Artist Grant Gilsdorf explores generational struggles

Grant Gilsdorf was noticing stuff.

An art teacher in a suburban Central Ohio school district, Gilsdorf was watching a generation struggle, torn between an image of themselves they were sharing with the world and the self they knew didn't match that ideal. Anxiety, depression and other manifestations of mental illness were wearing young people out, the artist said, “and it wasn't enough just to give hugs and say, ‘Everything's going to be OK.'”

Gilsdorf's wife, a counselor in a different suburban district, was witnessing the same, often magnified, given her position. When their son was born, the couple decided she would stay home with the child, and they downsized from the large home they'd renovated to a condo closer to Grant's school. But those life changes led to new questions — personal ones based on what they'd been seeing in their professional lives.

“I had read James Baldwin's ‘My Dungeon Shook,' which is this essay to his nephew in which he tells what he needs to know about growing up black in America,” Gilsdorf said. “And I wondered, what would I write to my son? What would I want to tell him about this world? Or what advice could I give him?”

At the same time, Gilsdorf was wrestling with a body of work. His previous collection was a cautionary tale about the future of America, given added urgency in the wake of the November 2016 presidential election. Gilsdorf wasn't sure he wanted to “swim in those dark waters” again, as he explained, and he wondered if there wasn't something worth exploring in his generational ponderings.

“In most religions and cultures, no matter what part of the world, there's never a promise that there won't be suffering, but rather that struggle will be part of the journey, that you have to confront that and come out on the other side somehow changed,” Gilsdorf said. “So I thought, as people on a journey of self-actualization … maybe I don't know the answer, but I can talk about the two plus two.”

The subject matter places the painter in a more vulnerable position than his past work, which was primarily built around a fictional narrative. Additionally, the portraits, each in a way depicting that search for self, are of real individuals from Gilsdorf's life.

“It feels so exciting to just be authentic and put this work out there. And using people who are very dear to me helped add to that authenticity,” he said.

“Actualize” opens Friday, Oct. 5, at Musca Gallery at Spiritus Tattoo. Gilsdorf will also give an artist talk at 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 7.