Born 1959 in Warren, Ohio, Gary Taneri has been painting since 1977 when he entered the Ohio State University as a fine arts major. His major eventually changed to architecture and after four years at Ohio State he enrolled at Youngstown State University as an engineering major, graduating with a bachelor of engineering in 1984. While working as a civil engineer in Florida and Ohio, he continued to paint and show his work in local museums and galleries including The Butler Institute of American Art and The Trumbull Art Gallery. He studied potrature with painter and sculptor Csaba Kur during the 1990s, and earned an MFA from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco in 2011. In the summer of 2015 he attended the six-week Advanced Painting Intensive Program at Columbia University in NYC under Gregory Amenoff. Gary is the owner of the Art Gallery on Phelps in Youngstown.
Gary Taneri: I used to have a fan in here that helped a lot. But since yesterday it won’t come on anymore. I’ve let it run for probably two months. It just stopped working.
Karen Schubert: That’s not fair! Well this is Karen Schubert for Power of the Arts and I’m in the studio of painter Gary Taneri where we’re discussing the weather [Laughter] because it’s been pretty hot and you have this huge cavernous space which is great but there aren’t any windows.
It’s a really nice space but there’s no ventilation yet. We’re working on it now, I should say.
It’s amazing how, in Youngstown, artists are just tucked into every kind of space.
And there’s sometimes some retrofitting. So tell me about the piece that you’re working on right now. I saw you just touching up an eye, a little bit of a nose, and the light, right? with your little finger.
Yeah. It’s a portrait painting and it’s someone who’s dressed up in a costume, wardrobe from the 1760s or the 1650s or the 1800s— so I’m doing it in a Vermeer style, that I think is appropriate to the clothes she has on. So it’s just kind of a portrait.
Did you take the photograph?
No. I’ve done a lot of portraits recently where I stole the image from the internet. This is from the Poldark series on PBS. I do a lot of PBS paintings recently, too, from different series.
There are some wonderful period dramas.
Have you seen Poldark?
It’s really good. This is the fourth season coming up. So what I plan on doing, this is another one, which is also from Poldark, which is that tall canvas over there, so it will be almost life-size, and that’s the same person.
So this is a tall woman in a long shimmery blue dress that’s gathered at the waist, deep square neckline—
And the scenery has all been set up for me, the costumes, the background, the candles and the curtains—
Where the light is—
It’s already a painting. I just have to paint it. [Laughter] That whole series is a painting. Every shot is a painting.
And we’re really used to seeing those period dramas as being kind of on-the-fly, almost taken from the stage. But lately they’re so richly filmed.
The ones done in England are, yeah. I want to do that size. This is the cast. I’m still deciding.
I saw from your website that you work primarily in oils, oil on canvas, 12x12” to 88x88”. And that you prefer to work in squares.
I prefer the square format.
What is it about the square format? What are the challenges and pleasures?
I think I like it because it’s symmetrical. I’m not sure why I’m drawn to the square, but I am, because most of my paintings are square. I think it’s maybe because it doesn’t look like a portrait or a landscape. It’s just there. I don’t have to decide, am I going to do a landscape or am I going to turn it into a portrait? One less decision to make. So yeah, lots of squares.
And what is it about the portrait? I know that you were a student of, and pronounce this name for me-Csaba Kur-and you studied portrait painting.
Yes, I did. That’s when I first started painting portraits. I would go down to his studio on Wednesday nights when he had a class. He usually had a model and so you painted from life. Either a model or a still life. Or sometimes he brought out some of his paintings and we copied his paintings. But he was there and he would show you how to mix the right color, he could always hit the right shape in the right place. He was amazing that way, when he did that. When I was doing that I really wasn’t any good at it, at all. That was my introduction to it. He was inspiring.
I imagine it takes a long time to learn. You’re mixing colors, you’re recapturing light with color. Sometimes it’s light and sometimes there’s a particular shiny reflection from the eyes, the lips, the skin have different reflective qualities. The hair, they’re all shiny in a different way. And the jewels, the metals—
Yeah. It’s about the light but it’s even more about the shadows. The shadows are what define the face. If you can draw the shadow shapes and get them in the right place then the face just appears out of the shadow shapes. To paint a portrait you have to have a photograph or a person or a model with one light, so it’s very important because you have to have a shadow. This shadow right here describes the shape of the nose. Without that shadow the nose doesn’t have any shape.
