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Uses a whole lot of everything

by Lori Lau, January 23, 2003

The sign at the entrance to sculptor Gary John Gresl's studio, a two-car attached garage in its former life, warns visitors "prepare for crowded conditions."

Indeed. The space is jammed with his tools, sculptures in progress and raw materials -- such as a wicker dress form and leftover pieces from a large, dismantled antique model airplane. His home, too, is crowded with sculptures and paintings, many found on the secondary market, and his finished work.

It feels a bit like stepping into one of his colorful, crowded mixed-media sculptures, with seemingly incongruent objects arranged carefully into what he calls "visual poems."

"Mnemonic Device -- I Remember Grandma" features an old-fashioned sock monkey, jars of red peppers, children's wooden alphabet blocks and dozens of colorful buttons of various sizes. Another piece, festooned with tiny seashells, includes a flying fish of milk glass, circa 1900, holding a Christmas ornament turned gazing globe, and antique fishing lures dangling from metal netting. Others feature mounted deer heads, skulls of various animals, shells or feathers.

All require a second, third and fourth look to discover the details.

"Life is like that," says Gary, explaining that archaeologists uncover cities layer by layer, and individual lives build up the same way. "Our beings are like that."

Painting used to be his preferred medium, but he says he found the depth the sculptures allow him more fulfilling.

Work tells a story

Gary, now the president of Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors organization, grew up in Manitowoc and became an art teacher and middle school principal in Brillion. He moved to the Milwaukee area in 1974, just after getting his master's degree in home economics, studying textiles, at the University of Wisconsin Madison. He became a partner in the Milwaukee Antique Center in the Third Ward, which has helped him find the wildly varying materials for his sculptures, which evoke a history not necessarily his own -- a family's, an era's, an area's.

"It wasn't just me" who made them, he says, referring to the mystery, or previously untold story that guided his hands in creating each piece of what has been called the most original artwork being created in Wisconsin today.

Finds village a comfortable home

Gary moved to Brown Deer in 1987; his then-wife grew up in the area and they found it affordable and convenient to downtown. He is the father of two sons, Josh, 23, who works with him at the antique center, and Jonah, 21, who is a student and still lives with his father and their blind, affectionate 11-year-old Shih Tzu, Dulcie.

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