a deeper level."

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Schierholt is another friend of Garde's, their paths having crossed years ago at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine. Schierholt is an experienced documentarian of contemporary artists; he mentions recent projects about Louise Nevelson and Robert Indiana. Still, he says his experience making this film was different than his other projects.

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"I think that made this one of my best films because there was a much more intimate connection with the subject than ever before, Schierholt says. "I was happy to be able to tap into his personality because he is an incredibly charming man, and I wanted to give people a glimpse into his personality."

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Dowis says that Garde is much more comfortable around a group of college kids, talking about great ideas and throwing around the F-word, than he is talking about himself. What amazed her most of all, though, is how the exhibit as a whole shows "somebody working on high level, finally. At 85, he's finally coming to own it. He's still developing and growing. … We think the younger folks are the ones growing and developing; he's proof positive that you can continue to grow your entire life, well into your senior years."

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"Harold will never retire," says Coolidge, "and gets up in the ritual practice and discipline of being in the studio, painting every day, challenging himself every day, telling his story every day – the Working Artist title of the film befits that; he works that every day."

;; arts@orlandoweekly.com

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