It’s all just painting shadows and the shapes in the shadows. And the light’s kind of the same thing. It’s the shape of the light. The eyes are really interesting to me in portraits, and it’s amazing how you can start to paint somebody and the skin starts to come alive and the eyes come alive, and there’s that person there. So it’s kind of exciting. You can change your personality by little touches here and there, change the smile to a frown or change the sparkle in the eye or which direction they’re looking, by just little touches here and there. So it’s very interesting.
It’s like, maybe, like writing historical fiction. Where you’re beginning with a historical character but you’re breathing your own life into that character.
Yeah, I would agree with that. That’s a good analogy. I’m not a writer, but I can see where that would be similar.
So you had a painting in the Arts Auction last April. It was after a Sargent. And it was a woman with two boys—
Mrs. Knowles and her Children, from the Butler.
Coincidentally, a dear friend of mine bought that and I visited her recently and she just pulled me by the arm into that room, You have to see how perfectly this fits in this room and how it just creates this wonderful new focal point. I told her I would see you and I would let you know.
That’s great. That’s really nice to hear.
You’re making people that occupy people’s homes. That’s a really interesting idea, conceptually, as well. But you’re not just a portrait painter. I also see a painting of a sneaker, a very cool high top sneaker. We would all want to be that cool.
It’s a portrait of a tennis shoe.
It is a portrait of a tennis shoe. It’s a great shoe. At the gallery show, at the Soap, you had a really wonderful orange jacket and pair of pants, those were the ones I picked that I liked so much, and you also had some large paintings of Volkswagens. So talk about the difference between a smaller canvas and a really large canvas. Did you tell me that Volkswagen was actually life-size?
Yes. The Volkswagen beetle painting is life-size. And that’s the beetle that I used to have. It’s a 1965, that same color. I’ve had a lot of Volkswagens. I like to paint things that I know, that I like. The clothes are recent. Those jackets, and I just did a t-shirt and a sock over there
and this tennis shoe. You know, the same thing. I’m interested in clothes. Everybody wears clothes. [Laughter] The tennis shoe is really like a portrait, I think. It kind of has a personality. And it’s a canvas shoe and so, you know, this actually is canvas, although it’s painted, it’s on canvas, so it really has the feel of canvas. The rubber is a different texture of paint. But it's soft like a canvas. So it actually looks like a real shoe.
That’s really cool. So I know you grew up in Warren and then you went to Ohio State to major in fine arts and you were painting there. Did you paint in high school?
No. I was a potter.
At the Trumbull Art Gallery?
No, in high school. Allan Orr, do you know Allan Orr?
No, not yet.
He’s a teacher, I think he’s retired now, in Boardman. He taught in Warren City Schools, he’s won the area annual at the Butler quite a few times. He does portraits of his grandchildren, real detailed. Beautiful portraits. He was my teacher in high school. I worked on the wheel every day. When I went to college I wanted to be a potter, that was my plan, to throw pots for a living. So I had some pottery and some painting and a lot of drawing classes at Ohio State, but then I switched my major to architecture.
And then, I read, that after that, you switched your major to engineering. But that really followed, for me, because I think your painting is very structural, right, and so is architecture and so is engineering. I see a kind of thread running through those. Is that right?
Yes. The paintings are engineered, they’re laid out on the computer in a software where I can put grids on the paintings and get them to the exact size of the canvas, then put the same
grid on the canvas and print them out, life-size, and measure with calipers and draw and measure. So it’s a lot of measuring. And drawing and drafting, which is what I’ve done in engineering for years and years, is drafting. Yeah, there’s a lot of drafting involved. To get to where the painting starts.
Maybe people would be surprised at how you don’t just get struck by the lightning of a beautiful idea and then make it appear magically on the canvas. You’re really constructing it.
And so what are you doing now, you’re working as an engineer?
I’m a civil engineer. I’m in the oil and gas industry right now. So I work with Bobcat Engineering, which is a subsidiary of Bobcat Energy Resources. We have a lot of oil and gas wells in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
And so just a tiny bit more, to connect what you do. What does that look like? Are you designing—
I’m drawing a lot. I design things and I do mapping, I keep track of where all of our leases are, and all of our wells are, and all of the pipelines are, so it’s surveying in the field and it's drafting, it’s mapping and drafting on AutoCAD. It’s a lot of spreadsheets and numbers. Numbers and spreadsheets are pretty much all I do all day besides drawing plans and drawing maps. It gives me the opportunity, I have the equipment and the software right there at work, so I can work on my art while I’m at work. That’s where all these grids and all of these printed photographs with grids come from. So I get a lot of preparatory painting work done.
