At 79, Henry Gernhardt’s hands have twisted, turned, pressed, pounded, painted and baked globs of earth into works of art for more than 73 years.
The artist, who now lives and works just outside of Cedar Key with his wife, Amy, grew up in rural Connecticut in a family he describes as being mostly engineers and mechanics.
“I just couldn’t get into that,” he says. “I always did things different.”
So, Gernhardt started a formal education in the arts at Norwich Art School in the early 1950s.
“I was going to be a painter/sculptor when I was in art school,” he says. But the allure of ceramics, its versatility, coupled with meeting several influential ceramists, won him over. Clay offered a chance to exploit form and texture, fulfilling his desire to sculpt, while the use of certain glazes allowed him to achieve the color he so desired.
After a year at Norwich, Gernhardt says he went to New York to study at the Rochester Institute of Technology School for American Craftsmen. He later earned a master’s degree from Syracuse University, where—not to mention several other institutions—he taught for 35 years.
When Gernhardt, who makes his own clays and glazes, speaks about ceramics, one gets the impression that the medium is alive, as if it has a will of its own.
“It responds when you’re working with it,” he says. “Sometimes, it gets angry with you and doesn’t do what you want.”
It can be a challenge, he says, but the unpredictability and element “left up to chance” is also what attracts him to it.
The artist, who has studied glazing techniques in Finland and Japan, has gone through several series in his years of making art, much of which is inspired by the environment, people and culture.
In the 1960s, his art, in what he terms “mound pieces,” incorporated a lot of geological forms. He says his intent was to blur the distinction between earth and sky to show how the two were connected.
“I just think that things are universal,” he says. “I think we overate ourselves as human beings. We think of ourselves as the center of the universe, but we’re not. The universe is the center.”
Later, Gernhardt moved into making pottery influenced by the flow and movement of rivers. “Rivers always have their own characteristic about where they are,” he says. If you could freeze them, he explained, and “stand them on end they’d have an interesting shape.”
In the 1990s, when Gernhardt started coming to Florida, “tired of the snow” at his home in New York, his art developed into forms inspired by waves. “They were to convey the idea of flowing water,” he says.
Indeed, many of the pieces from this period, some of which are on display in his studio, undulate and flow like boats made of fluid, frozen, yet somehow not static.
But despite Florida’s warmth and waves, Gernhardt was not fond of some of the busier parts of the state he’d visited. “I was about to go to Arizona,” he says, “until I discovered Cedar Key. I liked the quietness.”
Living in Cedar Key in 2000, he met his wife, who, through Gernhardt’s tutelage, has become an accomplished ceramist, as well.
“I met her and she had never done any art before, except for an art class in college. She is a very dedicated person. She puts a lot of energy into stuff.”
“We both ended up in Cedar Key at the same time, on 6th Street,” Amy says about her husband and one-time neighbor. “I really think it was just a fortuitous sort of thing.”
Two years after meeting, the couple built the studio that both now work in, located just down the highway from Shell Mound. In 2003, they married.
“Henry got to be a teacher for 35 years because he knows how to reach people,” she said, including herself among those who have been reached by Gernhardt’s ability to draw the best out of people.
Amy Gernhardt, who draws on history as an influence for her sculpture, will be having her first three-dimensional art showing at this year’s Old Florida Celebration of the Arts. Her husband will be there, too, in a separate booth, of course.
Some of Henry Gernhardt’s latest work, the Jazz series, will be for sale at the festival and is on display at the Cedar Key Art Gallery.
“It’s sort of an abstract expressionist-type thing,” Gernhardt says about the pieces, which often take eight to 16 hours to glaze before being fired in one of several kilns he has built in the back of his studio.
Some of the work consists of wall-mounted plates, others are relatively large ceramic sculptures formed by slabs of clay Gernhardt sometimes has to hoist with a pulley system suspended from the roof of his studio. He says the size, sometimes close to that of a human, gives importance to a piece. “There’s something physical about it. I like the challenge of weight.”
The surface of the objects, besides the painstaking glazing that is infused with rust, ashes or crushed stone, is often incised with geometric lines to create tension, space, or movement, or peppered with chicken feed to create holes, he says.
The works were inspired by his travels from New York to Florida along the Blue Ridge Mountains and from Jazz music he heard at a festival in Virginia last summer.
“That’s where everything tied together,” he said.