Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Visual Arts

Volume XXVII Number 2
Spring 2005

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Barry Gealt
Barry Gealt
Photo © Tyagan Miller

Anthony Droege
Photo © Tyagan Miller

Entretat by Barry Gealt, 2004
Courtesy Barry Gealt

Fall Splendor by Anthony Droege, 2000
Courtesy Anthony Droege

Canvases of Change

by Ryan Piurek

One is a landscape artist who sees constant change within his calm natural surroundings. The other is a still-life painter who alters the way we look at ordinary things.

Indiana University fine arts professors Barry Gealt and Anthony Droege are, in essence, kindred spirits, linked by a desire to find and communicate beauty. They also share a willingness to take risks—risks that have sometimes led to failure, but have always furthered their artistic development. For Gealt and Droege, life as an artist has been a long and emotional maturation during which each has discovered what matters most to him as an artist and what he wants to achieve through his painting.

Both men admit to being works in progress, despite being close to retirement.

The absence of words

By the early 1980s, Barry Gealt's life was a picture of contentment. He had a wife and family, a blossoming career as a painter, a steady teaching position at IU Bloomington’s Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts, and a new 122-acre farm in rural Spencer, Ind. The Philadelphia native had traced his very own Rocky story: Big city kid with little natural artistic ability falls in love with painting, leaves town to explore the mysterious Midwest, meets a girl who becomes his “guiding light,” and fights through several creative failures. Ultimately, he finds success as a figure painter who specializes in telling stories about domestic life.

Up to the early ’80s, Gealt’s paintings had mainly centered on his wife (Heidi Gealt, director of the IU Art Museum), his family, and his friends. But after eight years of training himself to focus on the human figure and capturing quiet moments, Gealt decided to shift his artistic attention to his new surroundings. His Owen County farm, including 80 acres of rolling hills, forest trees, jutting rocks, flowing streams, and a glistening waterfall, provided a new set of metaphors for the human condition his work had always explored.

It was an emotional decision for an artist accustomed to seeing himself through others and interpreting people the way he saw them. It required a reorganization of the mind, including more reliance on the imagination and new painting techniques, all to get closer to the artist’s inner being.

“I (had) only wanted to see art by way of me. I wanted my work to be only about myself,” Gealt says. “But you have to be honest with yourself and, after buying our home, my life changed dramatically in a very positive way. After 12 years of living in the country, I realized I understood better what that experience could offer. It just seemed more honest to me.

“I had to come to grips with ‘how do I paint with extreme honesty about what I know best?’ That’s the risk I took,” he continues. “Figure painting is always so narrative and about stories. Landscape painting removes all words to create a true visual experience.”

The theme of change, and its risks, pervades many of Gealt’s landscape paintings. The landscape provides a perfect backdrop for natural light responding to seasonal changes, shifting weather patterns, and cycles of time. His paintings showcase his peaceful and spiritual surroundings, but don’t tiptoe around the disharmonious and turbulent times in which we live.

“When you look at one of my paintings, I want you to see a perfect world. But inside that world you may also see upheaval, solitude, a sense of daring and of the unknown. There are no footholds, no people. It’s just nature and my thoughts pushed out into nature. Making a perfect world doesn’t mean it’s all happy.”

His recent painting Waterfall shows the waterfall’s wonder and excitement, but also its complexity. For Gealt, it is a perfect representation of daily life—in which we are confronted with so much natural beauty, yet so many horrors, including war. “This past year has been horrific to many of us who are so opposed to the very nature of war,” he says. In many of his landscapes, Gealt provokes the viewer with his use of striking images, strident colors, spatial illusions, and pronounced sculptural forms. His works achieve a lyrical and emotional effect.

“Is beauty just a nice sports car?” Gealt asks. “Art has to touch on beauty, however you want to describe that word, to make people respond. But beauty is also an emotional provocation that has to touch your mind and heart. I aim for the absence of words. The imagery should be thought-provoking. Art has got to make you think of something beautiful, but also work on your mind.”

These days, Gealt is content, yet always looking for that special something to invigorate his work. That search has taken him from the streets of Philadelphia to the Hoosier countryside and, in 2003, to France and the historic beaches of Normandy, the riverbanks of Auvers where Van Gogh spent the last three months of his life, and the cliffs of Etretat, immortalized by his heroes Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet, and “his holiness” Claude Monet.

Since 1986, Gealt has directed a joint program between IU Bloomington’s School of Fine Arts and the Italian language department, taking him on additional trips with students each summer to tour the historic city of Florence, Italy, and savor its Renaissance masterpieces. Gealt, who has taught at IU since 1969, has helped raise some $350,000 to help students study in the United States and abroad. He feels an obligation to help art students remain involved in the field, just as his teachers at the Philadelphia College of Art and Yale University helped him. “Really good artists are nurturing, and artists who are secure should help everybody out,” he says.

Gealt has derived great pleasure from watching his IU students grow, work through failures, and get excited about their art. “What is most intriguing is seeing the birth of new ideas and new images and new ways in the presenting and the making of art,” he says. “Change is inevitable, and it is always challenging, if not downright frightening. But change can only vitalize our ideas and what our work means.”

