Featured Artist: Gerry Florida

As part of our ongoing Artist Profile series, we were pleased to interview Pittsburgh artist Gerry Florida, one of the Studio’s most popular instructors. Snag your seat in her upcoming beading fundamentals classes today!

Here’s Gerry:

What mediums do you work with? 

I work in mixed media: recycled, salvaged, vintage and new material. I am primarily an assemblage jewelry wire artist but move into 3-d wall and free standing sculpture when I feel I do not want to stop the creative process on a piece I am working on… or in other words,  when it gets bigger than the body it would otherwise be worn on.  My work is intricate and the pieces are hand wired in entirety, not to be confused with beading art which is either strung or sewn. Additionally, I use wire as the adhesive, so rarely will I use any volatile glues or solder or anything of that nature to put pieces together. Wire is my continual challenge and if a component can’t be wired initially, I will find a way to make it so…armed with a drill, anything becomes fair game to the wire. 

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How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your works?

The short answer is: 

I use damaged, broken, recycled materials to make symbolic statements of the beauty of imperfection. 

Now this is my long winded answer:

My subject/themes are part of a painful life and recovery  process which developed as the philosophy of my work  My subject matter seems to always have elements of, reincarnation, imperfection, acceptance and reinvention and I interpret that in whimsical ways. I do not consciously intend it that way, it just happens and writing artist statements and answering these questions forces me to think more deeply in the why’s in order to have something more profound to say other than “I just like to make pretty thing to look at and wear”….(which is the simplified truth by the way).

Since I label myself as a “master of imperfection” and the spontaneity that goes along with that, my pieces are born with that concept in mind.  I guess being equally left brain- right brain along with OCD* most of my life helped me logically and methodically reinvent myself after suffering a chemical accident that totally threw my life off track. The accident left me physically challenged and I was forced to rewrite my life script and not for the first time.  However, this time the permanent damage made a monumental impression on my psyche…so in my art I wanted the freedom to let things happen uncontrolled as they had in my life and I wanted to recover from that mayhem as an art form, in a methodically unorganized and esthetically comfortable way.  Taking the mess and making it beautiful mimics my experiences…as well as salvaging the spontaneity that occurs both good and bad …or “course correct” as I put it ….just as I recycled my own life after that event.

It is true about the “the best laid plans…* ” since my experiences have been a continuum of re-creation through tragedy.  As a child of concentration camp survivors, I learned that reality is sometimes not the best place to invest our mental time and that sanity is just the ability to rewrite the script to adjust to changing realities. My mother was into sensory overload and colorful, vibrant and visually stimulating in everything she did…. and the loud Russian gypsy music that vibrated our house, served to drowned out the demons of her experiences. I grew up in an environment of full sensory overload making it easier to learn to walk and chew gum only to spit it out to chew more gum and walk a further distance. 

Surviving my experiences life both good and bad required continual alteration in the way I perceived and understood things…it meant living creatively. My learning was subliminal and the foundation for my transitions.  My daily daydream escapades visualize all kinds of otherwise impossible scenarios…. and really many times they come to be. Likewise, I try to make my work whimsical and full and of the unexpected and I work to create beauty from the discarded underdogs of the material world. 

After serving a six year sentence to isolation as a result of my injuries, I am finally able to maneuver in the world with greater ease than my prognosis would have otherwise allowed… Visualizing and dreaming put me in the right frame of mind to be receptive to the insights that were magnets to the creative thought process. I made friends with the concepts of the unexpected and unplanned. Thus I do not plan a piece except if required by an exhibition, but even then, it is usually a simple draft on a napkin, pizza box or the envelope of my light bill. 

I want the process of my work to be continually exciting, challenging and unpredictable every single time otherwise I won’t do it, so I won’t invite the boredom of predictability by planning how I will maneuver the wire five minutes from now. Spontaneity is my catalyst and all resulting bloopers must remain in the piece. I love the mistakes impulsiveness brings so equipped with my puzzle of materials it’s my way of proving imperfection can still be beautiful. That has become my addictive process and the statement I want to convey through my work…as well as the fact that sometimes the new version is far more interesting than the original. 

