Dan Gerdeman keeps it in the family with ‘Art Sons & Daughters’

In a new show opening at the Hilliard Civic and Cultural Arts Center on Saturday, June 1, the long-time arts educator displays work alongside 15 of his former students.
Dan Gerdeman works on a painting
Dan Gerdeman works on a paintingCourtesy the artist

When Larry Doyle started at Hilliard Davidson High School in the early 2000s, he said he felt completely lost. 

As a freshman, he experimented with theater and played in a couple of shitty bands (his words), but he struggled to find something to which he felt a real connection. Then in his sophomore year, Doyle talked his way into the Drawing 3 class taught by Dan Gerdeman, which afforded him the opportunity to study alongside an instructor with a gift for instilling in his students a desire to seek out their passions – whatever those might be.

“He makes you want to chase it, to find what makes you happy and do that,” Doyle said. “He really found that passion and direction in people that they didn’t really know, and that I didn’t really know. And he was just like, ‘Keep doing this. Now what if you did this? And this?’ And there were so many ideas and constant support and just so much love from him.”

Artist Daniel Rona, who took his first class with Gerdeman around 2014, expressed similar sentiments, adding that the teacher’s supportive nature extended even beyond those who took an interest in more creative pursuits. “It wasn’t an art-centered thing, and it applied to multiple other students, too,” said Rona, who received his first set of paints from the man he now lovingly calls “Gerdie.” “If you’re doing something interesting and you believe in yourself, he was going to put his foot behind you.”

Jeffrey Knick said this commitment generally went hand in hand with an expectation that you would give it your all in return. “And Dan, if I was not doing my best, he would just give me a look. And it was just one of those things where I knew he knew,” the artist said.

In the 24 years Gerdeman taught at Hilliard Davidson, myriad Columbus creatives logged time in his classroom, absorbing these lessons to varying degrees. (Gerdeman left Hilliard Davidson at the end of the 2023 school year to teach kindergarten at J.W. Reason Elementary School and he’s set to retire from the classroom entirely when school ends this week.) These include photographer Kate Sweeney, musician Sam Corlett and painter Cassidy Boyuk, among countless others, all of whom are part of a many-branched family tree that Gerdeman referred to as his “art sons and daughters.” A small fraction of these will exhibit alongside the instructor in a new group show fittingly titled “Art Sons & Daughters” and opening at the Hilliard Civic and Cultural Arts Center on Saturday, June 1.

“I’ve always thought about doing a show with my former art students,” said Gerdeman, who joined Rona, Doyle, Knick and illustrator Layla Ayoub at the Cultural Arts Center for a late May interview. “It’s a really nice chance to end my teaching career and to show with these guys. … They all floored me when I had them in class, and they just continue to do so.”

Gerdeman has exhibited alongside Rona in the past, but for this show his work appears next to diverse contributions from 15 former students working in photography, illustration, oil painting, acrylics and more. But while all of the displaying artists were in some way sparked by their experiences in Gerdeman’s classroom, each has developed a unique voice generally far removed from the teacher’s distinctive style. “I just want them to make stuff that’s theirs,” Gerdeman said. “And that’s been my pitch from day one: Make things that are yours. Find who you are. Build skills.”

In all of the pieces on display, Gerdeman said he can still see echoes of who each artist was as a younger student — even if their technical skills have greatly advanced in the years since. 

Knick was a “badass portrait artist in high school,” Gerdeman said, and his ability to render an image realistically has carried over into the landscape and architectural paintings that have more recently become a focus. Doyle, who contributed an ethereal, neon-hued painting of an amorphous creature to the exhibit, debuted similar characters in high school, even painting one on a ceiling tile in Gerdeman’s classroom. “It was the earliest incarnation of his work,” said Gerdeman, who continued to use the tile as an example for his students in the years after Doyle graduated. “But when you look at [the tile] and then you look at the work he has in the show, you can really see the genesis of something taking place.”

Gerdeman said similar things of Ayoub, who in high school created slice-of-life illustrations that reflected her inner world – an interest the recent CCAD grad continued to refine in her college years. 

“There was a way of putting parts of yourself that people don’t know into your work without having to talk about that inner world,” said Ayoub, who described herself as more reserved at the time she first crossed paths with Gerdeman, the instructor challenging her to put more of herself on the page. “It always felt like self-expression was the biggest thing he was pushing. He didn’t necessarily care about proper technique or how refined something was. He just wanted you to create, to really go for it.”

Taking in the surrounding artwork, Gerdeman was struck by the number of students who had continued to apply lessons learned in his classroom, briefly choking up as he tried to put the exhibition into perspective. 

“When I started teaching, I was worried about leaving a legacy. And I know now what my legacy is and has been and will continue to be,” he said. “Seeing this [show come together], it’s really life affirming.”

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