Tyrone Geter recently had hip replacement surgery and was getting around with a stick, good for, he noted, keeping away dogs and writers. He was sitting in the den in an easy chair before the fireplace which, this August morning, was not in use, since at 10 a.m. the temperature was already above 90. His sister Liz had come from Ohio to give him a hand since the July operation and he had one of her hearty breakfasts perched on his lap, a glass of carrot juice on the table beside him. And his stick.
After eating and talking a bit, Geter gets ready for the trip upstairs to the two huge rooms that constitute his studio.
“You better not stand behind me in case I come back down,” he says. “This is only the second time I’ve been up here since July 15.”
His daughter Hafizah recently cleaned out the downstairs and brightened up the house with gold and blue and purple paint. She didn’t quite get upstairs and things are piled up. As usual Geter has a batch of works in progress, lots of finished older works in racks, various pieces of machinery (printers, a gadget that spiral binds books), but to hang a piece of art on the wall he has to pound in the tacks with a tape measure because the hammer has disappeared.
The dominant image in the room is a drawing of Barack Obama. Like much of Geter’s art this drawing is a fairly traditional realistic drawing that’s not very traditional at all. The drawing is in mostly white and black on black paper. It’s not on one piece of paper, but a bunch of torn sheets of paper. And the president is starting to disappear.
“I thought I was done with it,” Geter says. When he thought it was finished Obama looked strong and confident.
“Things had started to get complicated and there was like this fog rolling in.”
Now the president looks a little lost, his head in a murky gloom.
“We’ll have to wait and see what happens,” says Geter, an art professor and gallery director at Benedict College in Columbia.
Like most of his artworks this one has a mind of its own. Geter considers each work a journey and he doesn’t have a map for the trip; the art making shows him the way.
“I never start something knowing where it’s going,” Geter says. “I let it lead me.”
If the individual works are segments of a trip his overall output and various approaches have also come about organically and often by lucky turns.
Recently he’s been concentrating on black on black drawings because someone asked him how to work with charcoal on black paper – and there are a lot of shades of black charcoal and black paper and he uses them all – and he got hooked.
The torn paper works began when he was doing a drawing and tore it. He liked the drawing so rather than tossing it he pieced it back together, adding more torn paper. It was a long learning process.
“I’d get one right and the next one wouldn’t be,” Geter says.
These torn paper pieces aren’t collages in strict sense; they’re more like relief sculptures made of paper.
Another time, frustrated with a drawing of a head he was doing, he took a walk that led him past a local nightclub where a cleaning crew was tossing out trash – including hundreds of bottle caps. He grabbed a couple pocketfuls, took them back to the studio and attached them to the drawing.
Starting to build up the images led him more toward sculpture. The big jump came when he bought a little frame that had a little shelf jutting out. He had a drawing of a baobab tree that fit into the frame perfectly. In Africa the solitary, elephant-like tree has spiritual significance. Although it can survive on little water in harsh climates, it is easily toppled by storms. That got him thinking about water and who controls water, which is always an issue in many parts of the world.
He took another walk, this one around a lake near his home in Elgin and found a rusty old water faucet handle. It fit perfectly on a hole in the shelf.
“I dropped it in and it was finished,” Geter says.
The pieces grew larger, incorporating drawings in elaborate framing devices, found objects, from rocks and sticks and bottles to small pieces of furniture. They become true sculptures and at times installation art pieces.
“If you trace where I come from every next thing I do is completely logical,” Geter says.
(Some of these works are on display in a solo exhibition at the Sumter Gallery of Art through Oct. 29. He also has a show scheduled for Gallery 80808 in Columbia for October.)
Along with making his art and teaching, Geter also had a parallel career illustrating children’s books, among them “Sunday Week,” “White Socks Only” and “The Little Tree Growing in the Shade.”
“I never painted like an illustrator – I did the book the same way I would have painted anything,” he says. “They let me do whatever I wanted.”
Nearly all the books he did were put out by major publishers and sold well. But the books were taking him away from his art and he was only asked to do works with an African-American subject matter.
“I was just drawing and painting the same little girl over and over again,” Geter says. “I wanted to branch out.”
During the past few years, Geter has also done several large murals. The first was for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. Tom Feelings, a Columbia artist who taught at USC, started the mural, but became too ill to finish it and asked Geter to complete the work.
Geter was also commissioned by the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center to do a mural celebrating the dance craze “The Big Apple” that was created at a Columbia nightclub in the 1930s. He recently did another large piece, “Look Beneath the Surface” for the Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
A native of Alabama, Geter’s family moved to Ohio when he was 15. He studied art at Ohio University and taught at the University of Akron. In 1979 he and his wife Hauwa moved to Nigeria, her home country.
“We’d been married for seven years before we got a chance,” he says. “We packed up the house and went.”
They stayed for eight years which surprised Hauwa.
“She didn’t think I could handle it,” says Geter, who taught at Ahmadu Bello University while they lived there.
They returned to the U.S. in 1987 because their children, daughers Hafizah and Jamila, were getting to be school age and it became almost impossible to get hard currency in Nigeria. The family moved to Columbia in 1999.
His first few years in Columbia went well. He took an active part in the arts community and provided the Benedict College art gallery with a much higher profile. Then came 2003. Feelings, who had befriended Geter when he came to Columbia, died. His wife Hauwa died suddenly of a stroke in 2003. A few weeks after her death, Geter had emergency open heart surgery.
As he slowly worked his way back from all these things, his hips began troubling him. He had the first replaced about two years ago, but the other has nagged him incessantly since.
“This last year or so I’ve really slacked off,” he says. “That’s not like me. “But this leg was causing so much pain.”
He had been considering retiring next year. Now that he has two good hips, he probably won’t.
“I feel better than I have in a long time,” he says. “I’m looking forward to getting back into the classroom. I like teaching foundation – drawing, painting. I think that’s where I’m supposed to be. And I’ll stay until I think it’s time to go.”