“After years of making Spirit Poles, New Mexico artist tries hand at hieroglyphics,” Journal Star

By Leslie Renken via the Journal Star

"Star Heiroglyphics," John Geldersma. Photo courtesy of John Geldersma

“Star Heiroglyphics,” John Geldersma. Photo courtesy of John Geldersma

The love of wood was spontaneous for artist John Geldersma — he’s been working with it since he was 6.

“I grew up in the suburbs of New Orleans. Every spring along the banks of the river wood was plenty available,” said Geldersma, 72, during a recent phone interview from his home in Santa Fe, N.M. “I could get as much wood as I needed.”

In addition to carving little boy things like boats and airplanes, Geldersma created totem-like figures inspired by his interest in Native American culture.

“I didn’t know anything about African art then, that didn’t come until college, but I was interested in primitive art from the early days,” said Geldersma, who is best-known for the sinuous and colorful “Spirit Poles” he’s been making since the mid-1990s.

“The first group of poles I did, I was invited to show in this museum in Louisiana in an old bank building. They had this huge, high atrium … I always wanted to do these big vertical pieces, and lo and behold, someone bought them all,” recalls Geldersma.

The poles have been very popular with both private and corporate collectors — a buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue purchased 37 of them. They were displayed in Saks stores in New York, Chicago, Houston, and New Orleans, said Geldersma, who will be showing his work at the Contemporary Art Center July 12 through Aug. 29. In addition to the Spirit Poles, Geldersma will also exhibit his new Hieroglyphics Series.

“Hieroglyphics were used in Egypt for the burials of the Pharaohs. They are very tied in with spiritual rituals,” he said. “On the other hand, they are also a very simple sort of icon you have for reference on the computer monitor. … I just bought an iPad this week, and you turn it on and it’s nothing but symbols and icons. It’s universal now.”

Carved from wood, hieroglyphics is a series of symbols from the artist’s imagination — a yellow rat, a blue rat, a chicken, wave-like zig zags, letters and shapes. Rather than creating a new language, Geldersma says his work is purely visual.

“I could force a sentence or a statement out of it, but they are not literal. They are abstract symbols,” he said. “They make no sense other than that they are beautiful.”

Inspiration came from a book of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics that Geldersma enjoys even though he has no idea what the symbols mean. He started the series last year, using chunks of wood left over from bigger projects.

The smaller scale of the hieroglyphics is a welcome relief for the artist, who has always worked large. Since he can’t buy huge chunks of wood at the local home improvement store, the collection of material has always been an important part of Geldersma’s artistic process — he’s been trolling the banks of the Mississippi River for wood most of his life.

“With a chain saw and help I can spend all day collecting driftwood,” said Geldersma. “We literally harvest wood from the banks of the river — driftwood comes in all sizes.”

Hurricane Katrina, which felled thousands of old-growth trees, produced a lot of wood for Geldersma. He also trades artwork for wood with his friends, and since he moved to Santa Fe, he’s been harvesting aspen trees in the nearby mountains.

“What I’ve done since I lived here is make all of the big poles out of aspen, because there are lots of aspen trees in the mountains,” he said. “I can get a permit to take dead-and-down and dead-and-standing trees in the mountains.”

Geldersma and his wife moved to Santa Fe in 2000. After years of selling artwork at galleries there, the artist decided he preferred the arid climate in New Mexico to the stifling humidity of New Orleans. Another recent change for Geldersma is the direction he’s taking with his artwork. After 20 years of making spirit poles, the once seemingly endless font of ideas ran dry.

“I’ve literally made hundreds of them. That’s why I’m tired of doing them. I burned out,” he said. The Heiroglyphic Series has fired up his imagination again.

“The ideas keep pouring in and pouring in. For now it’s really reinvigorating.”

If you go

>> What: The Contemporary Art Center of Peoria presents “The Sculpture of John Geldersma.”
>> When: July 12 through Aug. 29. A combined reception for the opening of “The Sculpture of John Geldersma” and “William Butler & Steven Gorman: Beyond Beyond” will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. July 12.
>> Where: Contemporary Art Center of Peoria, 305 SW Water St., Peoria.
>> Admission: Free but a donation is encouraged. For more information visit www.peoriacac.org and johngeldersma.com.