Ralph Gilbert, Emeritus Professor of Drawing and Painting at the Welch School of Art & Design, has been teaching at Georgia State University since before the formation of the College of the Arts and even before the naming of the school to reflect its benefactor, Ernest G.Welch. Gilbert was instrumental in planning and finding support for the College. He has served as the Area Dean in the College of Arts & Sciences, did a term as Graduate Director, was the Assistant Director and then Director for the School of Art & Design. He was one of the professors responsible for making Ernest feel a part of the Georgia State art community when he first took classes, and looked after the endowment after the artist’s death, encouraging its use for the betterment of student success, just as Ernest had intended.
In addition to his 35 years teaching and mentoring, Gilbert has maintained an active career, exhibiting nationally. He has been highly successful in competing nationally and internationally for large-scale mural projects, including Key West City Hall in Florida, the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center of Pennsylvania State University, the St. Paul Union Depot in Minnesota, the Piedmont Park Conservancy in Atlanta, the Helene S. Mills Senior Center of Fulton County, plus a series of 23 paintings for the Milken Family Foundation in Santa Monica, California. His most recent project was installed in June of 2021 at the Lilly Library of Indiana University Bloomington.
The recently renovated Lilly Library, one of the three most distinguished libraries of its kind in the U. S., houses the University’s rare books and special collections. This project was an international competition funded by the Lilly Endowment (Eli Lilly Pharmaceuticals). Gilbert’s imagery represents the library’s holdings of works by famous scholars, scientists, historical figures, writers, and cultural icons. The Lilly Library now holds more than 450,000 rare books, 8.5 million manuscripts, the world's largest collection of mechanical puzzles and 150,000 pieces of sheet music. From Madam Curie and Galileo to Tony Morrison and Shakespeare, to Spiderman—all the recognizable figures in the mural are represented in the library by rare and original materials. Included in the murals are portraits of students and scholars who will be utilizing the collection for years to come. Gilbert’s goal with the project was to, “absorb and fairly represent the scope of the holdings; to meet the extremely high expectations of sophisticated viewers; to stand up to comparison with the famous Thomas Hart Benton murals that are installed in the neighboring concert hall on the IU campus; and to do all this in a single, non-stop year of painting.”
We sat down with Ralph Gilbert to talk about this recent commission and reflect on his last three decades with the school.
Welch School of Art & Design: This is a project of incredible scale—how do you begin and what is your process?
Ralph Gilbert: I start with drawings, leading to monochromatic studies in paint on canvas. Early on I'm both formulating design concepts and thinking through content issues, so I don’t want to be dealing with color or detail too early. Later, color is added to strengthen the work. The studies are extensive and there is an enormous amount of preparatory work with a project of this scope. I spent a good four months just on preparation.
WSAD: And all of these preparatory sketches that you're showing me here are very architectural too. You're building out spaces that these figures within the picture plane will inhabit, making scenes and narratives unfold.
RG: That's exactly right. And this is different from making an easel painting that could be moved, hung either in your living room or office. These three huge canvases must work with each other, of course, but it is crucial that they work well in their intended environment, in this case, the Lilly Library. They are made for a very specific environment and will partake of, as well as enhance, that space.
WSAD: What kind of research do you do to develop the imagery, sources and inspiration?
RG: My sources are multiple, depending upon the theme. If the piece references history, as in the case of the Lilly library—which houses rare books and manuscripts—I’m painting people, places, and things that I can't directly observe. One of my true strokes of genius earlier in life was to marry an historian. Mary is a history professor emeritus at Emory University, and she's been a wonderful help with research and a guide through difficult archives. So, archival research is vital, but at times my preparation depends on direct experience. For instance, with the Key West murals, I spent a week walking the island, feeling the place, getting a real sense for the culture. In the case of the Penn State University Medical Center, it was spending time in the hospital. I was shown things that even doctors in the facility don’t usually get to see. I was seeing every specialty’s space, and I had a comprehensive view of the hospital. For those murals, I wanted to represent their mission: medical research, clinical medicine, and medical education. Murals tell the story of a community, its history, and its values.
WSAD: Who are some of your artistic influences?
RG: I'm often compared to Thomas Hart Benton, but he was not an influence of mine. It is true that he and I were both influenced by some of the same artists. Benton learned a great deal from Tintoretto, with his inventive use of space. And that's where I'm coming from, too. There really isn't anybody contemporary to whom I feel connected. I do feel somewhat connected to Benton and even a little bit to Diego Rivera, in the sense that they're both making work about culture and history on a large and public scale-- real people and their symbols and stories.
What I’ve tried to do for each of my projects is to invent a world, to bring pieces together that are together nowhere else. People could say of this, ‘well, this is realism, isn't it?’ But really, it's not; it's fantasy. It's so much about weaving things together and creating continuity between things that are related but may never have existed in the same place or time. This would be true of all the historical figures in my Lilly Library murals.
WSAD: What are the rewards and challenges of working this big and high profile?
RG: Very few artists get to see their work permanently and publicly installed, where it will remain for generations. From the very outset, I was moved by the notion that my murals would take their place in the world and that they would continue to be seen and appreciated over time—and that is greatly rewarding.
WSAD: And become a part of the identity of those spaces going forward.
RG: Absolutely. Often, the mural is the last addition to a space, but then becomes the first thing that is seen upon entering. It can become iconic and is highly identified with a facility and its mission, a kind of summary of an institution and its culture.