Although I teach my art throughout our area to both adults and youth, my real passion is my work with populations that are not billboard perfect and who live life in the shadows of the “American Dream”.  In one of my teaching venues as the Title I  art teacher for Shuman Juvenile Detention Center, the students often times ask me what I did so wrong to be sentenced to work with them…a population of beautiful faces that carry their low self esteems on the tip of their tongues.

That is a powerful statement made about the underlying esteem of their being and my realization that my work has to make an equally powerful counter statement for the not so perfect situations and people of our society…which in reality, is all of us.  I get to create wonders every day as kids discover they can “do something” while releasing tension and making personal discoveries in non violent, non destructive and creative ways through their art…and most of all that they discover their value through the art that they make and understand that their lack of worthiness has been a long process of identifying themselves in unfair ways. That’s my daily high. Working with seniors, autistic, disabled and mentally challenged individuals is another part of my daily fix in helping them squeeze a space for themselves amidst the billboard life and to do it with self worth and dignity. 

The themes in my work are the themes in my life and my mediums are everything I do and everyone that I get the opportunity to experience and work with. 

Can you tell us a little bit about one of your favorite pieces of art you’ve created? 

I do not particularly like the concept of “favorite” because it makes me feel that there is a lid on creativity that can’t be matched in any future. I would say the last piece I created is always my favorite, at least until the new one gets finished. That way they all get top billing at some point. I will have two pieces in the upcoming “New Collective” exhibit at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in November, so far they are my latest favorites, but by then I am sure a new one will be created for my next exhibit that will take the top billing for favorite at least for a while. 

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What is the best advice you’ve ever received when it comes to your career as an artist?

Well I do not think I ever really got any real advice or if I did I was not paying attention.  I think the best advice I can personally give depends on what you are looking for in life… if you want bling then don’t be an artist, if you want passion then do.

My mother was the source of a lot of life and career advice even thought I never identified it as such at the time. She was a master at making all things “pretty” all around her.  I remind my students to exercise creativity daily and that can be done by simply making something pretty everyday… whether they, say something pretty, cook something pretty, dress up to look pretty… it’s about training your mind in an open and positive way and as far as our emotions they should be pretty as well.  Forgiveness is the most creative thing we can do emotionally as it is in itself a “pretty” thing to do. It rescues us from a path of self pity and what bigger challenge than to release that festering anger and resentment energy into a state of possibility so we can freely move on.  I am not convinced anyone can truly be free to creative if you they allow themselves to be absorbed in a bad mental place for too long and if the can, how much better might their repertoire of ideas be if they weren’t

My mother always advised us to seek out what made us happy making no imposed career expectations or college expectations on us. She opted to never redirect us when two other of my siblings directed their passions to the arts. In parent lingo, that means kids living at home into their early 30’s.  She understood from her own experiences that life is momentary and has to be lived with passion and conviction as it can change at any minute  So now interpreting that as career advice, I am doing what I love doing before it is too late, which is making “pretty things to look at and wear”. All the cosmic explanations come to the surface when I have to answer questions like this otherwise on a daily basis, I don’t think much deeper into it.  Since I am equally left brain as well as right brain, I have to admit I like working in the “no brain” zone to allow unedited ideas to freely happen. That mixed with compulsive shopping sprees for more inspirational junk makes me anxious to escape to my studio/laboratory to experience and play… and when I teach, I invite my students to do the same.

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What is your favorite thing about being an artist in the city of Pittsburgh? 

I love Pittsburgh and its pockets of colorful people, historical areas and all the different cultures, foods and experiences that an ethnic mixture of people brings… it reminds me of my work which is a blending of all kinds of cool and colorful things. So bottom line, all this is stimulating for me as an artist and the Pittsburgh audience has been extremely welcoming. I have managed to succeed because my work makes people do a double take and smile…whether the viewer recognizes the underlying message or not, they welcome my work with a new perception of what jewelry and sculpture can be made of… and that makes me smile too.

* “The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.”

*   OCD /Obsessive Compulsive Disorder