January 24, 2007 News & Features » Cover Story



The quiet but reverberating career of artist Gerald Donato.

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You may not know artist Gerald Donato, but drop his name into any conversation with a member of Richmond's culturati and you'll get a positive response.

"What are you up to?" asks Jane Ware, a sculptor and erudite Californian-turned-Richmonder. We meet on a downtown sidewalk as we approach Second Presbyterian Church for the funeral of a mutual friend.

"Writing a piece on Gerald Donato," I reply. "The Anderson Gallery is giving him a major retrospective." I assumed she would be interested. Ware is a member of 1708, an artist-run gallery co-founded in 1978 by a cadre of 16 respected Richmond artists, including Donato, a longtime painter and printmaker.

"I love Jerry and own a piece of his work," Ware gushes in a proud whisper as we pass through the church vestibule and settle into a creaky pew under a high canopy of Gothic arches. "It's a lithograph with alligators in it. I bought it years ago and intended to hang it over the bed without realizing my husband was scared to death of alligators."

Instead, the Wares hung the piece on a living-room wall in their River Road home. The 1971 print contains imagery different from Donato's later, looser and more ethereal work. In it he's enlarged, manipulated and garishly colored a photo image from a vintage postcard. It depicts four people holding a large alligator, with a caption that reads: "Taking Home a Family Pet, Live Alligator, St. Petersburg, Fl."

"It has a lot of humor in it," Ware says. "As if to say, no problem at all taking a limp alligator home."

Our muffled chat ends when the preacher leads the bereaved family into the sanctuary.

Another Richmond artist, painter Sally Bowring, has a more recent Donato painting hanging over her mantel in the Bellevue neighborhood — and it gets noticed. She recently entertained relatives of her son's girlfriend who were visiting from Northern Virginia. "The grandmother walked in and exclaimed, 'That's a Jerry Donato!' She'd evidently had a class with him," Bowring says. An immediate bond was established between two women who'd just met.

In a career spanning five decades, Donato has established himself as one of Virginia's most prolific, fascinating and dynamic talents. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Chrysler Museum own his work. Fellow artists and collectors are excited to examine, discuss and acquire his work — that is, if they can get their hands on it.

But Donato, perhaps to the chagrin of some close to him, has never sought big-city lights, the fame that many artists crave, or even ongoing representation by a major New York gallery. Instead, for 38 years he's been content to make his art in the relative cocoon of the tight-knit Richmond art world and to teach.

Donato retired in 2005 after 36 years of teaching painting and printmaking at Virginia Commonwealth University.

When Richmond gets too close, he and his wife, Joan Gaustad, also an artist, travel. They often work on vacations or soak up art, both old and contemporary, in museums and galleries wherever they go.

"The most amazing experience you can have is to walk through a gallery with Jerry," says Bowring, who teaches painting at VCU. She recalls visiting an exhibit of Nell Blaine paintings with him: "He is so much fun and makes such interesting connections, it's exciting."

Donato will find his work in the spotlight this winter, with the opening of two concurrent exhibitions: "Gerald Donato: Reinventing the Game," the retrospective at VCU's Anderson Gallery, and a showing of some of his fanciful, colorful drawings at Reynolds Gallery on West Main Street.

At the Anderson, in an extraordinary gesture, all the gallery space on three floors will be dedicated to displaying 72 pieces of Donato's work. All, that is, except a designated area where portraits of Donato will be shown: These were executed by fellow artists as a tribute to a man they consider an essential colleague, mentor, inspiration and friend.

"This entire project has been a labor of love for everyone concerned," says Amy Moorefield, the Anderson Gallery curator who organized the show and selected the works.

"He is my favorite artist in the world, period. He's up there with Joni Mitchell," says artist Bowring, who was a student of Donato's in graduate school. And she knows a lot of artists. For a number of years she headed the city's public art program that commissions artists internationally to create major pieces for Richmond's public buildings and spaces.

"Jerry uses amazing imagery — often popular imagery — but it's never trite, it's always poetic and fresh," she says. "And it's something to be fresh these days in a visually oversaturated world."

Universally his former students hold him in high regard.

