Jerry Gant's Artistic and Community Legacy In Newark

Nov 16, 2018

Jerry Gant at his 2013 WBGO gallery reception with musician Charles Lloyd, WBGO morning jazz host Gary Walker and WBGO gallery host Dorthaan Kirk
Credit WBGO archive

A memorial service is set for Monday morning at 9 o’clock at Newark Symphony Hall for renowned Newark visual artist, poet and educator Jerry Gant.

Gant’s friend and business partner Linda Street, who calls herself the chief chick at Pink Dragon Artist Syndicate in East Orange, says Gant lost his battle with liver cancer last Sunday.

"in the '80's he was very involved in graffiti culture and lifestyle, but was also doing textile art very early on, what people are now calling "wearable art".  He was sort of perfecting that arena very early in the '80's, then got involved in the spoken word poetry scene.  He's kind of a pioneer in that realm in the New Jersey and Tri-state area and then sort of evolved into the fine art arena."

Gant gave a Ted Talks-style of presentation at the Rutgers Business School in Newark in 2013 called Detox the Ghetto where he described who he had become.

Clip:  "Now my name is Dr. Jerry Gant, the ghetto optometrist, third-eye specialist.  Front teeth, gold teeth, all provocature kickin' in the doors of oppression and the first I learned was love."

Gant's metal sculptors and artwork attracted fans to his public installations
Credit Linda Street for WBGO

Jerry Gant’s artistic fingerprints are all over, but especially Newark, he not only worked on murals across every ward but was commissioned to create a number of public sculptures. Street’s favorite Gant projects include the installation in Nat Turner Park.

"As a result he has 13 metal sculptures that surround the park at each of the entrances and they sort of tell the history of the influence of African-Americans on music and he managed to intertwine elements that related to the namesake, Nat Turner's life.  And then I think the second one (her favorites)right behind that one is an installation that we have at Newark Penn Station, which is right outside the station and it is a five-piece scultural installation that helps to tell the story of Newark and its manufacturing history, its commuter history and through his art work interpreted in metal. That was commissioned by New Jersey Transit.

In 1981, a unique relationship began between sculptor, painter and muralist Kevin Sampson and then-  graffiti artist Jerry Gant.  Gant was taking Sampson’s air-brushing class at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art.

"I was still a police officer and Jerry was an aerosol artist spraying stuff in the streets and so we had like a, at first it was kind of a weird connect.  As a police officer, graffiti was sort of the enemy so Jerry and me were kind of wary of each other for a year or two.  But in time. our friendship developed because of my bluntness and his bluntness and we just clicked.  Jerry was rough, raw and real and loving and he was so many things, but most of all he was real.  He was the real deal.  He was the line in the sand when it comes to Newark."

Where did he draw his inspiration from?

Kevin Sampson is a sculptor, painter, and Muralist who developed an amazing friendship with Jerry Gant when Sampson was a police officer and Gant was spray painting the streets of Newark
Credit Doug Doyle for WBGO

Sampson: "The people, the community, definitely.  We talked about it often.  Jerry would got out in the streets just as I do, talk to people in the community, laugh, joke, tease and go back and create.  The community was Jerry's fuel.  When I first taught with Jerry, particulary when we went to senior citizen centers, I learned a lot.  I learned that it wasn't about, not so much about making art as about making connections. And if you watch Jerry with those senior citizens, he was part comic, he was part teacher, he was part preacher and he kept the seniors in stitches.  But what he also did, he was more focused on hearing what they had to say than what he had to say.  So I learned from him."

That humor and passion were just some of the seasons why Linda Street loved being around Jerry Gant.

"He just had this freedom about himself.  He knew that at his core he was an artist.  He had an insatiable appetite to learn and know things and could do things just by studying and then doing.  He was genius in that sense.  And I saw that, and I wanted that, you when you come out of a corporate environment you are, you know the comfortity and the constraint that you are sort of are imposed just by the nature of that environment.  Jerry was the anti-that.  

Gant loved all kinds of music but Street says it was extremely special that his artwork was displayed at the world's greatest jazz station, WBGO, thanks to WBGO's Dorthaan Kirk.

One of Jerry Gant's art pieces at his 2013 Gallery at WBGO
Credit WBGO archive

"You know he loved WBGO.  He had a very close relationship with Dorthann Kirk.  It represented a sense of pride for him.  He loved Newark and I think that he loved that these institutions around the city embraced him as well."

Long-time friend Kevin Sampson says he won't allow people to forget about the contributions Gant gave to Newark and beyond.

"Jerry Grant didn't get a lot of the acclaim that he should have.  Jerry was an icon that should be held up.  Jerry should have been given a space where could just mentor.  Just to sit and listen to the history that came out of Jerry's mouth was a learning experience for any student.  And the city will never be able to recover what Jerry Gant had.  So it's a missed opportunity."

Business partner Linda Street says there's also the personal side of Jerry Gant that many weren't aware of.

"He has two twin sons and a beautiful daughter and four grand children and he was just really proud of them.  I think they're only now starting to be aware of the magnitude of the influence that their dad had and the person he was."

Some of Jerry Gant's radios at WBGO
Credit Doug Doyle for WBGO

Jerry Gant was 56.  His artwork display of radios is still gracing the halls of WBGO. He will be missed.

Click below to hear the entire interview with Jerry Gant's business partner and friend Linda Street where she talks about how Jerry Gant was influenced by legendary artist Jean Michel Basquiat, as well as his love for WBGO.

Click below to hear the entire interview with sculptor, painter and muralist Kevin Sampson who was a long-time friend of Gant.

A public memorial service for Jerry Gant will be held at Newark Symphony Hall this Monday.
Credit Linda Street for WBGO

The WBGO family, including WBGO morning jazz host Gary Walker, send their love and sympathy to the Gant Family.  Walker says he's proud to have one of Jerry Gant's pieces proudly displayed in his home.

Click at the top of the article to hear the WBGO Journal feature on the legacy of Jerry Gant.