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The Scene Online: Local Artist Profile

by Tom Breuer, from The Scene

Listen to Milwaukee-area artist Gary John Gresl describe his sculptures and you will sense that they're intensely personal expressions.

What he rather modestly describes as "assemblages" or, more to the point, "visual short stories," do indeed resonate with the artist personally.

Made up of artifacts and items that often hew to a nostalgic theme, or place the pieces in the context of a period, there is nevertheless much more to his work than just allowing folks of a certain age to get caught up in reminiscences.

"Many will have a theme," said Gresl. "I see them as sort of visual short stories, and they incorporate all sorts of objects that out of my experience have hit a chord. They could be things I recall from my childhood or things I've dealt with as an adult in some sort of context."

Still, there is an appeal to his work that's undoubtedly universal. He recalls one sculpture -- made up of pine cones, mounted deer heads, deer antlers, fossil shells and a rock crystal specimen -- that at one of his exhibits evoked joy from a group of very young fans.

"The kids just sat there and danced around the sculpture and laughed and pointed, and they were just enthralled," said Gresl.

A Manitowoc native, UW­Stevens Point graduate and a former resident of Brillion, where he taught art in the public schools, Gresl will exhibit Mementos and Earthly Things Feb. 6 through March 15 in the Gail Floether Steinhilber Art Gallery in the Reeve Memorial Union, UW Oshkosh.

It's part of a busy schedule that's kept him very active in the art world in the last two decades. The 59-year-old artist had a personal renaissance of sorts in the early '80s, coming back to art after taking a break from it. He started out painting and joined Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors, an organization for which he currently serves as president.

"I started in '83 with painting and soon found that was not satisfying enough to continue, and I started adding 3-D elements and assemblages," said Gresl. "The work at (the UW Oshkosh exhibit) is for the most part stuff I've done in the last five years."

Fascinated by objects, Gresl can both reference a period with his art and create pieces with an undeniable aesthetic appeal.

"I did one that's called 'The Yellow Cottage on Lake Poygan,'" said Gresl. "When I was a kid I stayed in a cottage there a couple times with my parents, and a year ago I began pooling elements of memory together and incorporated objects out of those weekends, including hickory nuts and chalkware, and branches that might be found on the property, and fishing materials and lures; there's even that famous pose of Marilyn Monroe from the first Playboy magazine that's included in it. And even though someone may look at it and say, 'What do these things have to do with each other?,' they all clearly reference a time and place for me."

But there's more to his pieces than just placing the viewer in the context of a certain time or place. While objects and artifacts are his business as well as the focus of his art -- he is co-owner of the Milwaukee Antique Center -- assembling them into art is his passion.

"In the end all those things can just lie on the floor and there's nothing appealing about them, so putting them in relation in an artistic fashion, using all those themes from Art 101 when you have to deal with line and texture, composition and color, I think it makes them more interesting to look at," said Gresl. "It's looking at a level and a sense of what these things mean, and it's also creating an interesting visual object to look at."

In the end, though, Gresl is simply happy to be involved in what he considers a calling.

"I don't pretend I'm Picasso or Rembrandt, I'm just doing what I'm motivated to do," said Gresl.

For more information on Gresl's exhibit Mementos and Earthly Things, call (920) 424-2281, visit www.reeve.uwosh.edu or go to www.gresl.com. There will be an artist's reception for the exhibit from 6 to 8 p.m. Feb. 12.

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