Jake Gaedtke paints landscapes that express primal connections with art and nature
By Norman Kolpas
This story was featured in the April 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art April 2014 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
Jake Gaedtke was lost. All around him loomed huge, brilliantly colored human figures. But he wasn’t scared. “I was just awestruck,” he recalls of his 7-year-old self, surrounded by Pre-Raphaelite and other 19th-century canvases in the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum. “And I remember thinking to myself, I want to do that!”
So enthralled had he become that he hadn’t even realized he’d lagged behind his second-grade classmates and their teacher, with whom he was there on a school field trip. Then he noticed he was alone. “I got a little frightened, and I thought I’d better catch up with them,” he says. He hurried along the gallery. “Finally, off in the distance, I could hear their voices. I don’t even know if they knew I’d been missing.”
The incident, so far in the past now for the 60-year-old Gaedtke, remains vivid not just for the moment of epiphany it offered but also for the grip art has always held on him. Let him paint in the natural world and Gaedtke gets lost, in the best possible sense of the word—completely absorbed in what he’s doing. What results are small field studies (a term he prefers to the usual “plein-air paintings”) or larger studio canvases that immerse viewers in their subjects, so deep are the connections Gaedtke achieves.
His fellow professionals and the art world at large have taken notice. In the next four months alone, Gaedtke will travel from his home in Folsom, CA, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, to participate in four invitational or juried art shows in Texas, Colorado, and Wyoming. That only adds to the many marks of distinction he’s already received in recent years, ranging from Best of Show at the Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters National Show in 2008 to a place in the 2012 and 2013 Colorado Governor’s Invitational Art Show to coveted requests in 2012 and again last September to participate in the Grand Canyon Celebration of Art. “The fact that they invited me for the Grand Canyon show, and the experience itself, was just overwhelming,” Gaedtke says.
So it may come as a surprise that Gaedtke has been a full-time professional artist for only seven years, after a career that ranged from the Air Force to restaurant and hotel management, from freelance advertising illustration and graphic design to managing an art-supply store and frame shop. “But no matter what I did,” he says, summing up that span of more than three decades, “I came back to painting.”
The urge to create art always beckoned. Growing up the son of a career military man, young Gaedtke relocated from California to Detroit, Chicago to Kansas City. “Moving from base to base and school to school,” he says, “art was kind of an icebreaker for me. I al- ways drew and was considered the class artist.”
Another childhood constant was regular summer stays at his grandparents’ home in Rice Lake, an idyllic rural town in northwestern Wisconsin. “They lived right on the lake, and we’d spend the whole summer fishing and swim- ming and hiking. I loved going off and getting myself lost in the woods,” says Gaedtke, echoing a total-immersion theme connecting his art and his preferred subject matter. “I was never scared. I just felt at home.”
Gaedtke felt far less at home when it came to settling on a career. Though he longed to paint fine art, he says, when he expressed that desire it was often met with discouragement. “You can’t make a living as a fine artist,” he heard. “You should consider being a commercial artist.” But commercial art didn’t particularly appeal to him. “I really just wanted to paint.” That desire was only strengthened by the two-year correspondence course his parents bought for him from the well-known Famous Artists School when he was 16 years old. “That gave me my foundation of drawing and painting,” he says. “That’s how I discovered I wanted to be an oil painter. I picked up those oils, and I could feel that they were my medium.”
After high school, Gaedtke began pursuing other interests that he could do to support part-time painting. Following a year of college, he joined the Air Force in 1973, hoping to become a fighter pilot. Instead, he was trained as an aircraft hydraulics mechanic, working on the planes he’d wanted to fly.
The time he spent stationed in Alaska stoked his love affair with the outdoors and eventually led him to settle in Colorado, not far from Rocky Mountain National Park. To support his desire to paint during his free time, Gaedtke began working as a waiter, and he soon rose through the ranks. “The next thing I knew,” he says, “I had this huge career in restaurant management, and my art just disappeared.”
