Metro-East Living

Urn owned by late sister sends man on artistic journey

Jerry Gaa stands next to “Camping Tiles,” one of his entries in “Life Experienced: A Senior Art Competition,” which will run March 2-6 at Schmidt Art Center at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville.
Jerry Gaa stands next to “Camping Tiles,” one of his entries in “Life Experienced: A Senior Art Competition,” which will run March 2-6 at Schmidt Art Center at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville. dholtmann@bnd.com

You don’t need expensive equipment or fancy tools to create interesting pottery.

Just ask Jerry Gaa, who uses twigs, rocks, nuts and other items from nature to imprint designs on his ceramic tiles.

“When I go camping, I take this little jig, and I fill it with clay, then I form it with stuff I find at the campground,” he said. “My favorite thing is a sweetgum ball. It makes good textures.”

Sometimes he builds decorative boxes out of the tiles. Or he just frames them as wall hangings.

Jerry, 70, of Belleville, is one of about 60 artists who will display and sell their work March 2-6 at Schmidt Art Center at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville.

The show is called “Life Experienced: A Senior Art Competition.”

“The point is to show the breadth of talent that artists over 60 have in our area,” said Nicole Dutton, Schmidt curator.

A reception is from 6 to 7:30 p.m. March 2 with piano music, hors d’oeuvres and an awards ceremony emceed by Art on the Square founder Patty Gregory. Admission is free.

Some of the contestants have been making art for decades. Others didn’t get started until after retirement.

Their 121 pieces fall into five categories: photography and digital art, drawing and printmaking, painting and mixed media, sculpture and ceramics and fine crafts (jewelry, fiber, textiles and wood).

“The artwork really is very striking,” Dutton said.

The point is to show the breadth of talent that artists over 60 have in our area.

Curator Nicole Dutton on senior art competition

The competition is co-sponsored by the St. Clair County Office on Aging, Gateway East Artists Guild and Art on the Square.

Coordinator Susan Wobbe sees it as an opportunity to recognize people in an age group that doesn’t get much recognition.

“They might not be able to dance real good or run a race, but they can show their artistic talents,” she said.

“They’ll bring their kids or grandkids to the opening. It’s like a grandma going to a kids science fair and seeing their blue ribbon. It’s the same concept.”

All contestants are active artists. Only work created in the past three years is accepted by judges.

Jerry is a former purchasing agent with two sons and two grandchildren. His wife, Carol, is retired from SWIC’s adult education program.

Jerry got interested in pottery about 40 years ago. After his sister died, he bought a roughly textured urn from her descendants at a garage sale.

“I always wanted to take a pottery class, and I finally did,” he said. “My wife worked at SWIC, so I got a discount.”

Jerry took pottery classes for 13 years, making vases, wind chimes, bowls and candle holders. Then he struck out on his own and began focusing on ceramic tiles.

Jerry works at a wooden table in his basement family room. He has a plastic container of twigs, rocks, nuts and sweetgum balls that he rolls or presses into clay to imprint designs on tiles.

Jerry has sold some of his pottery and given some away to family and friends. The rest line shelves in the basement.

“I have about 100 pieces,” he said. “There are no two alike. My problem is, I get attached to them.”

Beyond pottery, Jerry makes lamps out of antique meat grinders with colanders as shades. That recently landed him in a steampunk art exhibit in Soulard.

He also is working on a “Junk Ball” of objects (LEGO pieces, springs, vampire teeth, a pencil eraser, button and Cadillac emblem), which he finds along Main Street while walking his pug, Sammy.

I have about 100 pieces. There are no two alike. My problem is, I get attached to them.

Artist Jerry Gaa on pottery he has at home

“I’m not a sitter,” he said. “I like to be doing something.”

Gaa is a German name. Jerry’s son, Andy, teaches German at Belleville East. His other son, Benjamin, works at Sigma-Aldrich Corp. and writes haiku poetry.

Jerry has entered the senior art competition several times. Last year, he won $150 for a small ceramic urn that stood on three human-shaped legs with tennis shoes.

“I think it’s great,” his wife said. “It gives him an opportunity to be creative. It gives him a hobby, and it keeps him in the basement. No, just kidding.”

Jerry is passing on his love of pottery to his grandchildren, Mia and Carsten Gaa. They help him make tiles while camping at Carlyle Lake.

After forming the tiles, Jerry has them fired at The Mud House in Belleville.

“I never really plan it,” he said. “I just play with it, and whatever comes out is my art.”

Teri Maddox: 618-239-2473, @BNDwriter

At a glance

  • What: “Life Experienced: A Senior Art Competition”
  • Where: Schmidt Art Center at Southwestern Illinois College, 2500 Carlyle Ave. in Belleville
  • When: March 2-6
  • Opening reception: 6 to 7:30 p.m. March 2
  • Other hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 3, noon to 4 p.m. March 4-5 and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 6
  • Admission: Free
  • Information: Contact curator Nicole Dutton at 618-641-5143 or nicole.dutton@swic.edu or visit www.swic.edu/sac/
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