Artist and educator Dan Gerdeman again learns to go with the tide

As he prepares to leave Hilliard Davidson High School, Gerdeman opened up about recovering from grief and the deep care for students that has fueled his 24-year run at the school.
Dan Gerdeman
Dan GerdemanCourtesy the artist

For more than two decades, Dan Gerdeman has been a fixture at Hilliard Davidson High School, teaching all manner of arts courses, from drawing and sculpture to motion graphics and animation. But Gerdeman’s tenure is set to end this week and following summer break he’ll begin a new challenge: teaching kindergarten at J.W. Reason Elementary School.

“I started college thinking I was going to be an elementary teacher,” said Gerdeman, who has now logged 30 years in arts education – 24 of them at Hilliard Davidson, where his students have included the likes of musician Sam Corlett and painters Daniel Rona and Larry Doyle, among countless others. “And then I took one art [instruction] class and it was over. I knew it was going to be art.”

Gerdeman described himself as a “true believer” from his first days in the classroom – a conviction fueled by childhood teachers and early career mentors who instilled in him a deep respect for the profession. “They showed me a genuine care in wanting to get to know me and what I was doing, but then they were also genuine with every kid who came into the class,” he said. “And I’ve tried to do that, as well. I try to care, and I try to make a difference every single day. And it’s not always going to work. … Even as hard as I try, I can’t always make a difference; some kids, there are external circumstances. But largely I think it works, and I’m blessed to have been able to do it so long.”

The career change follows a stress-inducing few years for Gerdeman, beginning with a pandemic that he said left a noticeable mark on his students, who were forced to navigate isolation, online coursework and the unrelenting weight of coronavirus-driven uncertainty at a formative time in their lives. “Teaching high school since COVID, that magic has disappeared from some of the kids’ eyes, which is really sad,” he said. 

These struggles deepened as Gerdeman contended with his mother’s death following an extended illness – a grief-stricken stretch that began to evidence itself within the artist’s own practice, his normally playful paintings taking on a more dire weight.

“I haven’t put a lot of that [work] out there, and if I have it’s only snippets, but a lot of it is dealing with traveling to be with my mom when she was sick and some of my battles during that year,” said Gerdeman, who will display those works in a duo show with Cyrus Fire centered on the concept of grief and recovery, dubbed “Visual Healing” and opening July 13 at the McConnell Arts Center.

In the wake of his mother’s 2021 death, Gerdeman said he shut down emotionally, which sapped his paintings of their usual playful spark. Yet he pressed on, embracing “it’s the work” as a daily mantra and continuing to pick up his brush even in those moments when the will eluded him.

“When it’s hard, and when you have that block, that’s when you need to power through. And when that magic isn’t there, you’ve got to power through, power through, power through,” said Gerdeman, who will also be exhibiting at the Columbus Arts Festival, which runs Friday-Sunday, June 9-11. “When my mom passed, the grieving process shut me down, but I still worked. … And through that regularity, through that work, some semblance of magic started to come back. So, ‘it’s the work’ is about powering through – and not just at high times, but at low ones especially.”

For Gerdeman, a turning point arrived about a year after his mother’s death, first taking shape last summer in a painting titled “Downstream,” which finds his character, El Destructo, floating down river rather than swimming against the current. “It felt like things were able to turn a little bit,” Gerdeman said, “where I was the twig floating downstream rather than the salmon fighting against the river.”

In the months since, paintings have continued to flow from the artist, who will also stage a comparatively playful exhibit at Secret Studio dubbed “El Destructo’s Atomic Circus” and opening on July 14. With “Visual Healing” kicking off a day earlier at McConnell, attendees could conceivably traverse nearly three years of Gerdeman’s life in a two-day span, revisiting both traumatic lows and goofy, exhilarating highs.

Gerdeman said that navigating the last few years has helped to prepare him for this career transition, which he called a first step into whatever might follow his three decades in education. He wants to travel more, and he talked about visiting arts collectives in Spain and Germany, where he hoped to paint alongside locals. He also described his forthcoming appearance at Columbus Arts Fest as an experiment, gauging if he might be able to carve out a living selling his own art full-time. Or perhaps, if needed, he could supplement this income by taking the skills he’s developed in the classroom to a different audience, teaching art to senior citizens.

“I’m still testing the waters a bit in terms of what I want to do after this career,” he said. “But I know I don’t want to be stagnant. And when I retire, I don’t want to pour some bourbon and sit in front of the TV. I want to have fun and see things and make things and learn things. I want to be profound in what I do.”

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