And then you can come home and really plunge into color.
Right, I’ve been thinking about it a lot during the day, much involved in it.
And so I know that you spent time studying at the Academy of Art at the University of San Francisco and also at an Advance Painting Intensive in Colombia in NYC. So how are the arts different on the coasts?
I did my master’s degree at the Academy of Arts University at San Francisco and I did it online. So I did it in my house. And it was very interesting. I didn’t know how it was going to work out. But it made me paint and draw every day. Sometimes I would do eight paintings in a day. So it was a really intense program and it really taught me how to draw and paint. It was a really drawing- and painting-intensive schooling. It wasn’t do-what-ever-you-want-to-do or paint-whatever-you-feel-like painting. We had assignments and a lot of drawing and painting. That’s where I first learned how to draw a portrait, and really draw a face by shadow shapes and the values. It was a really good education. It took about two, two and a half years full-time.
How did you communicate with the faculty? By email?
Constant emails and submittals. You had to photograph everything that you did so you were always submitting photographs. You would read things online. You would try to have discussions but it was any time of the day. So the communication really was the disappointing part. You really couldn’t communicate with them at all. You were really out on your own but they sent you tons of videos to watch, you watch people painting like you were there. The instruction was really good, it was jut on a video. I got a lot out of it.
So I did go out to San Francisco, just to see the place, before I graduated. So I have been to San Francisco and I saw the school. It’s a couple really big buildings right downtown.
Some people are there on campus?
They have a huge campus, huge film, architecture—it’s a big school. They have a huge online population online, too.
So now you teach part-time at Mount Union? You teach painting?
No, I taught one drawing class there. I really liked that a lot. They wanted me to come back to teach again and I would like to but right now I don’t have time. My schedule at work doesn't—
at work, it happened to be that I could go three days a week for a couple hours in the afternoon. I don’t have time to do that.
I was reading that you were teaching painting and also I know you own a gallery, which I want to talk about. But you also show at galleries so you’re kind of on both sides of these equations. You’re a painter, draw and you're a teacher of drawing, show at galleries and you’re a gallery owner. So how does it change your perspective when you’re on the other side? Do you have a different feeling about showing at galleries now that you are curating and hanging shows, yourself?
I’ve done that for a long time. No, it really hasn’t changed. I had a gallery in Warren years ago, Downtown Warren. And I was involved with the gallery that the Trumbull Art Gallery had when they were there at ht corner of Pine. I used to hang all the shows. So this is really an extension of that. I’ve been hanging shows and doing gallery stuff since probably 2011.
It’s a wonderful space and it looks small. It is small. But it feels just perfect.
It does. There’s something about the proportions. The ceiling is really high, and it’s a square.
It really does feel like a grand space in there.
It does. And you’re displaying huge pieces. They don’t seem crowded there.
So talk about Michael Rutushin’s show which is there right now (at the time of the interview), and I guess is getting ready to come down.
Michael’s having a closing show tomorrow night there. So we had an opening the first Thursday in August, and Michael is a musician also, so he has an album coming out, so after the opening, he had his band down at Suzie’s and they played the eight or nine songs that are coming out on his album, and it was really good. And his art’s really good.
What do you see in it? How would you describe it?
It’s a little bit, well, it looks like Youngstown to me. It looks like Midwest, Warren, Youngstown art. I don’t know what there is about it that makes it look like that. The colors, and maybe the fact that some of them aren’t stretched precisely and some of them are painted on thrift store paintings and different things like that.
So the colors are, a lot of reds—
A lot of pinks and reds and blacks. A lot of black.
And the thrift store paintings, there are a lot of paintings of Jesus—
Those aren’t paintings, and I think he does those on Photoshop. I think he takes an image of those old paintings or whatever they were on that involves a picture of Jesus and then I think he manipulates then on Photoshop then he prints them out. Then he has stickers that he puts on candles. I sold quite a few of those last Saturday night. I’m down there Friday and Saturday nights. Like 9:30-1:30 and there’s a good crowd then.
