Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, who struggled all her life with the aftereffects of physical trauma—childhood polio and a near-fatal bus accident that shattered her pelvis and broke her spinal column—once wrote, “I’ve done my paintings well. . . and they have a message of pain in them.”
Pain is not quite as in evidence in the works of noted Philadelphia painter and printmaker Gerard “Jerry” Di Falco, except in the quartet of assemblages on wood he calls, “Pain.” The painted and gilded animal skulls and bones—and a seed pod resembling a twisted spine—hang in the ninth floor Cherry Street apartment in Philadelphia that he shares with partner of 26 years, Ron Funk.
Di Falco, whose work is displayed in dozens of museums and private collections around the world, has been in almost constant pain for the past 35 years, the result of degenerative disk disease, including multiple herniations, scoliosis, and stenosis. He also has reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome (RSDS), sometimes called complex regional pain syndrome, a rare disorder in which the nervous system sends punishing nerve impulses to parts of the body, often the extremities, causing burning pain, touch and temperature sensitivity and muscle weakness.
(Several of his works will be on display in MossRehab’s annual All About Art event, starting on September 22 at MossRehab’s Elkins Park campus.)
While it has not diminished his talent or skill, pain as a constant companion has dictated the form his expression has taken.
“I’m always thinking of how these changes in my body have contributed to my art,” he says one morning recently, over coffee and Trader Joe’s oatmeal cranberry Dunkers, his cane by his side. A pre-med student who switched to art while at Drexel, Di Falco started his professional career as a sculptor, mainly in wood, and as the maker of large installations. (He once built a miniature golf course.) He graduated with a master’s degree in curatorial science, and worked as curator at Rutgers, Port of History Museum, and Nexus Gallery.
Then, one day when he was 29, he was carrying a massive piece upstairs at the Philadelphia College of Art (now Philadelphia University) where he worked and found he couldn’t walk.
He said goodbye to the massive sculptures. “I switched to painting—I was painting anyway,” he says. Much of his early work in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s followed the pop art trend that he embraced in his years painting and exhibiting both in New York and on the New York’s Lower East Side. “The whole New York art scene had exploded in large, cartoonistic types of painting. Philadelphia never caught on to that,” he recalls. He even showed alongside Andy Warhol and Yoko Ono.
Today, he does mainly assemblages, including an homage to religious icons called “Relics,” and small, intricate etchings.
Writers and artists often use their misfortunes to inform their art. Di Falco’s physical impairments forced him to change how he worked, but it was as much evolution as it was adaptation.
"If I push myself hard enough I can reach a state of consciousness where nothing exists except the moment I’m working in and what I’m doing. It would be like when a Buddhist monk reaches a point of high meditation. If I think to myself, oh my God, no pain, then the pain is there.”
His “Relics” assemblages on wood allow him to continue producing three-dimensional, though less physically imposing, art. They reflect his fascination with the gilded religious icons that he collects. One juxtaposes a 3-D figure of Jesus on the cross—only its outline visible under a swaddling of what appears to be cloth—with a replica of da Vinci’s iconic Vitruvian man. The extended arm poses of both figures echo one another, inviting comparison of different kinds of perfection. The piece also contains a hidden acknowledgment of the artist’s illness.
“The material that covers the crucifix figure is actually the material that they cast body parts with,” explains Di Falco. “I was diagnosed with cancer in 2007. Eventually, with two forms of cancer, follicular lymphoma of the leg and thymoma, a rare form of cancer that affects the thymus [a small gland in the chest]. The doctors gave me some of the material to use in my work.”
The cancer diagnosis also led him to add printmaking to his repertoire. He specializes in etching, which he does on zinc plates with a variety of tools. He also incorporates a process called chine-colle´, using a homemade compound of methyl cellulose and spring water and mulberry bark papers from Thailand which add color and texture to his small prints, which he often does as a series on a single piece of paper so the resulting image looks likes it’s being viewed thorough a window. “That’s what I’m known for,” he explains. He prints the pieces himself at the Fleischer Gallery shop where he works as a monitor—helping other professional artists with their work—two days a week
(You’ll see his five-paneled view of Milan, Italy, in September’s show.)
The work is complicated and laborious, but it also offers him a respite. “If I push myself hard enough I can reach a state of consciousness where nothing exists except the moment I’m working in and what I’m doing,” he says. “It would be like when a Buddhist monk reaches a point of high meditation. If I think to myself, oh my God, no pain, then the pain is there.”
Still, on a good day in his studio, Di Falco can produce as many as 15 zinc-plate etchings from the drawings he makes from photographs. “One of my friends will say to me, ‘How many prints did you do today? How did you do 15? I hate you!’” He laughs. “He calls me ‘the etching god.’”
MossRehab’s annual All About Art event continues through November 4 at MossRehab, 60 Township Line Road in Elkins Park, Montgomery County, Pa. The juried exposition and sale is open to professional artists with physical, cognitive, visual and hearing disabilities.