Biography of Geo Geller
Art as a Self-Taught Journey
Some years ago I met Geo Geller, a self-taught artist who created
works as he traveled around the world, finding materials and
subject matter by happenstance.
The page with his artwork
contains a small, but generally representative sampling.
This interview conveys a general sense of Geo's philosophy
. . .
Being an artist, people must be constantly asking you why
It's a silly question, but what do you tell them?
I tell them I makes things because my head is full of ideas
needing to be born.
Creating them and giving life to them is how I know that I am
alive and living, and that I have lived and will live.
What do you paint?
I paint my dreams.
A lot of artists can't wait to sell a painting and
get it out the door.
Why do you keep yours?
My paintings are like my children.
I have refused to sell my paintings when I was broke and
hungry, because I didn't think the buyer would give them
a good home.
But I've also bartered paintings for food, shelter, medical care,
or other necessities when I know the recipient will cherish
I keep my paintings because I never get tired of seeing
them, and each one reminds me of where I was and what I
was experiencing when I made it.
You have to understand that I don't create paintings
and sculptures; they create me and make me more aware of
I learn from them and create them to take care of my imagination.
I don't create paintings on comission to match people's
carpets or to be commercially successful.
I create art because I have to.
With all the art you've created and the positive response
people have to it, one has to wonder why you don't show
your work more often.
I created my paintings for me, and if they mean something
to you, that's wonderful, but it wasn't why I made them.
Why are you trying to find homes for them now?
I want to find people who will adopt my paintings like
they'd adopt a child.
My paintings are part of me and I think of them as my children.
It doesn't do them any good to be cooped up in the darkness.
They need light and air to breathe in order to live,
just like we do.
I was just waiting for the right moment to find them homes
where they belong.
Matching a painting with someone who understands and
appreciates the messages in it is a complicated process.
What are you trying to say in these paintings?
I first became interested in painting through my interest in
dance and theatre.
It's a lot of effort and trouble to put on a production, since
you have to organize people and personalities.
I discovered I could make a painting that's like an entire play
or dance piece, and that says everything I wanted to say
without dealing with the complexities of sets and actors,
and all the unintended consequences of that dance.
I wanted to show how I see humanity in all its true emotions
and self-delusions and painting lets me have that conversation
with myself and with an observer.
Human beings spend a lot of time deluding themselves.
I wanted to know what we really think and feel,
beyond the charades and masquerades, that we don't share
with others, or even admit to ourselves.
Did you ever think about how men, women, families and friends
interact, and what do they think and feel while interacting?
How do we express our emotions, like joy, sorrow,
fear, life, death, disconnection or confusion?
What are we trying to say?
You keep coming back to the notion of getting your
ideas down on paper.
Some of your works have pretty disturbing ideas in
The people are so obviously unhappy.
The people in my paintings are ordinary people I see walking
down the street.
They are a subtle mix of tenderness, vulnerability, gentleness,
questioning, sadness, emptiness, suspicion, despair, hunger
Basically, they are me and you.
They show us emotions we don't like to see or even admit we
You look at
these disconnected people
with distrustful and disconnected lives, wondering,
"how did I get here"
and "why am I so unhappy".
That's their beauty.
They are looking at us as much as we are at them.
So they are voyeuristic?
We see vulnerability that we really shouldn't be seeing,
or maybe we are really seeing a reflection of our own
vulnerability that we so carefully hide from others.
It's not always clear.
Take the wedding invitaitons I painted on
These people are always thinking about where their joy and happiness
are going, or perhaps went, and wondering about how to deal with the
unintended consequences of life.
Do any of these works disturb you?
painted some of them
had to put them in another room, because they were much too raw and
tortured for me to look at.
Remember, I'm trying to capture emotional energy, both
physical and invisible, but also subtlety,
like in a film where actions are felt and not spoken.
These emotions are not ones everyone wants to see.
These people are looking at you for an answer to
"who am I", "who will I be",
"how did I end up as you or me",
and "how did I get here"?
They are vulnerable and innocent, and that's what makes
them so interesting to me.
What concepts and ideas do you put into your paintings?
I mentioned how I was doing plays in paint.
Each piece is a visual poem, like a one-act play, with
characters and motivation, emotions and actions.
I'll do some investigation into a common theme, even
though I may have totally different mindset and
I call those recurring ideas "studies".
Can you give me some examples?
is "Conversations with Myself as a Bird
The bird represents my spirit, but also the means to save
my spirit from being a prisoner of myself.
