Sunlight of the Seasons: A Conversation with Steve Gerhartz

Steve Gerhartz creates landscape paintings of the countryside around his Wisconsin home, impressing upon the viewer his love for nature in all of its serene beauty.

Both an artist and nature enthusiast, Steve Gerhartz's passion shows in his life and his work. Beginning to paint landscapes in the mid 1980's in high school during a November snow squall with his brother, Gerhartz went on to attend the Lyme Academy in Connecticut. Inspired by the natural beauty, quality of light, and ever-changing conditions of the landscapes around him, Gerhartz paints on location on pieces of all sizes. Due to an interest in woodworking, he also creates many of his own frames. Before the opening of his solo show at the gallery, Kelsey had a chance to exchange emails with Gerhartz and ask him some questions about his art practice. You can read his answers below.

Photo of Steve Gerhartz, landscape artist
Steve Gerhartz at the opening for Forward, September 2022.

Kelsey: So you’re a Wisconsin artist who went out to the Lyme Academy  to study: how did that influence you in your current work, being out on the East Coast and returning to the Midwest?

Steve: As I went to college in Old Lyme, CT at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art, I would take weekend trips to the myriad of art museums on the East Coast. From Massachusetts to New York, I visited the Clark Institute, the Norman Rockwell Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Art, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Hispanic Society of NYC. In college, I had the opportunity to study with several inspiring instructors: Deane Keller, Laci DeGerenday, Elisabeth Gordon Chandler, and Dan Gheno, along with fellow students Ralf Feyl, Eric Jacobsen, Tom and Peggy Root, Jake Foley, and Michael Calles.

I had two years of intense study in figure drawing, figure painting, and figure sculpture, portrait painting, portrait sculpture, landscape painting and anatomy. The instructors at the Lyme Academy were sincere and knowledgeable in the fundamentals of design. They had a love of nature, people and the history of art.

On returning to the Midwest I came back to the landscape that I knew well and I painted the farms, forests, rivers and lakes of the Kettle Moraine [State Forest]. I have exhibited in galleries around the country since I was sixteen, and traveled and painted many places in the United States in my early twenties. I always returned to Wisconsin and loved the variety of trees and the water of Wisconsin.

Creek by the Shore, landscape painting by Steve Gerhartz in gold carved frame
Steve Gerhartz | Creek by the Shore | oil on canvas | 12 x 20 [MKE]

Kelsey: When did you decide you wanted to pursue painting as a career?

Steve: When I was fifteen, I was sure I wanted to pursue painting as a career. The two most influential art shows I saw in the late 1980s were the large shows of John Singer Sargent at the Art Institute of Chicago and the 1989 Joaquín Sorolla show at the IBM Gallery of Science and Art in New York City. Their economy of brush strokes and mastery of translating of what they saw into paintings of life and vitality were awe inspiring. The large painting of Joaquín Sorolla's Sewing the Sail [view here] made me feel as if I could walk into it. I remember enjoying some of the paintings so much that I would stand and study them for many minutes and go back and see them five times more before leaving the show. I enjoyed John Singer Sargent’s mountain and stream landscapes very much.

Other influential painters were Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Daubigny, Willard Metcalf, Issac Levitan, Anders Zorn, and German artist Carl von Marr, whose collection of works is at the Museum of Wisconsin Art.

Many thanks to my brother Dan, in his verbal support of my work and in his taking me to the many places that I would not have seen otherwise when I was young. My older brother Dan and his co-workers Kenn Backhaus and Ken Bronikowski were very inspiring to witness. They all had a passion for great art and nature. We saw many shows together and went on a few landscape painting trips to northern Wisconsin in my teenage years.

In high school I was witness to the talents of the friends of my brother including Richard Schmid, Nancy Guzik, Rose Frantzen, Scott Burdick, and Susan Lyon. I learned a lot in my visits to the Palette and Chisel Club in Chicago and in landscape painting outings.

Kelsey: Do you paint mostly in the countryside near your home, or do you travel to find your landscape subjects?

Steve: Most of the paintings are from locations within 30 miles of home.

