Shasta College Art Instructor David Gentry
By Jim Dyar
Photo by Harvey Spector
David Gentry believes art can heal society. In his mind, the embrace of creative expression can provide the cure to most of the world’s ailments, including class tension, racism, poverty, war, tyrannical rule, and failing economical and environmental systems.
After all, Gentry has seen the healing power of art within his own classrooms at Shasta College, where he has taught ceramics, sculpture, glass art and world art and history since 2004.
“Young people today face a lot of stresses thrown at them,” Gentry says. “So when they’re working with materials like clay and glass, and they’re able to accomplish something, it’s very satisfying and empowering. Art can be about therapy, incredibly physiological and a wonderful tool to understanding oneself. It’s pretty inspiring to see that healing aspect play out.”
Instead of following society’s “systematic failures,” Gentry often encourages his students to “follow what they love.”
“If you do that, everything else will sort itself out,” he says. “Plus, your perspective is not going to be so dark.”
In 2010, Gentry joined longtime Shasta College art instructor John Harper and area artist Colleen Barry in the Turtle Bay Exploration Park exhibit, “Formed by Fire.” Many of Gentry’s sculptures revealed his social, environmental and political concerns. A cast bronze and steel piece entitled “Tree” symbolized what a tree might look like in a museum of the future where there were no more. Another work, “Bottle Tree,” made from blown glass, welded steel and paint, was inspired partly by the facade of forests along highways with clear cuts behind them.
“As a sculptor, David does a variety of things, but I certainly respond to the ones that relate to environmental concerns,” says Harper. “They really get you thinking about what’s happening to our environment.”
In addition to Turtle Bay, Gentry has had solo exhibitions at Pro Arts in Oakland (2007), and Harper College in Palatine IL (2004) and been featured in group exhibitions at Jacksonville (Fla.) Museum of Modern Art, the Bellevue (Wash.) Art Museum Bellevue, Crocker Art Museum (Sacramento) and the San Diego Museum of Art.
Beyond the healing power to individuals, the arts can be a vehicle to unite communities and even countries, Gentry believes. He points to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) set up by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression, which employed great numbers of artists and artisans to build and design major architectural infrastructure projects, including theaters, murals and community spaces that are still in existence today.
At the helm of the ceramics and glass programs at Shasta, Gentry has joined a rich legacy of instruction at the college. The glass program was started in 1969 by Clif Sowder, who taught for 36 years and saw many of his students go on to make careers out of the craft. Glass artist and ceramicist Michael Blevin, who has studied and exhibited work at the University of Washington and University of Colorado, continues to teach at the college.
The art department at Shasta has “an intriguing history,” explains Gentry, referring to a time when there were eight full-time art faculty members. “At one point it was possibly the strongest (community college) art program in Northern California, if not all of California. It was a rarity to have a glass shop on the West Coast in the ‘60s. It was even more unique to have it on a community college campus.”
Harper, who has curated shows at Shasta College, Turtle Bay and the Redding Museum of Art and History, credits Gentry with preserving the glass and ceramics programs at Shasta College through an economic period where those programs could have been eliminated.
“He fought that battle to keep them going and I think that’s an achievement on his part,” Harper says. “(Those programs) are important to the credibility of the department and the college as a whole.”
Raised in the metro Chicago area, Gentry’s own art education started at William Rainey Harper College in Palatine, Ill. He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in sculpture from the University of Illinois, and a Masters of Fine Arts in glass and sculpture from the California College of Art in Oakland. In the Bay Area, he worked with internationally renowned ceramicist Peter Voulkos. From 1999 to 2001, Gentry also worked as a professional sculptor with an artists’ consortium called the Northwest Mystics at a fine art foundry in the Olympic Rainforest on the Quimper Peninsula along the coast of Washington state.
He and his wife Guenn Johnsen-Gentry, a visual artist, costume designer and cook, have two children.
In education and society in general, Gentry hopes to see a resurgence in the artistic craft movement.
“My concern is that people, especially young people, are losing the ability to do things with their hands,” Gentry says. “It’s so easy just to go on the Internet. It affects attention spans and focus and dexterity. We’re sort of losing touch with our humanity. One thing for people to focus on is the craft side of whatever they’re interested in.”