Looking at artist Jeff Gabel while he works might turn out to be more satisfying than looking at his art. In fact, he'll tell you himself: he tries hard, but not every creation is a masterpiece.
"Yes, I can do what I want," said the Brooklyn, New York artist. "But it makes me feel bad if I burn the guy [who hired me]. And it's my reputation."
He was brought in by the Ottumwa Area Arts Council and Anomaly Gallery, an artists' showplace next door to Hotel Ottumwa. He's working on a mural there, a wall installation. He doesn't really prefer working on wall installations. They're bigger than he's comfortable with. That is part of what is pushing him, pressuring him into creating something different.
For these jobs, he doesn't lay out a grid, he doesn't write out a plan, he doesn't make a sketch ahead of time. Because there's no advance work, spectators in the studio with him get a look at what the artist is thinking at that moment.
"Look, everything else, I control. [With smaller pieces] I control the canvas," he said Friday. "I have control of the paper. I think this is the only part of my life where there's chaos."
"You feel vulnerable," said Brad Covington, co-founder of Anomaly Gallery in Ottumwa.
"I do, I feel vulnerable," said Gabel. "I'm taking a risk."
Galleries and museums around the world give him part, or all, of a wall to do with as he sees fit. He'll read a few novels as he works, letting the story influence him. He'll grab an occasional quote from the book to use in his art. And he creates not just for himself, but with the intention that the art will be pleasing to spectators. He does care what people think. And he's only given a certain amount of time to get done and get out. All of that adds up to pressure.
"I could fail — and I have."
Once, at the end of 12 days —all the time he had — a piece for a museum, actually drawn and painted in that museum, just didn't look good: He could tell.
That pressure is part of the muse that drives him. So is the opportunity to get out of the office. Though originally from Nebraska, he works a white-collar job in New York.
"I've been a clerk in a law library for 10 years," he said.
So how is that?
"I'd rather detassel corn."
And no, he said, he doesn't particularly enjoy detasseling. It's just better than clerking. Of course, his true preference is to draw, paint and write.
He explained that he puts text on the blank wall. It can be a quote, or a paraphrase, or an improvisation loosely based on what he has read (preferably in German or Finnish). He does that first, then paints or draws over it.
"The text is there; you may not be able to read it, but it provides texture, a layer," Gabel said. "I don't know. That could all be wrong."
Come watch him work, he and Covington said.
"A big part of this is the experience, the journey, rather than the most important [aspect] being the [finished] installation," Gabel said.
Covington said he plans to keep the gallery open most days through Wednesday, so visitors can come watch Gabel work. Except Sunday. He wants to take his guest to see the American Gothic House in Eldon.
"Gotta' see the Gothic House," called out Gabel from where he was working.
-by Mark Newman