Over the doorway leading to the painting studio in his Poughkeepsie home, Charles Geiger has affixed a sign that reads, “Fear No Art.” It is not only a come on to the art lovers who visit his Poughkeepsie home-cum-gallery to buy his work. It is a gentle reminder to himself.
The computer programmer
For years, the South Carolina-born Geiger, now 54, spent his time distancing himself from his true calling. As a computer science employee at Armstrong, the manufacturer of flooring, ceilings, and cabinets in Pennsylvania, Geiger stuck to the pragmatism — and safety — of the 9 to 5 world. “I got really interested in computer science. I found that I have this logical, rational side.” An odd vocation for a man who had shown so much promise in high school art that he had won a scholarship to college in a statewide competition and appeared on a local television show to demonstrate his artistic process.
Geiger defends his career choice, insisting that creating computer programs requires a measure of visual artistry. To bolster his argument, Geiger cites the legendary artist-scientist Leonardo da Vinci. “Scientists can do art and artists can do science,” he says.
Proving that it is never too late to embrace your passions, Geiger eventually returned to the arts. It happened 14 years ago, when his wife accepted a professorship at Vassar in German contemporary history. The couple pulled up stakes from Lancaster, PA and headed to the Hudson Valley. While he accepted a temporary position at IBM, Geiger was determined to recharge his creative batteries. In a happy coincidence, he and his wife found an arts and crafts house with an adjoining studio, built in the 1930s by the artist C.K. Chatterton and later used by Lewis Rubenstein, another painter. When IBM offered him a full-time position in 1996, Geiger declined in favor of following his muse. (In hindsight, it was a shrewd move; IBM would downsize within two years, firing several hundreds of employees.)
Following in the footsteps of his predecessors in his College Avenue residence, Geiger began painting. His work ethic is strong — he often juggles several works at a time — and his approach is methodical. Before embarking on a new painting, “I like to go out into nature to connect with things I see there.”
Into the woods
One of his favorite places is the Minnewaska State Park Preserve in Ulster County, where the woods, creeks and rock formations provide inspiration. He brings along a camera to snap the scene. Later, back in the studio, he sketches parts of the photo in pencil, taking care to emphasize both the intricate structure of the flora and its inherent fragility.
“Nature can provide allegories and metaphors if you are looking for them,” Geiger says. His tableaus, rendered in oils and acrylics, seem on the surface to be abstract renditions of nature at work. Greater significance lurks beneath the surface. Geiger captures the perennial struggle between nature and the man-made environment. His work sides with nature, not in a saccharine tree hugging way, but by visually dramatizing the ways that man invades and damages nature. The emergent message is that those who destroy the environment in turn hasten their own demise.
Message in the medium
Another source of inspiration for Geiger’s work is the news. Topics such as the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are fertile ground for new work. “I just attenuate to it,” Geiger says, “when I hear about suffering or tragedy, whether it’s environment or people.” At the same time, the artist shies away from preaching to people, preferring instead to let his work invite speculation. Geiger does not leave everything to the viewer. If people fail to recognize the urgency in the imagery, they perhaps may be stirred by the bold titles that he affixes to his work. Among them: Burning Water (a reference to the British Petroleum Gulf disaster), Let Freedom Ring (a wry reference to US military presence in foreign countries) and Frayed Ends of Tomorrow (another green warning). In Platoon, tree stumps resemble body parts, drawing a connection between the destruction of nature in war and the concomitant destruction of human life.
In an artist’s statement, Geiger explains, “I’m like a shaman in that sense. I make iconographic and metaphorical use of nature to express a hope and belief in the future. Tree stumps and cut branches have a long historical narrative reach through art. In painting and sculpture you’ll find them in almost every period of art. In short they are metaphors for loss and destruction so I use an abundance of leaf structures to counter and rejuvenate.”
Getting the message out
Making lofty statements is one matter; making a living through your art is another. Being selected for gallery exhibitions requires a pro-active stance. “I really struggle with that,” Geiger says. “My nature is not to go out there and promote myself like a lot of artists do. But as I’m getting older, I’m getting a little more aggressive in approaching people. I have a little more confidence.” Currently he is part of a show at the Hyde Collection house and museum in Glens Falls, NY, titled Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region, running through January 2011.
Geiger likes the fact that painting, while resolutely low-tech, has an impact that lasts. Not so for computer science, he points out. He has written many cutting-edge computer codes for programs, only to be usurped within a few years by a maverick offering a 2.0 version of his original work. “As much as I love doing computer work, you can be the expert at something and it is obsolete and old hat within five years. But when I make a painting, it continues to have its own life.”
Legacy of hope
His artwork pleas for ecological and humanistic sanity. While some may regard his works as warnings of inevitable doom, Geiger sees them as agents of hope. His paintings are meant to urge people to heal the earth and live in peace to ensure a better future for us all. “For me,” he says, “painting is a little bit of a ritual where I want to try and fix things.” To see more of Geiger’s work online, check out his website: http://www.CharlesGeiger.com.
Jay Blotcher, a freelance writer since 1981, has written for Spy, Backstage, The Boston Phoenix and The New York Times. He lives in Ulster County.