The craft of seclusion

Eighty-six-year-old 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 loner.

Hanging 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' safe haven.

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.

Typically 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 patterns.

The 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.

Gerdes 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.

Gerdes 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 and blink.

It's 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 things.

His 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.

His 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.

In 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 phase.

Gerdes 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.

As 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.

His 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.

For 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.

You 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.

Gary Monroe is a documentary photographer. An anthology of his work on Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp, near DeLand, will be published next year by the University Press of Florida. For the last two years he has been photographing Florida outsider artists.


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