July 14, 2006
By Christine Shaw
"Death is a universal experience," says multimedia artist Gerald Westgerdes about his recent exhibition "Passages and Tributes, Final Farewells" at the Zanesville Art Center and The Armory in Zanesville. "Religion or nationality doesn't matter. If you can see it that way, you really learn to appreciate people."
Through a series of installation sculptures constructed of clay, stone, wood, plastics, and other media, Westgerdes challenges and broadens our perspective of human mortality, while evoking a spiritual remembrance of his subjects.
"I really liked The Wake," says 12-year-old Nicole Haley. "I've seen the AIDS awareness things that have the 'See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil' saying on them before." The Wake is one of 18 pieces that pay tribute to significant people in Westgerdes' life and they also represent his perspective on life passages.
In addition to the thought-provoking pieces that explore topics such as AIDS, SIDS and prison death, the exhibit featured "Requiem for Whispered Voices," a piece of music composed by Ohio University-Zanesville Music Instructor Charles Savage. Recorded on a CD and playing constantly during the exhibition, the contemporary work featuring whispered voices set the tone for the reflective nature of the work.
"Just when you thought there were no fresh approaches to death, Jerry produces this show," says Mike Seiler, artist and friend of Westgerdes. "No clichés. No false notes. Just carefully crafted, thought-provoking stuff that despite the subject matter, is never maudlin, but full of light."
A self-proclaimed practical artist, Westgerdes says there is a certain risk in using new materials. "I may not be proficient in working with a particular material. And if I use that material, I open myself to professional criticism from those who work with it," he explains. He prefers to use recycled, found and inexpensive items to create pieces that communicate a specific message. And once he gets an idea into his head, he can't wait to get into the studio to work on it.
Those who viewed the show had an opportunity to experience the passion and the vision he uses to create the works of art. The Cruelty of SIDS, created as a representation of loss that one of his former students experienced, featured a hanging foam cradle. "I wanted something to present the message, but it had to be light enough to suspend from the ceiling," he explains.
Another piece in the show, Memorial Prayer Cards, is constructed from recycled items such as pool table slate and prayer cards from his mother's collection.
A Tribute to Big Ed draws on a statement used when approaching a final port of call with a narrow entrance -- "No need to tend to the rudder any longer as an invisible pilot seems to be in charge." This installation is a tribute to Westgerdes' friend Ed Hill who made his last voyage last year. The love and appreciation for his sailor friend is commemorated through nautical flags bearing the message "Farewell Ed Hill."
"By opening up this subject to artistic exploration and expression, the exhibit provides a liberating balance to the repression and denial of death frequently encountered today," explains Westgerdes. "My intention is to give those who view works an opportunity to be engaged mentally and emotionally, to move them to a wider awareness of the many dimensions within the final passage."
The exhibition was meant to be ephemeral, but it has taken on a new life. "It's ironic," says Westgerdes. "I thought once the exhibit came down it would cease to exist." Now with interest from his colleagues, those who have seen the exhibit and from his alma mater in Michigan, the show will live on. "I've been encouraged to take the show on the road," he says.
As a professor of art at Ohio University-Zanesville, Westgerdes says it's important that his students don't imitate his work to please him. "I only share my work with them so they feel free to ask technical questions as they consider various media to use in their own work," he explains. "There is a balance between providing students with resources and limiting their imaginations by providing too much explanation or interpretation."
Westgerdes is actively involved with the Zanesville Appalachian Arts Project, a community of artists that promotes arts education.
Christine Shaw is the grants and special projects coordinator for Ohio University Zanesville Campus.