Still moving

Indiana University South Bend Professor Anthony Droege paints still lifes, but he isn’t much for keeping still.

Like Gealt, Droege was born in Philadelphia, Pa., a state whose motto features the words “liberty” and “independence.” And like Gealt, Droege values the freedom he has had to change directions as an artist and confront new challenges.

Although primarily a figure painter, Droege has painted several Hoosier landscapes, and for three years in the early 1980s, he took up sculpture (Gealt also studied sculpture as a teenage artist in Philadelphia). Droege says sculpting helped him learn more about the nature of the human figure, three-dimensionality, and most important, patience. In sculpture, “when you were impatient, you paid for it dearly,” he says.

Droege, who serves as area coordinator for the Raclin School of Fine Arts at IU South Bend, also has done several portrait commissions, including one he calls The Analyst, which bears a striking resemblance to famed IU sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. (“I think Mr. Kinsey would enjoy it,” Droege says with a laugh.) They are traditional paintings, but Droege says not to underestimate the emotional impact that can come from painting a figure “under the skin.”

“Nothing moves me more than the human head,” he says. “And I’ll never lose the thrill of meeting another person and sitting there for a period of time just looking at them, talking to them, painting them. There aren’t many situations where we have the opportunity to just sit and look at another person.”

Droege’s still-life paintings demonstrate how greatly affected he is by his subjects, whether living or nonliving. Seashells. Urns. Antique serving pieces. Cows. Turnips. Peonies. Poppies. With a magician’s touch, Droege animates all of these objects, capturing their essence by focusing on pictorial and structural issues, much like the French post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), who completed more than 200 still lifes in his lifetime and influenced many 20th-century artists. At the same time, Droege manages to create a sense of mystery and illusion in his work through the interplay of the objects’ two- and three-dimensionality.

In other words, these aren’t your grandmother’s still lifes. They’re a long way from a “wine bottle and a couple of apples,” Droege says.

Droege isn’t afraid to divulge the secrets of his success. “In my early still lifes, I painted pretty straight, but I’d lay the wine bottle on its side, for instance. We’re used to seeing the wine bottle standing up. We’re used to seeing people front to front. They’re upright figures whether they’re sitting or standing. So you change the position of how you see things, and it rattles people.

“I’d be disingenuous if I said I didn’t sometimes enjoy rattling people a bit,” he adds.

Droege didn’t receive any classical figurative training until graduate school and wasn’t introduced to a master painting technique until arriving in South Bend. He describes his learning experience as a “reverse education.” Early on in his career, he was “enamored” with traditional Eastern artwork, particularly Japanese woodcuts, Persian miniatures, and oriental rugs. More recently, he’s been looking at contemporary Western art and has sought to intertwine these cultural interests in much of his recent work. Just as Gealt’s views on war influenced his depiction of the waterfall, Droege also now sees his subject matter in relation to a changed worldview.

“I’m beginning to have a stronger, more intuitive understanding of the beliefs of certain cultures. I feel more deeply than ever before that there are no real differences between us,” he says.

Both Gealt and Droege are nearing retirement, yet, clearly, each remains enthusiastic about his work as artist and teacher. “For me, one of the great things about teaching is you can’t just be carrying on this conversation with yourself,” Droege says, adding that he is proud of the role universities have played in preparing young artists.

Gealt and Droege also are grateful for the support they’ve received from the university and their communities—support that has allowed them to focus on growing as artists rather than selling paintings to earn a living. That’s not to say they haven’t been successful. Gealt recently staged a major exhibit, Amerikanische Landschaften, which was displayed at the Gallery Osper in Cologne, Germany, and his landscapes are frequently showcased at the Ruschman Art Gallery in Indianapolis. He estimates he has sold 90 percent of his work over the last 20 years or so to buyers living here in the United States and also in countries such as Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Droege’s work is represented by galleries in Indiana, Michigan, and Florida. One of Droege’s paintings, Black and Blue, of spotted cows set against a deep blue sky, appeared on the cover of Art in Indiana. His painting Field of Dandelions hung for years in historic Bryan House, the presidential residence on the IU Bloomington campus, and another of his works hangs in the Lilly House, the residence of the president of Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. Droege’s still life Poppies on Top hangs in the new informatics complex on the IUPUI campus, and back in Bloomington, the Indiana Memorial Union displays two of his works.

Like any artist, Droege and Gealt are happy about their works’ exposure; it helps them achieve what both men want most, to move people.

“I just finished a biography of Ray Charles, and in it, Ray Charles says that he always wanted to be a great musician (but) wasn’t so concerned with wanting to be famous,” Droege says. “Well, I’ve always wanted to be a great artist and to really reach people.”

“A painting doesn’t make a sound,” says Gealt. “It can’t protect you from a windstorm. You don’t walk on it. In a sense, its value is useless. But when you look at one, your mind goes on an intellectual and emotional journey. To make art is an adventure.”

Ryan Piurek works in the Indiana University Office of Media Relations and is a freelance writer in Bloomington.