Carolina Art Crush: Denny Gerwin

We first discovered our newest Art Crush and his “BBW” this past Spring at his solo show at Queens University where is is an assistant professor of art.  A basic description of his work would state that the sculpture and pottery fired in a wood burning kiln shows evidence of laborious work and intense heat; on a more conceptual level, the artist is poking holes in conventional definitions of beauty or freedom with his caged figures. What is most impressive though, is Gerwin’s dedication to the process and the interaction required by firing in wood burning kiln. His idea for a collaborative project (mentioned below) and the healing that can come from making art with other people is something that we can totally get behind.

Gerwin has been in Charlotte for five years, but we are only just beginning to see his work emerge around the city.  He has an upcoming show at Sozo Gallery in July; Stay tuned to HappeningsCLT for more info!


HCLT: Describe yourself in three words?
DG: Tenacious, Affectionate, Playful

HCLT: Who or what inspires you artistically?
DG: People and their delightful imperfections are what I respond to most of the time. I really love to get past the first version of self that a person presents to find the more vulnerable and sincere one. I also find inspiration in moments when I feel small, like when I’m in nature or a big city. In either circumstance I can lose self awareness and just observe, which allows my aesthetic receptors to be uninhibited. It’s hard to see beauty while forming hard thoughts or focusing on tasks, but I can see it clearly while exploring.

HCLT: When did you realize you were an artist?
DG: My Grandmother kept us busy with crafts. My sisters are both more talented than I am in Art, which made me want to get better. I developed observational drawing skills as a teenager under a great public school teacher. Also, I’ve always exercised curiosity and independence – I spent half of my childhood grounded because I generally thought that rules didn’t apply to me. An undergraduate professor used to challenge us with the question, “What does it mean to be an Artist?” I feel very fortunate to have spent the last 15 years forming answers to that question.

“Artist” had always been a part of my identity, but it changed when I was an undergraduate Art student. That’s when I started giving up all the things that my peers were doing in order to spend more time in the studio. That’s when being an Artist became my top priority. Anyone can identify as an artist, but some of us are fortunate enough to make it our primary one.


HCLT: Tell us about your current body of work?
DG: I have two bodies of work: pottery and sculpture. Initially inspired by a chance encounter with a social group at a hotel bar, I have been using robust figures as a subject in my pots since undergrad. They were a BBW Club, Big Beautiful Women, and they would go dancing on Fridays. I finished my first pint while enjoying the spectacle, but soon realized that I was the “other”- the one who wasn’t beautiful and in love. So, I joined them, and then continued to make pots about them for about ten years. When the pots stopped getting better, I decided to study the figure more specifically. One solution to the problem that these figures weren’t considered conventionally beautiful was that we impose a structured ideal of beauty onto people. This resulted in images of BBW’s in bondage, and I didn’t like telling that story, so I began to cage other figures. Most recently, I’ve been caging babies because of their implicit vulnerability and our aesthetic impulse to care for them. Meanwhile, my pottery still exploits elements of volume and gesture, and processes that leave difficult marks that a piece survives, but they aren’t trying to look like BBWs anymore. They still have their unique stories, and by leaving the specific story behind, I think they’ve become more accessible. Their ideal beauty isn’t compromised by the subjects in the story that I still enjoy telling.


HCLT: Where can we see your work?
DG: I had a solo show of sculpture in March and April at Queens University of Charlotte, where I am an Assistant Professor of Art. The sculptures do very well in national juried exhibitions, but I haven’t found a gallery that thinks they can sell them, so I call them my “academic work”, with some cheeky kind of reverence. They’re challenging images, and I don’t think people buy art in order to be challenged. Fortunately, sales haven’t driven that content, because I think those images need to be seen whether or not the people who afford art like it. Just google it. My pottery can be seen at Sozo Gallery in Uptown. I also have several works on campus at Queens, in Burwell Parlors and in Everette Library. My Sozo family also organized a show called The Ethereal in the Barings corporate office on the 33rd floor of the Duke Energy Building in Uptown. The show will move to Sozo in July.

HCLT: What do you think is the most valuable art experience in the Carolinas?
DG: In the five years of living here, I regret that I haven’t gotten out of the studio and classrooms enough to experience more art. When visitors come, I take them to the Craft Collection at the Mint Museum Uptown, and we walk the streets looking at public art – some of it’s pretty good. My favorite artwork in Charlotte is Jean Tinguely’s “Cascade” in the lobby of the Carillon building. The Potters Market Invitational is my favorite annual event. We’re very fortunate to be surrounded by so many excellent artists here, and more importantly, a supportive culture that keeps these artists in business! Also, the McColl Center’s open houses have been great.

HCLT: What book is on your nightstand right now?
DG: If I’m trying to clear my head before sleep I don’t reach for a book, I reach for my banjo. I’ve always liked the way they looked, then a colleague gave me tickets to see Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck a few years ago. I bought my banjo the next day. It’s been really great to suck at playing it! I mean, I have a teaching career where I help people learn all sorts of things through a really difficult craft, which I happen to be a master of. Being bad at this has been really good for me. Also, aesthetically, having the sound resonate from against my body feels good when I’m not screwing it up too bad.


HCLT: Best meal in the Charlotte?
DG: I like Soul Gastrolounge and Midwood Smokehouse for special occasions. The places we frequent, however, are Jasmine Grill on South Blvd, and Rusan’s on Park. Jasmine serves Middle Eastern cuisine, and we usually order three entrees with the intention of getting a couple extra meals out of the leftovers. Rusan’s serves sushi in a loud and playful setting. We always leave those two places with satisfied bellies and billfolds.

HCLT: What is up next?
DG: Last summer I built a wood-burning kiln on campus with a couple of my best students. Just like my childhood adventures, I didn’t exactly ask for permission to do this. So, now I’m like a kid asking his parents and his neighbors if he can keep his pet rhinoceros! The greatest thing about firing a wood kiln is working with a small group to do something that nobody could do alone. With about 60 cubic feet of stacking space, it can hold about a week’s worth of work from two skilled potters, or a month’s worth of work from one of my classes. It takes 12 hours to load all the work in there, then about three cords of wood to fire it for a few days with pairs of people stoking wood into the kiln every five minutes. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s also a lot of time spent with people who are generous enough to share that kind of load – all while telling stories and having a blast playing with fire!

I was on my way to present about this kind of artwork at an international ceramics conference while the Charlotte riots were happening in September of 2016. During the long drive to Illinois I hatched an idea for an arts empowerment project, where I’d invite some at-risk youth and some police officers to make monsters out of clay together. Then, we’d load the kiln, process the wood, play with fire, eat and work together for the rest of the week, before unloading the kiln and celebrating our successes and failures. I’m not sure if our little kiln on campus is the ideal place for this, but I am sure that it’s a good idea to have two parties that are scared of each other make art together, do something really hard to make something really good, and do it as a group because it can’t be done alone. So, what’s next is to find people who want to invest in an urban wood-fire program.

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