Kelsey: You talked about stopping to paint a barn for 20 Below in the article for American Art Collector. I am often struck by how pretty the countryside is when driving through Wisconsin, too, and I wondered: Do you often come back to scenes you’ve glimpsed while driving? Do you keep art supplies in your car, just in case?

Steve: Yes, I come back to scenes that I have noticed at times, but am not ready to paint. Other times the truck is loaded with assorted canvases and easels in search of a painting subject. In finding places to paint, many times I would start driving and see what I could stumble upon. Sometimes locations were found while cross country skiing, fishing, hunting, or hiking. The times of day and sky conditions were noted and I would return in similar conditions.

Kelsey: What has been your favorite location to paint in?

Steve: I don’t have a specific location that I’m fond of, however I find beauty in all of nature.

Kelsey: Do you have any locations you’ve painted tied to specific memories? 

Steve: Locations I have painted are not usually tied to memories, but many times I marvel at the space I am in when painting them. A favorite location to paint is one without many bugs, a place that is warm when it is cool and a place cool when it is too warm. When I am stumped, I can always count on the landscape to be a steady supply of awesomeness.

I don’t paint the same scene in different seasons usually. I have returned to a few tiny streams and have painted them from many angles. They are very life giving streams, spring fed and staying open much of the winter.

Some of the most memorable locations I have painted are tied to weather extremes or setup precariousness: 30+ mile-per-hour winds to paint big waves, 100 degree days standing thigh deep in a river to stay cool, lying on my back painting the trees, or setting up in sunny quiet areas to stay warm in sub zero weather conditions are memorable.

Wearing hoods drawn shut when the gnats are bad at the peak of apple blooming, painting water lily paintings maxing out the canoe with gear, hauling gear up mountains and stashing canvases in the woods to return the next day, and camping on islands are also all memorable. Spending a day or two at a roaring waterfall and appreciating the cooling mist or brushing a trail to get a large canvas out of the woods without scraping it are memorable.

Kelsey: Do you ever revisit locations at a different time of the year or a different time of day to see how the light changes the landscape?

Steve: I have revisited places to paint at a different season and usually it is not as breathtaking.

Kelsey: What sort of hobbies do you have outside of painting, and do they inform your work?

Steve: My hobbies include woodworking, fishing, hunting, hiking, vegetable gardening, wood cutting, and carpentry.

Kelsey: I've worked as a framer and I am always struck by the beauty and craftsmanship of your frames. Do you make the painting first, or the frame? How do you decide what embellishments to add, and what does the process look like?

Steve: The frames are made after the painting is nearly done. The frames are carved, painted or gilded or have a combination of the three. Themes of the painting are sometimes incorporated into the frame and sometimes a simpler approach is better. The process is lengthy. In many cases I have logged the basswood trees, dried the lumber for a few years, planed the wood to be run through a molding machine, sawed the miters, glued, clamped and screwed the joints, carved, sanded, and painted up to five coats of whiting, sanded again, painted on three coats of clay, steel wooled and gilded and antiqued the frame.

Evening by the Lake, landscape painting by Steve Gerhartz in natural wood carved frame
Steve Gerhartz | Evening by the Lake | oil on canvas | 24 x 48 [MKE]

Kelsey: One question I like to ask because I always think of Van Gogh writing to his brother to ask for more blue: What paint color do you find yourself running out of most often?

Steve: White, because I paint many winter scenes.

Spruces Along the River, landscape painting by Steve Gerhartz in black and gold painted frame
Steve Gerhartz | Spruces Along the River | oil on canvas | 30 x 40 [MKE]

Kelsey: Does your family life influence your work at all?

Steve: My dad gave me knowledge of natural things like trees, land forms, animals, and birds.

Kelsey: What kind of changes have you seen in your artwork in the time you’ve been painting? Are there subjects or techniques you’d like to tackle in the future?

Steve:  It is hard for me to see changes in my artwork over time. As far as the future is concerned, if it interests me, I’ll paint it.

Spruces Along the Rive, landscape painting by Steve Gerhartz in carved gold frame
Steve Gerhartz | Spruces in Winter | oil on canvas | 60 x 48 [MKE]

"Sunlight of the Seasons" is on display at Lily Pad | West through January 15, 2023. Stop in to view the exhibition in person, or view us online:

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