R.I.P. Gelsy Verna

I was shocked and saddened to learn of the untimely death of Gelsy Verna. She was my favorite painting teacher, she taught me how to really paint. I was particularly shocked because I am working on some watercolors, I noticed how much they owed to what Gelsy taught me, I had a passing thought that I wanted to show them to her. Then the next day I heard she had passed away.

I still vividly remember when I first met Gelsy. I came back to art school to finish my long-abandoned BFA, and to my dismay, I found I had to take 4 semesters of oil painting, it would take 2 years. I’d already taken Painting 1, but that was the course that got me kicked out of art school 20 years earlier, so now I’m back with the freshmen starting from square one. I think this was Gelsy’s first teaching position, and her first semester at the U of Iowa.

Gelsy gave us our first assignment, she set up a crazy still life with strange lighting and told us to paint anything we’d like, but only using two colors, yellow and black. I thought this was an exceptionally strange assignment, but I had some top quality artist’s-grade oil pigments so I started mixing colors and painted away. But the oddest thing happened. All the other students were mixing yellow and black to get a range of greenish tones, but my pigments would not make a green. Gelsy was puzzled and tried to mix my paints to get the greens, but she couldn’t do it either. This was the whole point of the assignment, to learn how to produce the greenish blacks. We both concluded that the black+yellow=green trick only worked with cheaper student grade pigments. I still have that painting, I couldn’t bear to throw it out, no matter how bad it is.

Gelsy loved to give strange assignments that made us explore how painting worked. I remember once she had us do a small figure painting with special conditions: black and white pigments only, in a darkened studio with dim light on the model, to be painted in 5 minutes. Gelsy loved my painting, but I’m used to these quick assignments from drawing classes. This style of painting is just the opposite of what most painters do, traditionally you don’t use black oil paint at all, you mix a black from colors. But Gelsy really taught me about the use of black pigments, I used to joke with her that she got more range from black than I got out of the rest of the spectrum. So it was probably not surprising that I became more interested in black and white painting, in my final semester in painting class I completely eliminated color and just painted in black and white tempera paint.

Gelsy also ran the Senior Seminar every painting major had to complete in their last semester in school. I think junior professors were drafted into this teaching assignment, the newest professors brought fresh, outside influences to the school. The class helped students prepare for their BFA Clearance, where a committee of professors signed off on your degree. We spent our last semester critiquing each others work (always a dodgy proposition with a bunch of painters with senioritis) and preparing for our presentations. We also spent a lot of time arguing over theories and artists, I’ve previously written about our misadventures in that class.

I was nervous facing the BFA Committee, I’d worked hard but it was still possible to be rejected and not get your degree. The committee was stacked against me with my harshest critics. One of the professors was instrumental in me being kicked out of art school back in the 1970s, I always hoped he did not remember me from back then. Even if he didn’t remember me, he hated me anyway. Another professor was the painter I wanted to study with, but she didn’t like me or my painting. Gelsy was on the committee, I hoped she would be my advocate since she knew and understood my work. I displayed highlights of my work, was questioned about my methods and my results. Oddly enough, my photo printmaking seemed to win over the painters and put my work into context. I left the room, the committee deliberated for a few minutes while viewing my work, then delivered the signed statement approving my BFA. Congratulations, you are now an artist, now go away. No you can’t do your MFA here, we don’t take our own BFA graduates into our MFA program. You have to go somewhere else to get different influences.

Gelsy had an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, she always tried to introduce us to the Chicago scene. I encouraged her to stay and teach at Iowa, mostly for the selfish reason that I wanted to take more of her classes. She did stay here for quite a few years, and I always wondered whether or not I did her a favor by talking her into it. A couple of years after I graduated, I was in Chicago and saw her work in a gallery, I wondered what she was up to. I figured she’d moved on, so I asked the gallery if they had her contact information. The receptionist said she couldn’t give out that information but they could pass along a message, so I left my number. About 10 minutes later, my cell phone rang and there was Gelsy, asking me where I was. And I asked where she was, she said she was still in Iowa City, I could have looked her up in the local phone book. Oops, I should have kept in touch more.

I lost touch with Gelsy when she moved out of town, so it was a shock to hear the tragic news, the first I’d heard of her in a few years. The outpouring of grief from her students and friends, the people she affected, must be immense. Everyone loved Gelsy, she was a great teacher and painter, I was looking forward to seeing much more of her work over the years to come. But now she is gone, I feel a great loss, a great sadness. It is times like this when I wonder if there is a place for artists in this world. Gelsy tried to teach me how to find that place, but my mentor has left me alone and I despair that I will never find it.

One thought on “R.I.P. Gelsy Verna”

  1. I met Gelsy a year ago when I was at U Madison to give a talk about my drawings. Having seen her work before in NY, and since we are both Haitian-American artists, I contacted her and asked if I could meet her. She met me on campus the first day and had lunch with me, then invited me to visit her studio the next day. She was so friendly and giving of her time and ideas, I felt not like I had just met her but more like I was reuniting with an old friend.
    She was an amazing artist and a truly nice person.

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