"They not only respect his work as a teacher but as an artist, because Jerry paints all the time," says Joe Seipel, a sculptor and senior associate dean of VCU's School of the Arts.

"He allowed me to open up and see the strange things that had been brewing and marinating in my head and helped me make them become visual reality," says recent VCU grad and painter Maddie Hoch, who moved here five years ago from Philadelphia.

Hoch says she'd like to stay in Richmond because she finds the local art scene stimulating.

That's not how Donato initially felt about the place after arriving from the Midwest to teach at newly hatched VCU in 1968. That was the year the university was established by an act of the Virginia General Assembly, merging Richmond Professional Institute with the Medical College of Virginia.

Says Gaustad, whom he met soon after moving here, "I was an Army brat and had lived many places all over the world. But I'd never been anywhere so impenetrable and uninteresting. There were no restaurants, few galleries — nothing. My mother called it, 'That dusty old town.'"

But the local art world soon knew that Donato had arrived. And it wasn't just his dark good looks, Italian swagger and bad-boy attitude that made him stand out. Although, Bowring says, "he did have a mouth on him."

It was his work ethic and his daring.

"Jerry helped open up everybody's eyes in Richmond," says Seipel, a longtime friend who worked with Donato in establishing 1708 gallery. "He's always been a real mischief-maker, and that made 1708 in the early days a bastion of the outrageous and the unexpected. He has always been an advocate for pushing the envelope."

I visit Donato's studio a few days before Christmas to talk with the artist and see the pieces Anderson curator Moorefield has selected for the retrospective. After knocking loudly on the door of a nondescript former corner store on West Main Street in the Fan, I'm greeted by Donato and Gaustad.

For many years this two-story building doubled as their home and studio before they purchased a grand craftsman-style house in the lower Fan.

The West Main location has its ups and downs, they say. While outdoor drug-dealing is a constant problem, they quickly point out the positives. There used to be a food cooperative down the street; a number of artist friends had studios nearby; and, says Donato, "Joe's Inn was our hangout."

Also, like other young artists and academics, they found the cost of living here relatively affordable.

For decades, Donato and Gaustad have been an indispensable part of the contemporary art scene. "You never say just 'Jerry' or just 'Joan,'" Seipel says. "You say 'Joan and Jerry.' Their work is different, but they have a shared aesthetic. And they are so passionate about art."

"Joan and Jerry are an icon couple," says Beverly Reynolds, a longtime friend whose Reynolds Gallery is showing Donato's drawings. "They come to people's openings, they are extraordinarily supportive. They look after young artists. Their feelings run deep."

As we stroll through Donato's second-floor studio, with paintings and all manner of objects and images strewn, propped or stacked, he talks casually about growing up in Chicago's South Side with working parents. His father was a crane operator for General Motors. His mother was a factory worker. He has a twin brother and a younger sister.

"My family are Italians, but we are Americans," he says. "My parents were wonderful. My father came to this country at 10 years old and my mother was first-generation Italian."

They wanted Jerry and his siblings to be brought up Catholic, but something (Donato is not sure what) was amiss within the local parish. "My family is like a lot of Italians," he says. "They know bulls—t when they see it. They got pissed off at the priest and said, 'Wait a second, something's gone wrong here.' From that point they didn't want us to go to Catholic schools."

Apparently the Donatos didn't want their son to grow up a heathen either. He attended Protestant services. "Jerry says he was baptized twice, but the second time he says he faked it," Gaustad says, laughing.

As a boy, Donato saw his share of family turmoil, including a traumatic episode when his grandmother attacked and attempted to kill his mother with a shovel. "I'm not sure what that was about," he says.

But Chicago was a visually dynamic and culturally rich place to grow up, with the Chicago Art Institute, the Field Museum and the Cubs.

Donato earned undergraduate and master's degrees in lithography at University of Wisconsin at Madison. While there he met Victor Kord, an artist who suggested he seek a teaching position at VCU.

Donato arrived at VCU about the same time as such artists as Morris Yarowsky, David Freed, Myron Helfgott, Lester Van Winkle and James Bradford. Each played a major part in strengthening the art school, now ranked as the No. 1 public arts school by U.S. News and World Report. The sculpture department is ranked first nationally. Donato's department, painting and printmaking, is ranked 10th.

