Artist works in lowbrow style, tackles high-minded topics

I’m sitting and chatting with Dan Gerdeman over coffee at a Short North eatery, ostensibly to talk about his upcoming exhibition, “The Things We Say,” which opens Monday, July 8, at the Ohio State University Faculty Club. The conversation begins with pleasantries and a recap of what the local artist and teacher has been up to in recent months: teaching art at Hilliard Davidson High School, leading a filmmaking workshop for teens at CCAD, enjoying a family vacation… all with a solo show looming.

“I’ve just been stealing time [to paint],” Gerdeman said. “I can paint for 10 minutes at a clip, whenever I find it. I can sit down with the sketch book at dinner or whatever. … I make it a priority to make something every single day.” 

As Gerdeman says this, he reaches into his bag and pulls out a collection of small, partially completed canvases, a water jar, a paint-filled palette and a host of brushes wrapped in a rubber band.

Stealing time, indeed.

The truth is, as the artist puts some detail touches on a painting while we talk, he’s every bit as engaged in the conversation as he would be if he wasn’t painting. Which is not to say he’s not vested in the work, but rather that he’s equally vested in the conversation.

And not just this conversation.

“One thing I’ve learned, and it’s become a kind of mantra for me, is to listen more. To shut up and see what I can learn by listening — to students, colleagues, friends, family. This year I really focused on the things we say to each other and conversation I’ve had, trying to listen more than talk,” Gerdeman said. “I’ve tried to focus on the positive and negative things we say to each other and how wonderful and horrible we can be to each other.”

Gerdeman allowed this personal initiative to impact his painting, making notes and sketches based on snippets of conversation, whether from a dialogue he was participating in or something overheard in another conversation.

“If something strikes me, I’ll write it down, maybe start sketching on it,” he said. “I wanted the making to be about conversation, about how once you say something you can’t take it back. When you listen, you hear the good stuff, but also how dastardly and cruel people can be. So I’m surrounding myself with the good and the bad.”

Those familiar with Gerdeman’s lowbrow, comic book/punk rock-inspired work will recognize the pieces in “The Things We Say” as classic Gerdy. The native of small-town Northwest Ohio developed his bold, idiosyncratic style by the time he was an art student at Ohio State.

“I’ve always known that’s the way I wanted to say things,” Gerdeman said. “It’s just that what I’m saying has changed.”

And yes, Gerdeman has something to say about all this listening he’s been doing. This is about conversation, after all. Via his art, Gerdeman is taking something from one conversation and starting another.

“The work and the words that inspired it have a meaning for me, but for someone else, I don’t want to shove it down their throat. I want it to hit home and be universal,” Gerdeman said. “Most of the time, I don’t want to explain [the work] to people. I want them to explain it to me. Sometimes I’m wondering myself why a string of words meant so much to me at a given point in time, so I’m painting with those words as a starting point.

“The paintings are a part of a continuing conversation.”

At least, that’s what I heard.