The late Jerry Gant, from Newark, New Jersey, was a painter, sculptor, muralist, and metalworker: and yet, he was more than the sum of those things to his hometown. When he passed away, Mayor Ras Baraka proclaimed, “Gant is Newark.”
The artist’s lifetime — 1961 to 2018 — spanned an era that is essential to the city’s identity. Born during the civil rights era, Gant was a child at the time of the riots. He would live as a beacon in difficult decades, only to bookend his life seeing the city’s renaissance begin.
Artist Linda Street, who manages Gant’s estate, once said his greatest fear was that after his death his art would be “carried out in trash bags” and “thrown into dumpsters.” Instead, his artworks continue to inspire. A collection of his work is now on display in Montclair’s Hillside Sculpture Park called “Gant in Bloom.”
Much of Gant’s output was made of found objects — washers, bolts, stray aluminum. His ability to find utility in something unwanted, and turn post-industrial debris into things of beauty and optimism, resonated with Newarkers who found ways to thrive in disinvested communities.
“Newark and Montclair are so close — as close as these two towns are, the life experiences are completely different,” said Charlie Spademan, who curated the exhibition.
Spademan, whose smithing studio is at Manufacturers Village in East Orange, visited the warehouse on East Kinney Street in Newark where Gant’s work is stored and said he gained a new appreciation of the creative force that imbued him. “I saw the amazing variety of what he’s made,” Spademan said. “Paintings, clothes, sculptures, audio recordings — and he was also involved in social causes in Newark.”
The setting of Spademan’s show in the outdoors is fitting as not everyone is aware of Gant’s love of the natural world. Only months after his death to liver cancer, the Newark Art Festival had an exhibition of his work at the Greater Newark Conservancy at 32 Prince Street. It wasn’t a retrospective per se (although one in the form of a documentary is rumored to be in the works). It was an intimate tribute handpicked by co-curator Tiffany Salas.
The show revealed a side of Gant that few knew — his little-known relationship with this neighborhood nonprofit, including its picturesque garden, full of native flowers and a lily pond. “The Greater Newark Conservancy was a hub for a lot of his pieces,” said Salas, who showed me his famous metalwork portraitures that are displayed there year-round.
“He would just come by and say ‘Hey, I made this’ or ‘Hey, I found this,’” Robin Dougherty, former executive director of the conservancy, said her friendship with the artist began a decade ago after they were introduced by a mutual artist friend, Robert Gilbert. “We hit it off and spent countless hours talking about the arts in Newark and many other related subjects,” said Dougherty. “I believe he loved visiting the conservancy because he envisioned a robust ‘arts and the environment’ marriage.”
“He was taken from us much too soon,” Dougherty added.