"He was a charismatic figure," says one former student who studied with Donato in the early '80s. "He is a striking person. Back then, everyone wore all black, but no one pulled it off better than he did. He was so smart and so confident, the dark Italian came through. He reminded me of Al Pacino. I was intimidated by him. My guess was that he could put you in your place and see through the baloney."

"When I first met him I assumed he was a New Yorker," Bowring says. "He was confrontational."

In the autumn of his teaching career, however, Donato mellowed. "When you speak with him you feel like a peer," says former student Hoch.

He also made you think, she says: "It's not a devil's advocate thing he does, but he'll ask you a question, and it's not the question you were expecting. But he makes you think about things. Anyone who spends a few minutes with him sees that he is very kind."

What also made him such a strong teacher was that students knew that he was an artist who worked constantly and well.

Donato, however, can act as if he doesn't take his work that seriously, a trait that many find refreshing in a field that can have its share of pretense. As we walk about his studio, we approach a multipaneled, brightly colored painting with a large body of water in the background that will be in the retrospective. It's painted on unfinished wooden doors like one might buy at Lowe's.

"Being an economical kind of person, a cheap kind of guy, I call that painting my '4-Door Model,'" Donato says, smiling. He is casual and not particularly picky about what surfaces he paints on.

Approaching the painting, Donato displays his technique in a mock theatrical way. "I used to tell my students, 'This is how you do it: You close your eyes and hit it.'" Donato covers his eyes with his left arm dramatically, stretches his right arm toward the canvas and begins making air strokes as if he's dabbling paint.

"It's like somebody else is doing the painting," he says. "It's like someone else is helping you."

This little performance, like the imagery in his loosely painted landscapes of the psyche, is intriguing. Is he serious? Maybe. Maybe not.

Although Donato began his career as a printmaker, he made the transition to painting in the early 1980s and worked initially in oils. "I stopped doing oils a long time ago, because I wanted to be able to paint faster," he says, and then in a statement Andy Warhol could love, he adds: "I just wanted to make more bad stuff. If you paint enough, eventually there will be something good."

"Jerry is always searching for wrongness — the element of a painting that, at first, may seem illogical, sloppy or mistaken," writes Paul Monroe, a Richmond physician and collector of aggressive contemporary art, who wrote an essay for the retrospective. "But at the same time creates an engaging tension between what is expected and what is painted: a jarring color …, an arm bent at a physiologically impossible angle …, a perspective that makes no sense."

"There's a depth to his work — his work is challenging, he is making unique work," says Beverly Reynolds. It's dusk on a recent weeknight, and 20 or so of Donato's drawings are carefully laid on oversized sheets of protective tissue paper on the polished pine floors of her gallery in Uptown, just west of the VCU campus.

The lightly drawn, deftly layered and mostly colorful pastel drawings have yet to be framed, and Reynolds walks among them, delighted at drawings she's come to especially like, surprised at new things that keep emerging from the work.

Donato's intentionally sketchy work sometimes includes a ground line, which anchors the swirl of activity. Humanlike faces are placed in many of the pieces.

"They are theatrically set up as if there is a story line," Reynolds says. "The question is: What is the message?

"It's not like Jerry is a silent observer, because he's not," Reynolds says. "He sets up situations with wonderful colors — they are beautifully colored. They are narrative landscapes, but you can't figure out what's going on."

Since the early 1980s an intriguing thread in Donato's work has been the appearance of a stylized Mickey Mouse-like face. He calls the figure Mr. Man. Sometimes Mr. Man's flat countenance is floating in space, at other times it is full- bodied.

"Other artists such as Roy Lichtenstein have used comic imagery," says Reynolds, referring to a pop-art master. "Jerry is coming out of that."

But Reynolds cautions that while Mr. Man is apparently comic, Donato isn't necessarily using the element that way. She points to a drawing where Mr. Man has his face all pinched in a frown. Mr. Man may be watching, but not necessarily dispassionately.

