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Retiree Jim Gerkin’s artwork brightens Christmas season in Lancaster

by on December 5, 2011

Retiree Jim Gerkin's watercolor painting of downtown Lancaster in the 1950s adorns the cover of the Christmas cards that the Fairfield Heritage Association has been selling this year as a fundraiser for the organization. (Photos by Steve Hiles)

LANCASTER, Ohio — Jim Gerkin’s signature will be showing up on 2,500 Christmas cards this year, but that doesn’t mean this AEP retiree has drastically expanded his personal Christmas card list.

Gerkin’s artwork, though, is brightening the holiday season for quite a number of the residents in Lancaster, Ohio — particularly those who remember when its business district bustled with four movie theaters and a wide array of retail stores.

“Memories of Christmas Past” — a watercolor painting by Gerkin that shows a wintry view of downtown Lancaster in the 1950s — adorns the cover of the Christmas cards that the Fairfield Heritage Association has been selling as a fundraiser for the organization.

Gerkin has created hundreds of watercolor paintings over the years, but he admits that re-creating Lancaster’s Main Street in the 1950s “was one of the most exacting and time-consuming paintings that I’ve ever done.

“You just can’t fudge the details on a painting like that — how the windows looked, or what the lamp posts and signs were like,” said Gerkin, a 24-year AEP veteran who retired from the company in 2001. “I worked from two or three photographs and still had to do some additional research.”

The Fairfield Heritage Association contacted Gerkin in the spring and asked him if he would help with the fundraising project. The association wanted to have the cards ready for sale in time for the Fairfield County Fair, held in early October.

Once a "kitchen-table artist," Jim Gerkin now does his painting in this comfortable 24-foot by 32-foot studio located behind his home at the edge of southeastern Ohio's Hocking Hills.

“We’re very grateful to Jim,” Aldona Kozar of the Heritage Association told The Lancaster Eagle-Gazette. “He’s a pretty well-known local artist and his paintings sell for hundreds of dollars, but he did this for nothing.”

“The Liberty Theater in the painting is what everyone is responding to,” Gerkin said modestly. “It’s neat that people are talking about the town and remembering its history.”

A graduate of West Virginia University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in art and a master’s degree in instructional design, Gerkin has been always partial to watercolors. “I’ve always thought they were very special,” he said.

He spent most of his AEP career in Human Resources positions, such as personnel manager, staff development manager and curriculum development manager. During that time, “I was struggling to try to continue to paint,” he admitted. “I was a weekend artist — a kitchen-table artist. Even still, I always kept it alive and always loved to do it.”

But all that changed in 2001, when he retired and completed a handsome 24-foot by 32-foot studio toward the rear of his wooded property at the edge of southeastern Ohio’s Hocking Hills. The studio has a cathedral ceiling and large windows, facing southward, that let in natural light. “The studio has been a wonderful, wonderful thing,” he said with a smile. “I probably have 120 different paintings in here right now.”

Gerkin describes himself as a “realist” who “finds paintings” everywhere he looks. “I love to create beautiful paintings based on the things I see around me every day — the land, the people, natural structures, man-made structures, lights and darks, colors and extremes, lines and shapes. I think there’s value in the images we see every day.”

For years, he focused on painting landscapes, including scenes of farms and, in particular, barns. “People would ask me why I paint old barns and I would tell them, ‘because they’re going to be gone,’” he said. Most of his inspiration comes from scenes in central Ohio, West Virginia, Maine, and the Chesapeake Bay region.

In the past four years or so, however, Gerkin has been painting people, and with spectacular results. “I didn’t do people for a long time, simply because painting people in watercolor is more difficult,” he explained. “I’ve painted mostly kids, and I’m really enjoying it. I try to capture the essence of the person, and not do something that just looks like a watercolor version of a corporate photograph.”

Gerkin’s watercolor of his niece won Best of Show honors at the Central Ohio Watercolor Society’s 2011 Spring Show. In this particular painting, the young girl appears to be in the midst of an exuberant laugh, with her head flung back.

“Watercolor is very unforgiving,” he cautioned. “If you mess up with watercolor, or fail to plan properly for whites or highlights, it’s difficult to undo your mistake.” On the other hand, if you’ve ever watched any of the “Joy of Painting” programs on PBS featuring the late Bob Ross, you know that with oil painting, you can cover up errant strokes with “happy little trees.”

Jim Gerkin describes himself as a "realist" who "finds paintings" everywhere he looks. "I love to create beautiful paintings based on the things I see around me every day," he said.

“The key to a good representational watercolor is a good drawing,” Gerkin emphasized. The New Martinsville, W.Va., native does a detailed pencil sketch of the subject before he begins applying paint. Much of the realism of his paintings is due to his meticulous attention to elements such as shadows and the reflections of images on water.

Unfortunately for Gerkin, the past decade hasn’t been especially rosy for sales of artwork. “Sales of artwork absolutely tanked after 9/11 and the bursting of the bubble,” he said. “They were just starting to show some significant improvement when the Great Recession hit. Art sales are all about disposable income.”

But this AEP retiree has been cheered by the fact that two West Virginia galleries recently decided to display and sell Jim Gerkin originals. “I now have my work in the Pocahontas County Artisan Gallery in Greenbank and the Fourth Street Gallery in Marlinton — eight paintings in one and seven in the other. Both locations are near the Cass Scenic Railroad and there’s a lot of tourism in the area,” he said.

Active in the central Ohio arts community, Gerkin is a member of the Lancaster Art Guild and the Central Ohio Watercolor Society. He is a past president of the Lancaster Active Artists and a regular contributor to the annual Lancaster Art Walk. He is one of a group of artists who went together to start the Monarch Studio, which is currently in the midst of moving to a new location in downtown Lancaster.

What’s next in his artistic career? Gerkin recently began teaching a class of five students in what he terms “beginning watercolors.” The group meets one night each week in his studio.

“Years ago, I had a teacher and mentor — Columbus artist Leland McClelland, a talented painter in his own right — who was greatly instrumental in my development as an artist. He’s no longer with us, but whatever technical skill I have comes largely from his teaching and coaching.

“I think I’ve finally reached a point in my painting career where I have something worthwhile that I can convey to a person who’s just starting out in painting,” he concluded. “I’d like to think that maybe I could be the same kind of positive influence for some beginner as Leland McClelland was for me.”

In the meantime, there will be about 2,500 Christmas card recipients this year who will be exceedingly glad that Jim Gerkin learned those lessons well.

From → Retiree Profiles

One Comment
  1. bspriyanath permalink

    I knew Jim professionally when I used to work at Southern Ohio Coal Co. but had no idea that he is such a talented artist. I appreciate you very much for writing this feature about him.

    Moreover, such stories would enable us to reconnect with our old friends and colleagues through this medium.

    I wish that you had posted the photographs of his paintings as an attachment which would have enabled us to enlarge them and look at them in more detail.

    Please convey my warm regards and best wishes to JIm for continued success with his work.

    Thank you


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