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Shelter Island Profile: Artist Gavin Zeigler

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | Artist Gavin Zeigler outside his studio on North Ferry Road.

Artist Gavin Zeigler outside his studio on North Ferry Road.

Born and raised in Franklin, Tennessee, far from islands and oceans, Gavin Zeigler’s first experience of Shelter Island was in the mid-80s riding a motorcycle through the Island on his way to somewhere else.

At the time, he was an art student and bartender. Later when he was a prospering artist and married man based in Manhattan, he bought a house in Sag Harbor. Looking for a quiet place to work, he remembered Shelter Island. He found a building on Route 114 in the Center that had seen better days and came with its share of Island history. It was built in 1917 as a Socony gas station and later became Johnny Rock’s Auto Body.

Gavin said, “Johnny Rock was apparently quite a character. I heard the Shelter Island Police told him that he was not to return to Shelter Island as they put him on the North Ferry one night. Several days later he wanted to visit someone on Shelter so he dressed as a woman and took the North Ferry back across. He was apprehended.”

The garage was in a rough state and needed everything repaired or replaced. Gavin set out to restore, rather than gut the place, out of respect for its history. Its former life as a garage made it perfect for his studio, since his artistic process, like auto repair, involves spray painting and use of high-pressure tools. “I had not intended to live here,” he said.

Divorce changed his plans, and he found himself living in his studio.

Gavin does mixed media paintings — a type of collage that uses objects such as stock certificates, Indian head pennies and keys. “I love the fact that the stock certificate paper is like money and I like the random marks and signatures. Each one is unique … I like the history. “

To create many of his pieces, he uses a bag press — a device that uses atmospheric pressure to flatten the surface of the piece and integrates the various components with the acrylic paint, epoxy and other media he uses. The resulting works appear to be paintings, but on closer inspection they reveal texture. “There is an act of discovery involved,” he said. “I like taking something that people are used to seeing and presenting it to them in a way they haven’t thought of.”

Gavin was born to be an artist. As a child, he worked with Magic Markers when he was too young for paint. An indifferent student, he was fascinated with undersea exploration and the Apollo moon landing, which inspired his early drawings of fanciful fish and vehicles that existed only in his imagination.

His parents met Bunn Gray, a well-known and respected artist who happened to live in Franklin. Gray agreed to take Gavin on as a student, teaching him technique and how to manipulate a variety of materials. Within a year, Gavin had been offered a scholarship to Savannah College of Art and Design.

In 1984 a childhood friend from Franklin who was living in New York City encouraged Gavin to move, too. “I scoffed, but ended up trading him a painting for a month on his couch.”

He found work in the city as a bartender, while soaking up the art at galleries and museums. Several artists became his friends and mentors during this period, including painter William Scharf and artist, teacher and critic Richard Kalina, who became a strong influence on his work.

“I was headed in one direction, and he kind of picked me up and pointed me in another direction,” Gavin said. “It was with his guidance that my work became more cohesive and mature.”

In 1995, Gavin won first prize in a juried exhibition at the Chuck Levitan Gallery in New York City, entitling him to a solo show. It was this solo show that really launched his career.

The landscape and the seasons on the East End influence Gavin’s work. When crocuses pushed up through a spring snow in 2003, it inspired his piece, “April Snow” a work of acrylic paint, pennies, mixed media and wood. “I’m very into color,” he said. “I don’t have a message of doom and gloom or making a political statement.”

One of Gavin’s recent works, “The Mysterious Ways of a New Sensation,” is being shown with his friend and mentor William Scharf’s work entitled, “Flesh Jail” in the exhibit, “Under the Influence,” an exploration of nine contemporary artists and artists who have inspired them. The show, at the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum, opened June 20 and runs through July 8. He also has work in a group show at the Gerald Peters Gallery in New York City, opening July 22, called “Hamptons Artist Then and Now.”

Nowadays, Gavin lives in Sag Harbor with long-time girlfriend, Jodi, her 12-year-old son, Chase and his constant canine companions, Lola (17), Olive Oyl (14) and Samson (7). Gavin and the dogs commute every day to Shelter Island to work.

“I like the quiet. I try to be here by eight and I work ‘til six,” he said. “How many people get to take a boat twice a day? It’s like traveling to another time. As the crow files it’s only about 7 miles, but I might as well be in another country.”

Gavin loves the fact that on Shelter Island, no matter how long he lives here, his studio will always be Johnny Rock’s Auto Body. Referring to another tale of Johnny Rock’s legendary antics, Gavin said, “I figure I’ll have to lie down to work out in front of the building with my legs stretched out onto 114 before people will call it Gavin’s place.”

Gavin Zeigler’s website, with examples of his work including “April Snow,” can be found at gavinzeigler.com.