Under the Portal—Patzcuaro, watercolor, 18 1/2 x 12 1/2.
By Dottie Indyke
When Gerald J. Fritzler met his future wife, Irene, he was right out of art school and filled with hope about his future. “I don’t have much to offer you right now,” he told her. “Hang with me, and down the line as I build my career, you’ll have a lot more.” Today Fritzler, who is a signature member of the American Watercolor Society and the focus of a 25-year retrospective opening September 7 at the Western Colorado Center for the Arts in Grand Junction, is merely following the course he envisioned for himself when he was young.
Born and raised in northwest Chicago, Fritzler showed early artistic talent and continued to draw and sketch through his teen years. His father was a gifted artist who, in a practical move to support his family, opted instead for a 40-year career with the Chicago Transit Authority. Both of Fritzler’s parents encouraged him in his pursuit of art, and after he visited with a recruiter from Chicago’s American Academy of Art, he decided to attend school there. “I had no interest in other subjects,” he says. “I really wanted to put all my energy and effort into creating art and learning all about it.”
At the academy, watercolor teacher Irving Shapiro lit a fire in the budding artist with stimulating talks and demonstrations that made Fritzler itch to master the notoriously difficult medium. “Watercolor is very direct and responsive,” he says. “You want to have some degree of control, and you also want the medium to do something on its own. You try to put brush strokes of color down, push and pull the paint so it will read the right way. You try to give it some flair. It’s very challenging and exciting.”
The Street Musicians—Venice, Watercolor, 13 1/2 x 18.
While working as an apprentice in a Chicago art studio after graduation, Fritzler received a note from his former life-drawing instructor, Bill Parks, telling him about an opening for an illustrator in a Milwaukee studio. Fritzler grabbed his portfolio and hopped the train for Wisconsin. Without ado, he was hired.
It wasn’t long, however, before he felt restless. He had already begun exhibiting his paintings of western subject matter, thanks to early interest from Walter Gray and Dan Blanchard, owners of Grapevine Gallery in Oklahoma City, OK. The American Watercolor Society in New York City was also showing his work in an elite group show of about 100 artworks selected from more than 4,000 entries. Thus, Fritzler found himself resentful that the best hours of his day were spent doing illustration work for someone else. After four years, he exited his job with barely disguised elation and seized an opportunity to move West, settling in a rural town near Grand Junction, CO. From that day forward, he was a full-time painter.
Initially, the lion’s share of inspiration for his watercolor paintings came from the trips Fritzler and his wife took throughout the American West. Then in 1981, he was invited to participate in a group show of 160 artists in Beijing, China. Fritzler went to China for a three-week tour that changed his life. “It was my first major trip out of this country to what I’d consider a foreign land,” he says. “At the time, China was very closed. But I was able to take photographs and paint on location, and I learned a lot about cultural differences. It was an eye-opening experience.”
September at Mesa Lake, watercolor, 6 1/2 x 9.
Fritzler was fascinated by the villages, street scenes, and people in China. Newly inspired, he began to create paintings with figures in them and with enhanced, vivid color. He spent the subsequent year doing nothing but painting images of China, and to his amazement, all the pieces sold. “It was a wonderful feeling,” he says. “I painted my thoughts and feelings, and people responded.”
This success reminded Fritzler of something he’d been told by accomplished watercolorist Donald Teague. Teague had once said he enjoyed his work so much because he’d been able to travel the world five times over and paint anything he wanted. Having had the opportunity to travel to a foreign land, Fritzler decided he’d like to live his life the same way.
And indeed, since his trip to China he’s had a bad case of wanderlust. Nearly every year, Fritzler packs up his art supplies and heads off with colleagues or family to foreign places. His daily routine in Venice, Italy, where he’s been three times, is to make one painting in the morning, two in the afternoon, and after a bountiful meal and some wine one more painting in the evening. He has painted the British Isles, explored the singular ambiences of the French regions of Provence, Brittany, and Strasbourg, and depicted the bucolic farm villages of Poland and the Czech Republic.
“Watercolors are either very experimental or very traditional,” the artist says. “My approach is more of a painting response. Every brush stroke is for a reason. You don’t necessarily need to put all the defining elements in a painting.”
Fritzler tries to translate painterly techniques used by master oil painters into a medium that many of the most gifted artists have found near-impossible to tame. Working for years en plein air, he has refined his methods in order to express his voice through bold use of color, brush stroke, and emotion. His paintings represent the look and feel of his subjects without sacrificing spontaneity.
“My life as a watercolor painter has been kind of a journey,” Fritzler says with quiet pride and a bit of astonishment, crediting his wife, two daughters, and mother-in-law for bolstering his belief in family and tradition. “I’m still enjoying the trip, and I want to continue doing it this way, not being stuck in any category but just wanting to be the best watercolor painter I can be. I’d like to leave a fine legacy of watercolors behind—I’m shooting for 3,500 pieces in private collections around the world.”
Photos courtesy the artist and Grapevine Gallery, Oklahoma City, OK; Claggett/Rey Gallery, Vail, CO; Total Arts Gallery, Taos, NM; and Fritzler Fine Art, Mesa, CO.
Featured in September 2001