Jerry Gretzinger - The Man on The Map
In December 2013 Jerry Gretzinger travelled from his farm in Michigan to display his life’s work in Summerhall Edinburgh. When I first saw the video on Vimeo of Jerry making his map I was blown away. Here is a man who had spent over 50 years creating his artwork and it isn’t just his life, its his world, one that he calls Ukrania.
Ukrania is a map of a parallel universe piece of artwork, a made up of over 3050 8x10cm panels, each one with its own set of co-ordinates according to where it belongs “otherwise how would I find them?” he said. Due to the size of the map, there are some interesting challenges when it comes to displaying all the panels of it together. There are few venues which would have the wall space to accommodate a piece of work at this scale and so the next suggestion would of course be to put it on the floor.
The last time the map was displayed at MASS MoCA in October 2012 it was laid out on the floor with a walkway around it so that people could explore it from the outside. The problem with that of course is that something with this level of detail needs the viewer to get up close to it in order to appreciate the amount of time and skill that has gone into creating it. Maps especially, are things which we need to really get up close to, so we can understand where we fit in. The ‘You Are Here’ spot.
So Summerhall rather ingeniously not only installed the map panels on the floor but laid sheets of Perspex over the top so that you can walk safely on top of the map. The panels which couldn’t be fitted on the floor spill up the walls instead and from the outside, on first glance, it was like a room sized world had been dropped on the floor and splashed up the walls.
When I arrived at the door of the gallery Jerry and his assistant were discussing how to encourage people to remove their shoes before entering the gallery. I shook his hand while removing my boots and Jerry took me into the middle of the room so we are surrounded by the map. We sat on the floor and examined the panels beneath us, some are checked with ½ inch squares drawn in a grid some have ¼ inch triangles in a similar style. Jerry explained it was an idea he had, to sort of pixelate the map, he planned to lay the grids over each panel, however it was an idea he had tried and then abandoned in preference for retaining the original process. He never removed these grids from any of the panels though.
This is an example of how Jerry uses layering in his work. He is layering up past with present, continually layering ideas, colours and towns on top of one another. He will try a new idea out and even if it doesn’t work he leaves it to become part of the map’s history. Every change is recorded and dated on the back of the panel, ones which have been displayed in exhibitions will be rubber stamped on the back with the gallery name and date. Which means of course that all the panels we were sitting on during the interview, will have been duly stamped with ‘Summerhall’ and Edinburgh will become a physical part of its history.
It’s a kind of artistic archaeology and I told him that. He was pleased, a wry smile broke across his face and he rubbed his chin, “Archaeology! You must be one of if not, the first person to ever have said that to me. I like it. Normally people use that computer game little boys play, Minecraft, I don’t like that comparison, this isn’t a game to me. But Archaeology…” he paused to think about it. “It s a very personal kind of archaeology, I use collage in my panels, old family photographs, personal things to me.” He pointed at a dark panel behind him, “This one has in it a drawing my son did when he was only little. I also ask other artists sometimes to contribute a print to work into the map. It gradually gets covered up with things but that’s just how it works.” The affection Jerry has for his work, the emotional reward he gets from creating his map is obvious as his eyes light up recalling what lies beneath the layers on each panel. It gives another depth to the map, a beautiful reminder that this is not ordinary 2D artwork, its dimensions are more metaphysical, they encapsulate memories, and life experiences, it is a true labour of love.
“You know its funny you should use the term archaeology, I actually worked as an architect on an archaeological dig in the late 60s early 70s.” he told me.
I asked him if his architectural background played a part in the making of the map, did he get excited by advancement in new building techniques, designs and new technology?
“Not the buildings, I don’t really think too much about that, but the advancement in technology has had a massive impact on my art. I mean back in the 80’s the results from photocopying were…” he pauses to screw up his face in disgust before sighing, “…not great.” He laughs. “I keep a log of all my work, scanners have helped me a great deal.” He showed me a piece of A1 poster sized paper, which has scanned colour images of every single panel shrunk down and put in to order, so it’s the whole map on one handy sheet of paper, which without today’s technology would’ve been impossible to see before.
