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Twelve Trades, Thirteen Disasters:
Ger Peters' long road to lowbrow

By Traci Brink Cumbay

The fine folks at Kijk, the Dutch science magazine for boys, would likely be proud to know that their articles had a lasting influence on Ger Peters. But that influence is not what the fine folks at Kijk may have had in mind. Ger isn't a biologist. He's not an anthropologist. He's an artist who chalks up his interest in all things lowbrow to the startling stories he read in the magazine when he was a young man.
"The magazine always had some horrifying story - you know, some detailed analysis of a passenger plane crash or all the gory ins and outs of the crucifixion of Christ or something," Ger said. "At one time it had a story on this headhunter tribe from Ecuador, the Jivaro, which had a procedure for turning the heads of their dead enemies into shrunken heads.
"Man, that story flipped my lid," he said. "In fact, I tore that article out of the magazine and stole it from the library. I still have it to this day."
Now grown-up and working as an artist in Heythuysen, a southern city in the province of Limburg, Netherlands, Ger still is, in large part, the curious kid who'd found a great source for all things weird and gruesome. Since his Kijk days, Ger has wide-reaching knowledge that places him squarely in the lowbrow movement.
"It's just your typical [mental] curio cabinet of horrifying stuff," he said, rattling off a list of influences that he now has swimming around in his head ... things like skulls, eyeballs, World War 1 and 2 German military gear, shrunken heads, mummies, circus sideshow freaks, tikis and totems, hot rods and motorcycles, and, of course, flames. "I just keep using this subject matter over and over in my work," he said, "and I guess that's exactly what makes it lowbrow.
It's the same old kid's fascination that I share with all other lowbrow artists out there and that I recognize in their work," he said. "Maybe it's just some little part of us that refuses to grow up."
Now an artist in both his personal and professional life, Ger didn't get from point A to point B without stopping by points X, Y, and Z to first see what was happening around there. Before he ever got paid to do illustrations, he hit business school, served as a desk clerk in the Dutch army, endured a stint at McDonald's, upholstered furniture, and worked at a textile-screenprinting shop and in an anodizing plant.
"We use a specific expression when a person has this type of career pattern," Ger said, "twelve trades and thirteen disasters."
Though Ger's natural inclination to pick up a pencil (or crayon) has been evident since, as a toddler, he drew animals on his parents' wallpaper, becoming an artist was something Ger seemed to fight.
"At school, I was always the boy with the high grades for art class," he said. "However, coming from a rural village and a working-class family, I was never encouraged to make a career out of my drawing talent. And as for myself at that point, I had also never thought about my drawing as anything more than a hobby."
Instead of art school, Ger went to business school, where he trained to become a marketing manager and a sales manager. "But of course," he said, "hardly any people possess both artistic inclination and a real commercial talent at the same time, and I'm no exception to that rule."
Although Ger finished his business school education, he knew that he was not cut out for a business path. It was time to put his talents to work instead. He started working at a correspondence school doing illustrations and layout for the school's advertising materials.
"They were preparing, believe it or not, a correspondence course on the art of juggling," he said. "I did all the illustrations for that course, you know, drawing a lot of hands holding playing cards and coins and all that." Though that job gave Ger the chance to focus on his art, it didn't last. Ger got his draft notice and had to join the army.
"As well as not being the executive type," he said, "I wasn't exactly the military type either. I'm just no good at taking orders. Like every real Dutchman, I'm always questioning authority."
Ger got lucky though by being made a desk clerk, an appointment that gave him ample time to sit at a desk and sketch. Soon his army superiors took notice and made use of Ger's creativity, asking him to paint a mural for a barroom and to paint some of the unit's vehicles.
After a year, Ger's army stint was up. It was time to start bouncing around again. Ger moved from job to job before becoming a technical illustrator, a position he has held for the past five years.
Ger says his art education has come primarily through books and magazines and is owed in large part to the Dutch government, which allows students and those in the army to use public transportation at no charge. "In Europe, you can pretty much reach any destination by some means of public transportation," he said, "and you can certainly reach Amsterdam, so that's exactly what I did. With every opportunity I had, I took a train to Amsterdam to look for underground books and imported magazines in the specialty bookstores and shops near the Red Light District."
The airbrush art in European and American custom car magazines particularly sparked his interest and spurred him to pick up a Badger airbrush and a small air compressor.
"I guess that by looking at all that hot American iron I started developing my predilection for those hot-rod aesthetics, which are a bit of an acquired taste for a Dutch guy," Ger said. "From the American hot rod magazines, it was just a small step toward getting to know about another typical American phenomenon: the car builder, innovator, and artist Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth. "As I learned more and more about that incredible, creative guy and his business, I guess I got a bit under the influence of Roth's alter ego Rat Fink," he said.
Ger picked up some of Roth's airbrushing and pinstriping how-to books and started putting his own versions of hot-rod-style monsters on T-shirts. A friend welded a screenprinting press for Ger, and Ger got to work printing T-shirts with his own designs, using his airbrush to color in the black line art on the shirts.
"Then one night I turned on the TV and dropped right into the middle of this program where a Dutch TV journalist was doing an interview with some artist from Los Angeles who also drove a hot rod," he said. "I only saw a glimpse of that show, and I didn't catch the name of the artist, but what I had seen about this guy and his art intrigued the hell out of me.
That snippet of television broadened Ger's focus, bringing comics, tattoo and biker magazines, skateboarding and surf magazines, and "experimental design magazines with hard-to-make-out typography" into the mix of his artistic influences.
"These magazines really introduced me to what was going on from a cultural perspective in the United States, most notably on the West Coast with its unique mix of psychedelic, hippie, surf, custom-car, hot-rod, tattoo, Chicano, and rock-n-roll subcultures," Ger said. "I guess I sucked all of that up like a vacuum cleaner. It just hit home with me."
And with a second thought: "Maybe I was born in the wrong place," he said.
Some time after Ger watched those monumental few minutes of television, he happened upon a new magazine, Art? Alternatives, in which he found a story on the artist he'd seen.
"This artist, of course, was the founding father of lowbrow art: the infamous Robert Williams," he said. Ger picked up a few of Williams' books and expanded his art horizons yet again.
"The oil paintings in Williams' books just blew me away," Ger said. "His paintings always have some element of shock or horror - you know, the things that gave you the creeps when you were a kid. I had to try my hand at oil painting. I bought a small canvas, some brushes, and a beginner's set of Windsor & Newton oil colors and started painting."
Over the years, the media Ger uses may have changed, but he says the style of his art has always remained the same: sharp, color-saturated, and chock-full of cartoon elements, macabre details, and religious themes.
"As I progress and mature in my painting, I'd really like to adopt a more loose and sketchy painting style," Ger said. "It is often the spontaneity and dynamic quality of a quick pencil-sketch that makes me want to turn it into a full-size color painting after all.
Unfortunately, that dynamic quality often gets lost in the transformation process and the finished painting can sometimes be a bit disappointing."
Although he says his perfectionism can get in the way, Ger finds plenty of reason to keep on putting brush to canvas.
"When I'm really into the painting I'm working on and I'm really on a roll, I actually enjoy the physical act of putting the brush to the canvas and making a thing of material beauty out of an idea that first existed only in my head," Ger said. "I guess I'm an alchemist in that way: Producing art by applying skill and talent to transform an idea into reality is really alchemy. This is what I am about."
To find out more about Ger Peters, head to his Web site: www.DutchCourageGraffix.com.
ITA May 2005
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