In some works Mr. Man morphs into a full female form— sometimes with voluptuous curves. And in a number of drawings and paintings Mr. Man is coupled with a transcendent female face. "I think they are Joan," says Reynolds, referring to Gaustad. "I think Joan is the muse in there. She is so beautiful and they are so connected. You know they have this love affair that continues to grow."

"And Mr. Man is macho," Reynolds says. "It's as if he is in there to say, 'I am the man.' He is so engaging, that little guy, you wonder what Mr. Man is going to do next. He's very unpredictable."

Is Mr. Man a stand-in for Donato?

"It is curious to me," Reynolds says. "It's hard to categorize. The one constant is that Mr. Man has acted as Jerry's voice all these years."

If Mr. Man is iconic to Donato's work, is the face a put-on, an intentionally dumb pop-art gimmick? Isn't that something to be expected from an artist who hit his stride in the late 1960s with the long shadows of Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist and Lichtenstein and their use of recycled imagery?

Consider this: Maybe Mr. Man isn't just a pop, Disney-derived icon. There are other eras in which similar forms have appeared in art history. In Byzantine mosaics and Renaissance paintings the image of a skull, which can look curiously like Mr. Man, frequently appears atop the mound of rocks supporting the Crucifix. Golgotha, or Calvary, is "the place of the skull" near Jerusalem where Adam was thought to be buried and the Crucifixion took place.

And then in Latino cultures there is the skull-like image that signifies the Day of the Dead, when ancestors return. These skulls are often attached to women's garments.

Mr. Man has relatives that appeared before Disney and were part of a long, darker Western tradition. And Donato knows and is part of that legacy.

But I promise myself not to ask Donato directly about his sources: Let the work speak for itself. I do, however, ask Gaustad about the origins of Mr. Man.

"He first did that image on a napkin in a bar," she tells me over the telephone. "I asked him, 'What's that?'" Apparently he didn't answer her.

"Artists never know what they're doing," she says.

At the Anderson Gallery a week before the show's opening, Donato's works have been hung. I stroll through the quiet galleries with Moorefield. She stresses that although this is a retrospective, she chose not to place the works chronologically, but rather to celebrate what she calls Donato's "unique pictorial language."

She also is dedicating a section of the installation to scores of objects and sketches taken from Donato's studio that offer insights into his artistic process.

But Moorefield's done something intriguing at the beginning and end of the exhibition: She's placed works containing the "rogue foil," as Moorefield calls Mr. Man, as bookends for the installation. With these opening and closing works she's selected, something intriguing, even magical, happens.

The first thing visitors will see hung on a wall painted a deep shade of orange for the occasion is a large painting. In it we see the back of a red-headed young boy leaning casually over a railing. He looks out wistfully toward a large body of water. To his left stands Mr. Man in female form facing the viewer. Is Mr. Man a protective and nurturing mother figure here? Is he encouraging the boy to take the plunge, to move on, to tackle life?

In contrast, Moorefield has selected a much smaller piece to conclude the exhibition. She's hung a monochromatic, but not somber, drawing on the third gallery level. In the drawing we are alone in an unfurnished room with Mr. Man. He holds a door as if inviting the viewer to pass through. Apparently, he's not going along. In the distance, again, is open water.

Although bodies of water play a role in these and other works, "I never learned to swim," Donato said the day I visited him at his studio.

The first painting suggests a full and colorful range of opportunities and possibilities, as broad as the big blue sea. The retrospective's final image is in black and white. It features Mr. Man, all right, but he stands ready to guide us to the light, or perhaps to the other side.

To visit this exhibition is to realize that something deeply religious occurs in Donato's work. It is neither Catholic nor Protestant, but is something of the artist's own discovery and invention. Working outside of the orbit of New York City, Donato may have had to work hard and push the envelope a little further, but Mr. Man is his guide and is by his side. S

"Gerald Donato: Reinventing the Game," opens with a reception Jan. 26 and runs through March 4 at VCUarts Anderson Gallery, 907 1/2 W. Franklin St. 828-1522.

"Mr. Man and Moon-face: Selected Work by Gerald Donato" runs Feb. 2 to March 3 at Reynolds Gallery, 1514 W. Main St. 355-6553.

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