Jerry gave up architecture in 1973, when he moved to a loft in New York, “I wasn’t enjoying my work, I just wanted to make things, so I moved to New York to be a maker, y’know, I wanted to make things and sell them. At the time the only way you could get one of these lofts was if you were an artist. The way to prove you were an artist was to submit your portfolio, or photographs of your work to the Culture Council and they judged whether or not you were creative enough to stay there. So I got the map out and laid it on the floor, there were 800 panels at the time. I got up on a ladder and took photographs and sent them in. At the time I didn’t think of myself as an artist” The Council obviously recognised what he hadn’t realised yet! “I just thought I was getting one over on the council and getting in a loft!” he laughed and a bright glint of mischief sparked in his eyes.
He started his first creation by putting some pieces of material together to make a bag. “I was interested in fabrics. My friends came over and took a look at it, they said, you need to refine it a little, so I did and I made a couple and gave it to a friend of mine who had a shop in Soho, Broadway. Well they just went immediately! So I ended up making bags and selling them for 10 years. The next thing I made was architectural clothing but it was a disaster, you couldn’t wear them! It was like a shirt for a small building.” he laughed, recalling. “But then I started reworking second hand clothes, I gave them to a friend of mine at the time, now my wife, Meg Staley to sell. They sold really well. It was only around 10 years ago I started thinking about the map as art.”
With over 3050 panels, choosing which one to work on would take a day in itself. This is where Jerry’s special stack of playing cards comes in handy. “I first started the map in 1963, just a way of passing the time, doodling with it. I actually put it away in the attic for 20 years before I started working on it again and when I pulled it out there were 800 panels. I would work on one, then put it to the bottom of the pile, work on another, and so forth.” He paused looking suddenly really tired before saying, “It took a long time!”
“So I worked out this system with a deck of playing cards, to help me choose which panel to work on and then gradually I added other directions to the cards, whether to add a river, farm, roads and the number of the suit, say 9 of diamonds, would determine how many of the ½ inch squares the new work would take up, which direction it should go in, clockwise or anticlockwise, what shape and all of these are done from the central point in the panel, the red circles like this one.” He tapped the Perspex to where a tiny red circle on a panel is beneath his finger. “The red circles make it easier to see, because my eyesight isn’t getting any better!” he laughs.
Jerry will shuffle the cards, get his directions and then spend 5 or 6 hours made up of 30 minute intervals broken up by chores and the bits and pieces of everyday normal life, working on the map, “I go back and forth like that all day. I’ve always wondered if maybe I have ADHD or something!” He laughs.
I asked him about emotional reward for creating the panels, he said it brings him great joy and it’s a real blessing. “Sometimes its frustrating because I like to see the towns and cities grown and evolve, I never like to see something get destroyed.” He was talking about the voids.
The void is an instruction for the cards to wipe a space in a panel out, these can and have happened over some of his best loved panels. “I had a hard time recently when a town he had named for a friend of mine, Penfold, had been chosen by the cards to have a void. I called her up and said, I’m so sorry I have to destroy your town!” He started a new town nearby and named it after her instead. “I never cheat though, it has to be organic. The moment you start worrying or preconceiving ideas about what to make is when it gets lost. I sometimes feel like maybe I should do something specific but I stay true to the cards.” Looking around the room I found it so hard to imagine being able to paint over any of it. He assures me that when a void does come up he copies and then archives the original so as not to lose it entirely.
Jerry told me he enjoys the painting aspect of the work the most these days, from mixing the paint to putting it onto the panel. It was hard for him to be away from his studio for the two weeks he spent in Edinburgh setting up the exhibition. “I do feel a little frustrated to be away from my studio. The last exhibition at MASS MoCA they moved my studio to beside that gallery, the idea being that people could see me working. Of course people wanted to talk to me and I loved that but it meant I didn’t get a lot of work done, I got some done but not a lot.”
As I got up to leave Jerry talked about the change in colours over the years, from quite bright to garish palette, to now more these roses, mauves, more muted tones.” Another part of the layers of personal history encased within his map. I took his photograph beside his then current favourite part of the map and as I’m pulling my boots back on I ask him, so does he now feel like he’s an artist? He answers in his dry American accent, “I think of myself as more of a designer.”