Now regarding the scale, it's hard to make a huge painting, but it's also hard to make a good painting of any size. What's more difficult about the scale of mural work is the physical effort needed to carry it out—in that way it is far more demanding. My assistant Larkin and I must sit on the floor to paint lower figures—you feel it in your knees and back. That gives way to constant climbing on scaffolding or step ladders to reach the upper sections. So, it's physically more demanding. And it's also just logistically challenging. My studio is big, but we had to build a 40-foot wall down its center, just to accommodate the Lilly Murals.
The way I saw the Lilly Murals in the studio was different from how they are seen installed at the University. In the library, they are over bookshelves that wrap around the room and are seen from 9 feet overhead to 18 feet high. And you see them at a distance. I designed them so that they read best at a distance. It's not like going to the museum and walking right up to a painting, to examine every detail. Here, you design with the idea that it must read well over distance and overhead, and the details can sometimes matter less, because they can get lost.
WSAD: Interesting. Yeah, I would imagine that would be a challenge as well.
RG: I had to do something similar for the very first mural I did in Atlanta, which was in Piedmont Park. I actually painted this on a scaffolding overhead. But having to understand it, as if seeing from below, from a distance and not overhead I was and up close...It's like anything, you sort of learn to adapt and visualize.
WSAD: You and I have discussed the College to Career initiative in the College of the Arts. It's one thing to be a talented artist, it's another thing to be a viable artist.
RG: To be a viable artist, you must ferret out and apply to every opportunity that is in line with your skills and interests and be very strategic in the way that you present yourself. With my latest commission, which was international in its reach, I had to pay great attention to the language in the call for qualifications. To make a compelling presentation, I had to understand the goals of the institution to be persuasive. I wouldn't call this a marketing skill, but rather an ability to communicate one’s fit to those who have to make a decision; they will, in one way or another, ask: ‘Do you understand us? Can we depend on you to present us in a way that we recognize as true to our identity?’ Somebody could be a terrific painter, but lack insight or empathy, and therefore, not engender confidence. When I interview, I try to reflect the values that have been conveyed in the request for qualifications. I need to clearly articulate my understanding as well as be a good listener. These would be good skills for an artist to develop.
WSAD: Do you have any recommendations for students who are interested in large-scale mural work?
RG: I don’t think anyone should undertake a large-scale project if they don’t have great confidence in their abilities. Generally, I would recommend that students start small and work cheap, until they have gained experience and a confidence-inducing track record. One wouldn’t want to be inhibited by performance anxiety. You don’t want to ask yourself, ‘what have I gotten myself into?’ I've agreed to take this job, but can I really bring it off?’ Eventually, if you are chosen for a major project, you must prepare exhaustively, while remembering that even great muralists like Diego Rivera were just human and were also subject to daunting challenges.
WSAD: Speaking of students. I would love to hear your teaching mantra in your own words. Joe Peragine, our director, has mentioned that with your experience and your skill, you could teach any level, but that you really have a passion for the introductory students.
R: And I do for a couple of reasons. I think it's important to give students a good start and I'm committed to giving artists the kind of foundation that I think will stand them in good stead, as fashions come and go. I believe that at a fundamental level drawing is a language, a graphic language that has a vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. And that those things are not subjective. They're historical and they can be taught and learned. Nobody's obligated to use them, but I feel obligated to teach them. In that sense I am a custodian of an important history and tradition.
I would add that the principles I teach in drawing exist for good reason. As a teacher, I made a point of thoroughly articulating those principles. I wanted my students to understand the ways in which we represent volume and the difference between representing a volume of space compared to a volume of form; how the five graphic elements work; how perspective is an expression of the physiology of the human eye. The concepts I teach are not intuitive, are not about the student’s feelings, nor are they about me. They're about the history of our craft. I'm concerned with how the language of drawing works: what's fundamental and constitutes a core body of knowledge that has evolved over centuries.
WSAD: Do you have any advice for students who were either graduating and looking to launch their artistic careers?
RG: That you need to be patient and play a long game. In making personal work, it would be best to challenge yourself by undertaking projects that are difficult for you, rather than avoiding difficulty and defaulting to what is familiar or defaulting to technology. Don’t merely stake a claim to some idiosyncrasy that brands and commodifies your work. And become excellent at something, rather than merely decent at many things. That will result in having a point of view and working toward of goal of becoming a great muralist, or subjective narrative painter, or landscape or portrait painter, abstract painter or a great printmaker, or graphic novelist. Focus on and become good at the one thing that matters to you most; whatever else happens, that then becomes the nucleus of your practice.
The last thing I would tell my students is that there are two worlds that they will be exposed to, and that they need to understand the difference between them. One is the art world, and the other is the world of art. The ‘art world’ is a world of fashion, galleries, openings, commerce... The ‘world of art’ is a world of imagery, meaning, commitment, and cultural values that are lasting.
WSAD: You’ve been at GSU for 35 years, so you've seen it grow and change so much. Are there any chapters or memories that really stand out that you really feel proud of being a part of?
RG: Yes. As the only arts member of the University’s Strategic Planning Committee, I proposed and promoted the creation of a College of the Arts—initially with support from only one other committee member. I worked to persuade the entire committee and university faculty to support the proposal, that was ultimately approved by the Board of Regents and supported by our president and provost.
I was also central to the creation of CENCIA (the Center for Collaboration and innovation in the Arts). I wasn't its’ first director, but I helped shape its conception and was successful in obtaining funding from the provost. Encouraging music, theater, art and design and film to work together was part of my thinking about collaboration through CENCIA and was a step toward the creation of the new college.
WSAD: You have been an Area Dean in the College of Arts & Sciences, an Assistant Director and then Director for the School. That's more administrative work than most faculty do in three careers. You certainly earned your retirement! Congratulations on your next chapter and the completion of this mural!
RG: Thank you.