a review by Susannah Israel
Jon Gariepy’s ocean paintings and ceramic boat sculptures share a massive
presence. The big boats are built in sections, enticing the viewer to peep inside
for a glance at the structure of the interior. These ships have been places. Their
surfaces are dry washes of restrained color, with dark values and the visual feel
of faded paint. Gariepy’s use of paint is intuitive and innovative. He says: “From
the beginning I have been determined to work as loosely and freely as possible. I
feel this gives my work a feeling of movement and spontaneity.”
In the summer of 2004 Jon Gariepy underwent surgery three times for life threatening
conditions, fortunately making a full recovery. He says, “These
back-to-back events sharpened my perception of my mortality and motivated me
to get serious.”
A review of Gariepy’s life suggests that he was not waiting to get serious about
his art. He was already painting from early childhood. “Painting and drawing was
always something I could do, how I was identified.” Encouraged by his high
school art teacher, Gariepy won an award and a scholarship to California State
University, Long Beach in 1958. Gariepy enrolled in the commercial art program,
but was uninspired by the practical approach of applied arts. The artist says, ” I
absolutely loved the art department environment. My first introduction to art
exhibitions, art films and the Long Beach Museum of Art.” Gariepy then attended
Saddleback Community College, where he was awarded Painter of the Year,
completing an Associate of Arts degree in 1971.
At Sonoma State University, Gariepy studied with Walt Kuhlman and Gerald Bol.
He says “Gerald Bol was my watercolor instructor and most influential for me.
Gerald’s attitude was that it was important for him not to teach too much and
allow my unique originality to surface. My watercolors were loose and very
watery and I let the “mistakes” show.” In 1981 Gariepy completed his BA in
Watercolor Painting. Making art took a back seat in the artist’s life for over
twenty years, competing with work and family responsibilities. Gariepy says “I
have painted off and on for 65 years. Now I feel I know what direction I want to
go in the future.”
Six years ago Gariepy discovered clay at the I Street studio of Jane McDonald.
He worked there for several years, attracted to handbuilding for the textures and
sculptural form possible. Gariepy then studied with Bill Abright at College of
Marin, working on raku-fired masks, with their expressive possibilities.
He also learned moldmaking from Abright, creating a 15-Volkswagen “stack”
Then Gariepy was motivated to make the 85 km trip to Oakland to study
ceramic sculpture with Susannah Israel for two years, to developing a body of work
and beginning to approach the clay surface in a more painterly manner.
About choosing the boat form, Gariepy says, “I get personal value by putting my
thoughts out there, but they certainly aren’t new or earth shaking. When I saw
Anselm Kiefer’s amazing boats, at first viewing I felt I never needed to create
another ship or boat … his work says so much. But as I reflected I realized there
are so many interpretations of any subject and my interpretation is as valid as
anyone’s. I still have more to say about the boat.”
For this artist, such interpretation is very personal. Gariepy spent his early
childhood fishing with his grandmother on Rainbow Pier in Long Beach. He loved
reading children’s stories by Merchant Marine author Howard Pease, about the
adventures of a tramp steamer traveling the world. He joined the Sea Scouts,
and as a teenager, would often ride his bicycle to the harbor and spend the whole
day there. This early point of view – the boy fishing from a pier – locates the
viewer as a witness and gives the looming size of the big ships a personal scale.
Gariepy references his environmental concerns with humor and inventiveness
with his ceramic works, such as the two large container ships, Tokio (sic)
Express and Bangladesh Express. The colorful containers are toppling from their
stacks, perilously close to spilling into the ocean. These pieces are based on real
events, says Gariepy. Annually, thousands of ships break down and are
abandoned on the beach, to be crudely dismantled at considerable cost to the
Gariepy’s painted surfaces create a sense of process and the look of having
survived or weathered the prevailing conditions. The word weather has several
relevant meanings: atmospheric conditions; adverse weather such as a storm; to
come safely through a crisis or difficult time. In What Seems to be the Problem?
Gariepy refers to the predicament of the unseen sailors; the boat is listing and we
are made sharply aware of danger lurking in an apparently serene environment.
Such illusions of safety remind us that sometimes we can only overcome
adversity by sailing through the storm.
Gariepy’s style of painting on ceramic sculpture evolved from his interest in color
field painting. He applies washes of ceramic underglazes to bisque-fired clay,
letting the drips show and leaving areas of clay visible. Lines are enhanced with
contrasting color to bring out details. Pieces are fired several times and acrylic
paint is sometimes applied to the surface. The matt finish of underglaze blends
beautifully with acrylic paint, as in the subtle palette of the green and white boat
Texture and scale are both created and implied with fine detail. Gariepy does not
want these forms to look like ship models: “… it can contain small points of
verification, like the appearance of metal, faded paint, but it’s more human
than a model.” Close inspection rewards the viewer; peering inside the
submarine we see torpedoes, and the container ships have decks, crew quarters
Whether the piece at hand is clay or canvas, all source images get set aside
when the actual working process starts. Gariepy says, “I work with the simplest
tools and methods and try to excel within the limits of my years of training and
skill. I study, I read, I meditate, I listen, and I look. I try to work from a place of
Gariepy’s paintings locate us within the wave; his boat forms
reference the journey by showing us the vessel. The artist has received
significant recognition and support for his recent work, which combines a single
vision in two media. Gariepy says, “I feel it is important now to have paintings to
go with my sculptures.” In December 2011 Gariepy exhibited both ceramics and
paintings in a solo show called The Tide Is In.
Jon Gariepy reminds us that we all set out across uncharted waters in our lives,
and indeed weather many storms. Sea voyages have long captured the human
imagination with the elements of risk, adventure and the unknown. The artist’s
huge sense of scale conveys that we are powerless to resist the magnitude of
such forces at work. If, in the end, we are just going for the ride, we can still bring
our human perspective to the experience. With characteristic willingness and
courage, Jon Gariepy faces the elemental questions in both his life and his art.
Susannah Israel is an artist, writer and educator living in east Oakland, California. She is currently Resident Artist Director at the Oakland Museum of Ceramics.