The hiatus didn’t last long. “You feel this burning desire, and you can’t ignore it,” he says. So he quit the hospitality career and launched himself into illustration, design, and art direction, spending 15 years freelancing for top Denver advertising agencies, working on campaigns for clients like Teledyne Water Pik, Heinz, and Taco Bell. Though that phase of his career certainly drew on his aesthetic talents, Gaedtke eventually found it stifling. “I was maybe doing a couple of paintings a year, mostly figurative work,” he says. He felt the need for another, more creative outlet.
In the mid-1990s he took his first plein-air painting workshop from Colorado-based master landscape artist Jay Moore. “Although plein air was a struggle at first,” Gaedtke admits, “painting in nature felt like I was home. I had the epiphany that this is what I really wanted to do. This is what I was meant to do.”
He took two additional workshops from Moore. Eventually, he quit his freelance advertising work and found a job at a nearby art-supply and frame shop. “It gave me a chance to make a living while meeting other artists and getting a discount on my art supplies,” he says. He started teaching art classes there as well, rose to the position of manager, and then, over the next seven years, gradually phased himself out to working there just two days a week while he taught and painted more and more. By late 2006, when the store’s owner decided to close it down, Gaedtke was ready to work full time as a fine artist.
Key to his finally making that monumental move, he says, was a four-month, one-on-one mentorship program he did with Moore in 2003. “Every two weeks, we would meet at his studio in Parker, CO. He’d give me assignments. Two weeks later I’d come back, and he’d rip my work to pieces,” Gaedtke says with a chuckle. “He’d give me exercises to improve my painting, build my mental awareness, and develop in me the pace of a real working artist. That elevated my work and attitude beyond anything else I’d ever done.” The total-immersion experience transformed his level of effort and the results he attained. “My painting just skyrocketed from there,” he says.
A highly dedicated, professional work ethic continues to drive Gaedtke today, whether he’s roaming the mountains of California—where he moved recently to be near his wife, Janice, a budding watercolor artist, whom he married last September during the Grand Canyon plein-air event—or exploring the seascapes of the Pacific coast that he finds beckoning him ever more strongly. “First and foremost,” he says, “I’ve got to be out experiencing and painting the locations for myself. I’ll immerse myself in the place, get- ting to know it physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Sometimes the connection is immediate, and sometimes it takes a little while.”
Beyond making that primal connection, he says, there’s no one way in which a painting happens. “Every painting I do has its own way of developing because each has a different story to tell and a different way of telling it,” he says. A field study could become an end in itself.
Take, for example, A SIGHT TO BEHOLD, a field study of Lake Tahoe’s north shore done last September while he honeymooned there with Janice. “I was overwhelmed by the late-afternoon scene, with the early autumn foliage, the long stretch of grasses and rocks, and the glistening light on the water,” he says. “I did it in one painting session of a little over two and a half hours, and it was so spontaneous that I didn’t want to lose it.” He adds that with Janice along, “there were a lot of incredibly good emotions going on, too. She gives me so much support and encouragement, more than anyone I’ve ever met.”
Other field studies might join with thumbnail sketches and photographic reference shots that, back in his home studio, coalesce into a larger composition like RHYTHM IN BLUES [see page 58], a scene of the Carmel, CA, coastline he painted for the 2013 Colorado Governor’s event. “You never see seascapes for that show, so I thought I’d be a little gutsy,” he says. Gaedtke “morphed” two studies and several photographs to create a positively kinetic yet completely harmonious and enthralling scene of multiple headlands, rocks, and crashing waves. “It’s a pretty complicated composition with a lot going on, but I just had to try doing it,” he says.
A questing spirit of “try” now inspires Gaedtke as he fully inhabits the career and life that, since age 7, he’d always felt was his true destiny. “No matter what else I did, art always kept calling me. Art chooses you,” he says. “You don’t choose it.”
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