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One Artist’s Way: Gary John Gresl (An Interview)

by Patricia Obletz (From the Wisconsin Visual Artists Magazine), September 1, 2007

Talking to prodigious artist, philosopher, writer Gary Gresl is a spiritual journey. If his name is familiar to you, it’s likely that you’re interested in visual art and have seen his mixed-media assemblages in numerous galleries and museums, or you’ve read his commentaries.

Each Gresl assemblage of found objects speaks of ancestors and wildlife, and intriguing, inspiring, sometimes humorous, reflections of internal and external life now, then and in-between. His sculptures have won numerous awards, including Mary Nohl Foundation Suitcase Fund, Best in Show and Jurors’ Awards (details at

A native of Wisconsin, Gary’s driving ambition is to gain national and international recognition for its visual artists. To this end, he works tirelessly, giving energy, time and financial support to a variety of fine art organizations and grassroots movements to promote visual art and artists. He’s a lifetime member and past-president of Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors, the oldest visual art society in this handsome, green state; founding member of Milwaukee Visual Artists Roundtable. Gary also is one of the founders and currently one of three co-directors of the Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Awards/Hall of Fame hosted by Museum of Wisconsin Art, formerly West Bend Art Museum.

When asked about his aim to advance Wisconsin artists, Gary leaned forward, his true-blue eyes sparking, and said, “For many years, the Milwaukee Art Museum used to jury Wisconsin artists’ work and exhibit them in their galleries, such as the Cudahy Gallery. But in the mid 1980s, MAM staff was heard to say that the Cudahy Gallery of Wisconsin art was a ‘ghetto.’ MAM soon closed this gallery. Coinciding with the plan to build the Calatrava addition, MAM support of state artists was dropped entirely.

“However, as a positive step, in 2005, the Milwaukee Art Museum agreed to give local artist groups a summer Saturday in which to set up booths and display their art on museum grounds. The Milwaukee Artist Market proved to be a very successful venture and has become an annual event. Not even last summer’s blazing heat deterred a big crowd of people. “Unfortunately, though, there still remains the attitude that regional artists are provincial. My dream goal is national recognition for art created in this state. I think that New York, considered the center for contemporary art and developments (at least those publicized), has dominated the headlines long enough. It’s good for the art scene in general to promote regional art across the country.

“On my personal journey as an artist, I came to believe that creating art wasn’t fulfilling me. Regret may not be the right word, but my failure to pursue my early interest in art expression bothered me. But, through my association with other artists in the late 70s and early 80s, I realized that the 3D materials I’d begun adding to my paintings provided the most satisfying and natural road to my fulfillment. Working with them combines my interests in natural history, evolution, and philosophy with visual and intuitive responses utilizing a wide variety of elements, ranging from Gaia to museum studies. “When I taught art back in the 60s and early 70s, I was too inexperienced
(and thick headed) to view that what I did as a teacher would lead these young people to some ‘spiritual’ level. However, most of these students found expression to come easily from their most basic observational reality, and as long as they were not ‘demanded’ to create art that was ‘perfect’ or ‘real’ or ‘realistic,’ they enjoyed the experience and felt good about it.

“One boy who had difficulty with academic subjects had the most wonderful, unexpected eye-to-hand process. Everything he did was out of proportion, with unreal angles and foreshortening, with a Picasso-like quality to his translation of 3D to 2D. He loved drawing and coloring, and I praised him for his unique expression. This was one area in his school life in which his academic skill did not have to come into play.”

Gary spoke of his own childhood fascination with found objects, rocks, pieces of wood, buttons, and more. He said, “Back in the 60s, when art class assignments required found objects, I knew at last why I was saving them. They gain character and meaningful history with age. Let’s take a spoon or a shoe. These things have remained essentially the same over the centuries, yet they’ve been altered through time; the older ones have gained character and they parallel our lives: they surface, they function, they wear down. I use them in my work as metaphors for life.

“I never know where or when I’ll find something that inspires me. Since closing the Milwaukee Antique Center, after 31 years, I still frequent antique stores, rummage sales — friends often find things for me, and on the Internet, I’ve bought sea shells and mounted fish. And sometimes I encounter perfect objects when walking in the country.”

“Art is essentially a way to communicate, as well as a way to personally intellectualize and experiment, and to study and seek personal contentment. Making art most often is a solitary experience that fills me, and no doubt many other artists, with eureka, ‘ah ha’ moments. Whether it’s finding the Muse or releasing the demons, always for me it’s about translating Nature’s physical manifestations into paintings or sculptures through my perceptions and ability, therefore possessing or becoming part of Nature’s
processes. Art is a guide that has helped me to find and earn a place in the Universe.”

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