Think of the bird as dreams, hopes, desires and a means
to escape the physical world and go flying.
A related study is something I call "Self Portrait Series".
You'll see a sailboat in this study.
The sailboat is me being tossed about by my world, and
the sky and sea represent calm and stormy emotions.
The mood of the sea reflects the subtleties of our environment,
and how on some days we have calm environment but other days
we have a stormy tempest.
So the painting's theme is really a metaphor for life.
How I see through other people's eyes and how they experience
life is what really interest me and what I find to be so important.
Another study I did was with figures I made from wire rod
I found while living in Granada, Spain.
They are people, sometimes dancing and sometimes standing
still, but all of them are experiencing life in some way.
I did another series about the interactions of strange, distorted
people with strange, distorted lives in strange,
distorted apartment buildings
In that study I included a chair for the observer.
Sometimes there's a table with wine and bread as a
gesture of hospitality from me for the observer, who is
simultaneously a observer for the performance and a participant.
So you view painting as theatre without words?
No, there are words, too.
Many pieces have a poetic title expressing their essence,
at least from my perspective.
You might use a very different title, but they still have one.
The title is my play as well as a little poetry.
I have to figure out what the people, animals, flowers, and
other things in my painting are doing.
That's why it is so hard to give a painting a title.
All pieces have a story about how they came to be created
and what they mean to me, and that's what the title reflects.
Sometimes the title is more important than the rest of
the painting or what I paint it on.
That brings up the issue of your raw materials.
Most seem to be non-traditional items you found or scrounged.
Why is this, and where do you find them?
I prefer to create art from things I find.
I even use pigments and materials from my surroundings.
Some of the things I've used in art are
fabrics, papers, wooden drawer bottoms, paintings, signs,
architectural drawings and blueprints, table legs, shelves,
serving trays, flooring, signs, shells, stringed instrument
fret boards, mannequins and wire rod.
Some of my material came from helping to clean
out a framing shop that had lost its lease.
The archival matte board I often use for paintings comes
from the disposable presentations made by the advertising
People throw away a lot of things that still have life
What makes you choose these non-traditional materials?
I don't choose them.
They choose me.
That's the important thing to remember.
My goal is letting the energy inside the raw materials combine with
my energy and the viewer's energy.
I'm not going to fight with something and try to make it something
Found materials are full of surprises leading to unusual juxtapositions.
They have greater potential than things you buy at the store.
You're just walking along and find something that can be made
That's what's so wonderful about discovering raw materials for art.
Remember, art is a journey and a process of discovery.
It isn't a product, and when art is made like one it won't
have any meaning or depth.
I want to find the essence hiding inside of something, or maybe
inside of me, and bring it to the surface.
Store-bought materials don't have that inner life or structure to
When I give life to an idea or something hiding inside of raw
material it's a lot like giving birth.
Or maybe just giving birth to myself.
You've used a lot of different mediums for artwork.
Furniture legs, nuts, sheet metal, etc.
But you did a lot of painting.
Why is that?
My paintings aren't just about paint on a surface.
They are about my connection to the world and are a
conversation with the observer who'll see the painting
and the observer inside me.
Painting is like creating an umbilical cord from my
mind to the world since it connects both of us.
I like to create things because I can get the ideas out
of my head.
Painting lets me do that a lot easier than I can with
You've done a lot with brown paper as a medium.
What was hiding in there?
Now there's a story.
I was wandering about New York, as I always do, and
I stumbled across a five-foot-high roll of industrial
brown paper in the trash.
People throw out lots of interesting raw materials.
So I saw this roll and it was perfect for painting on.
But it was so heavy I didn't know how I could get it home.
It probably weighed as much as I did.
So I dragged and rolled it home.
I'm still amazed I didn't hurt myself getting it home.
Then I cut sheets from it and cut those in half.
The final size was about 2.5' x 3', which is perfect
The paper has the perfect texture and structure for painting
with sumi ink.
You have to paint fast with sumi because it dries fast.
And you need a good texture for the ink.
So all those
with brown paper paintings I did
hiding inside that textured paper.
Let's talk about some other unusual raw material.
You've done a number of carvings and sculpture.
How did you get the raw material for those and what did you
find hiding in them?
The ebony carvings
life as stringed-instrument fret boards and some scrap materials donated
by a friend of mine who repaired musical instruments.
I looked at them and I saw figures.
I don't know why, I just did.
Like the tagua nut carvings
In Ecuador they call these seeds vegetable ivory because of they are
perfect for carving.
I got them from a button maker who gave me some whole seeds to
carve and play around with, to see what I could do with them.