And so you’re really drawing from the V2 and Suzie’s, the downtown?
Most people are really surprised. They look at it and they go, What’s this? Why is this here? Oh, an art gallery, oh, and then they come in and look around. Some people are afraid to go in. They’re like, We don’t know, and they won’t walk in. It’s kind of weird. I’ve had a lot of good reaction and a lot of good conversations from people stopping by.
The first show was Aislinn Janek, and she’s working with a lot of large canvas as well, lots of reds and really dynamic colors and non-objective shapes with perspective and texture.
Yeah, her work is quite a bit different from Michael’s. Her work is very consistent, very consistent execution and well thought out. She kind of has a theme behind it and she’s doing a good job. I think she’s going to try to apply to grad school here soon. She works at OH WOW! downtown.
I don’t know if I answered that question, about being on both sides of the gallery. I like having a gallery space because sometimes I just like hanging my stuff up. The most recent stuff I’ve done, I’d like to hang it up for just a day, couple days, get some reactions. You get a better idea of your work when you hang it up in a space that’s public, and people look at it. It’s different out there than it is in the studio.
Does a work change when you move it?
Yeah, it does. It looks different in a gallery.
What made you look at that space and think it was a gallery?
I live right there and I walk by that building all the time, and it was never open. There was stuff in it and you can just tell, it looks like a gallery space. It has the right proportions. So I looked at it for years and finally one day I just called the guy. I found a number on the door and said, Hey, this is never open. What are you going to do with it? He said, I’ll rent it to you.
So now you have a studio in the old Ward Bakery, there are so many artists here.
It’s a great spot.
You’ve got so much light in here, all kinds of room to work. Do you work on more than one project at once?
Always. Five or six paintings going at once.
So what do you think Youngstown needs? What do artists need? What is the next step for artists here?
It’s a good question. Umm… I think a lot of artists feel like they need to sell things, and I think maybe if they had a place or if they had a market here, someone to actually buy their work, that would help out tremendously. That really helps the art market, when there’s actually a market. You can put things in a gallery, have a show, you can sell some work.
But I don’t really feel that way. I don’t paint anything to sell it. That’s not my goal at all. I think that if you’re painting things because you’re trying to sell then, you’re doing it all wrong, anyway.
I think maybe artists around here need a little more community. I think maybe they need to get together more, and talk more. There might be some way to include everyone in that. I think some people feel they don’t belong with this person, or they don’t belong at this gallery, or they’re not happy with this gallery, or they don't want to show—it kinds of makes a divide between this group and that group, and everyone here.
I don’t know anyone here yet. I know Tony and Eric, in fact Eric Alleman’s having a show at the gallery, opening this Saturday. But I know Eric here. But I don’t think we really have any— there isn’t really a venue for us to all to get together. I’m not sure what that would be. I’m trying to do that with the gallery.
So there’s a community, but it’s more than one community, it’s more fragmented into smaller communities.
It’s very fragmented. It’s almost isolationism. I think people isolate themselves.
And position themselves as being part of a smaller community. What do you think they would they benefit from more cross-pollination?
I think that’s where the whole creative process is. That’s the whole thing, is getting together with other people, talking abut it, seeing what somebody else is doing.
So when I was looking at your photographs from San Francisco it was reminding me of my artist residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts in the Marin Headlands, right there. Because that was one of my favorite things, that all day long I was having the conversation of the lifetime, with an artist about some aspect of the creative process. And we were all doing such different kinds of work, but it was just so stimulating, and to not have to wait. To be able to think, Oh, I really want to talk to someone about this, and there someone was. So I know what you mean. So I wonder if there is some way we can spark that.
It would be nice. Traditionally, painting is a lonely thing. You’re in your studio and you paint and you’re alone most of the time.
A lot of the arts are like that, right?
Yeah, right. I don’t know. Maybe we need more little gallery spaces to get people to come out and show their work and get together and talk about it. At the gallery, people will come in and we’ll have some really good discussions about the art. There are a lot of people out there who are artists and know a lot about it. Nobody knows who they are and they don’t have a venue or any place to show their work. We really don’t have the place to show our work except the area show at the Butler, and the Soap Gallery once in a while. If you’re going to do it, you want to show it. So maybe we just need a few more places to show it.
Well, that sounds great. Gary, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.