I looked at them and I
saw heads and faces
That's just what I saw.
Someone else might see something totally different or maybe
even nothing at all.
How about the x-ray radiographs?
How did you get them and what did you see in them?
The x-ray series
were done on discarded x-ray film.
I found a pile of them one day when I was going somewhere.
The key is to find figure out how the body part in each
film is really a figure, or a part of a figure, or maybe
You can see them if you hold them up to the light and look.
Maybe a radiologist or a doctor never sees them, because
they see these things every day and never look any deeper
than the surface.
But there is a lot more in there than meets the eye.
I painted them hanging up on a window so I could see through
them when I painted them.
These are designed to be back lit, so that you get a merger
of the painting and x-ray.
Just like you did with the building floorplans and figures
in a medical book.
Many years ago I found a medical book from 1939 when I was
learning about the body and how it works, and even why it
sometimes doesn't work.
Years later I stumbled across the same book again and I was
ruminating on the images and all of a sudden figured out how
the drawings could be people
They just unfolded before me.
For example, a drawing of a mouth becomes a figure's mouth.
Now here's something interesting to do.
You should ask yourself, "why is she shouting?"
But more importantly, "what is she saying?"
Or the drawing of an eye becomes a staring eye, transfixing
us with its unblinking gaze.
Is it hostile, frightened, or angry? What does it
see in us that we don't see in ourselves?
What about the building floorplans?
I found a pile that some architects threw away.
There is a lot of writing on floorplans that is a kind of poetry.
I combined them
my own poetry.
Sometimes I painted on it like a canvas.
It's interesting painting on plastic sheets because of the
way the paint wets the plastic.
I see a lot of yellows, reds, and blues in the floorplans.
Do you have any colors you particularly like to use in
I see color as part of life.
In the fall and winter I often paint only in black because
everything is going dormant.
In the spring I paint flowers and use spring colors because it
is a time to celebrate and sing.
So the colors I use depends on the season and my mood.
Is there anything special about the pigments you use for
Some of them I find where I am when I'm creating a painting.
Some paintings use earth and sand from where I was.
Like the study I did
face paints from the indigenous Amazon natives in the Brazilian rainforest
when I was living there.
I took the face paints and combined them with oil of urucun
I harvested -- this is an oily seed -- and some linseed oil.
Other times I'll use whatever is handy.
When I was living near the Alhambra in Spain I used a
hard shoe polish that I melted down and cast into
Shoe-polish crayons? I bet the manufacturer never thought of that.
That's for sure.
I use lots of materials that way.
For example, I like to use carpet glue.
I noticed that.
Why do you do that?
I'm fascinated by carpet glue because it is just like
painting with bubble gum.
You can combine it multiple layers or thicknesses, using
pigments or other materials to form a three-dimensional work.
A lot of
my "Tortured Souls
uses carpet glue.
It's an interesting medium because it never completely hardens.
It probably wouldn't make very good glue if it hardened.
Yes, that's true.
But it also means that the piece is alive in some way,
since the glue is still alive.
So how do you know when a piece is finished if it's always
When it tells you it's done.
You can't listen to people about this.
A piece is done when it's done.
Sometimes I stop working on a piece when you might think
it is incomplete.
But it isn't, since there is room for the imagination to
grow in the gaps.
What is omitted from the painting is often just as critical
as what is put in.
Just as how whitespace is critical for design and typography.
You have to think about how the empty space interacts with the
rest of the piece.
Or how some unintended damage to a piece during the
creative process really enhances it.
In Granada, Spain I had an exhibition in a bar named something
like the Galleria.
One day I came back and found that someone had burned a piece
or two with a cigarette, the Spanish smoke a lot in bars, and
I was excited because the piece had started developing its own
The owner thought I would be angry and offended, but I wasn't.
I was delighted which surprised everyone.
So what do you think about when you've completed something?
The cycle of creation is important to me.
I like to complete cycles, since they are part of the journey
You have to look for moments beyond the usual and grab them
and just hang on for the ride.
People should dream instead of being afraid to live.
When you are excited about something you are full of energy,
and this energy invites and incites you to create, experience,
Afterwards you know you've lived because you left behind a
memento marking the world, and one that will always remind
you of that special moment when you created it.
. . .
Geo's materials, techniques, and subject matter are often
The results, however, are like all art: they speak to us
with hushed whispers or bold shouts, or, perhaps, even
not at all.
If they speak to you in some way, please let us know.
Many pieces are part of a large series. Details upon request.