Jerry Gretzinger on his 50-year mapping project

Jerry's map. Picture: Contributed
Jerry's map. Picture: Contributed
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Jerry Gretzinger has been working on his astonishing map for 50 years. Now it’s taking on a life of its own, finds Andrew Eaton-Lewis

WHEN does a hobby become a work of art? It probably depends on your definition of art. Jerry Gretzinger is 71. Fifty years ago, while studying architecture at the University of Michigan, he started doodling a map – streets, buildings, a river. When the doodle reached the edge of the paper, he decided to keep going, and never stopped. Over five decades, the map steadily got bigger and bigger, becoming a vast, intricate imaginary world, with cities, airports, railway lines, lakes, mountains, rolling countryside and farms.

Jerry Gretzinger. Picture: Contributed

Jerry Gretzinger. Picture: Contributed

For most of this time, Gretzinger never thought of himself as an artist. Having given up on architecture (“I didn’t have the patience”) he joined the Peace Corps, spent two years in Tunisia, returned home, went back to north Africa to catalogue Roman mosaics, moved to New York, then spent ten years making and selling bags, then another 25 running a clothing company with his second wife.

Still, he continued to spend about 20 minutes a day, off and on, working on his map until, about ten years ago, “a friend who is a fine artist saw it and said, ‘You have to put this out in the world and get this shown’. That allowed me to take myself a bit more seriously.”

Ten years and half-a-dozen exhibitions later, Jerry’s Map is on show outside the US for the first time, after Paul Robertson, curator at Summerhall in Edinburgh, came across it on the internet. “It’s very tempting to put Jerry into the category of outsider art,” says Robertson, “but he’s not. He’s quite a sophisticated man, he’s had this wonderfully interesting and varied life, he’s had some architectural training. Or you might want to describe him as a hobbyist but it’s much more serious. I think he’s obsessed with this map. It has a life for him, a vibrancy.”

“The mainstream institutions aren’t very interested in this,” says Gretzinger. “I don’t have the credentials they’re looking for – I’ve never shown work in a commercial gallery, I don’t have a MFA degree, I haven’t taught. But institutions like Summerhall are willing to go out on a limb.”

Jerry's map. Picture: Contributed

Jerry's map. Picture: Contributed

If the map were simply a map, its painstaking detail and craftsmanship alone would arguably qualify it as a work of art. But, at some point, it became something more. “Its nature has evolved through the years,” says Gretzinger when we meet at Summerhall. “In the mid 1980s I started doing some collage that was abstract, that didn’t represent topographic forms any more, and that was a little breakthrough.” In place of streets and houses, Gretzinger began to add ticket stubs, concert programmes and boarding passes (“I thought, oh my kids don’t want to deal with this stuff when I’m gone, so I’ll incorporate that”), turning parts of it into a kind of visual autobiography.

Then the map began telling another kind of story. “Another friend of mine wanted to write fiction based on the map,” Gretzinger say. “People want to know what the story is behind this and I don’t have a full, rich one so I welcome other people trying to do it for me. He said he would write fiction but the recipe for good fiction was conflict and resolution – where was the conflict?”

In response, Gretzinger created the Void – a creeping white space that consumes any part of the map it comes into contact with. Where the Void goes is determined by a set of playing cards that Gretzinger consults each morning – a practical answer to the daily question of which part of the map he should work on next.

Reading about Gretzinger ahead of our meeting, I find myself becoming fascinated by the Void – and the decision of a man who has spent half a century building a vast map to introduce such a destructive element to it. Does the Void represent the spectre of death? The answer turns out to be more complicated. Firstly, the parts of the map destroyed by the Void aren’t really gone. Gretzinger makes copies of everything, cataloguing each section meticulously as he goes. Secondly, the Void is just part of a bigger process.

“I see the whole cycle now, the Void being the next dimension,” says Gretzinger. “There’s a third level which has started to manifest itself, the red dimension, and a fourth dimension that hasn’t come to pass that I’m calling Black Ness – a little Scottish origin there. We haven’t seen that yet. And I imagine another level emerging from that where there will be little oases of yellow green, just little buds… taking it almost full circle back to this dimension. But this is all dictated by the cards, so I don’t know if it’s going to happen in my lifetime.”

In print, this may sound eccentric. In person, Gretzinger comes across like the most down to earth person, full of twinkly charm. “Every single person who’s met him finds him so warm, sharing and happy to talk,” says Robertson. “But that bonhomie hides the fact that he’s quite a deep thinker. He knows exactly what he’s doing.”

If the map is a work of art, then, what does it mean? “It’s very metaphorical,” says Robertson. “Typhoons, tsunamis, terrible things happening in the Philippines recently. The Void is there.”

For Gretzinger, though, the map is no longer his creation but something with a life of its own – what it all means is not up to him. “The overriding concept is of this being a work that with my help manifests itself and continually changes,” he says, “but it’s not by my conscious decision, it’s by an arbitrary set of rules. That’s what keeps me going, that’s what keeps me intrigued.”

Twitter: @aeatonlewis

Jerry’s Map is at Summerhall, Edinburgh, until 24 January, as part of a winter art programme that includes work by Fiona Banner, Richard Long, Simon Patterson and more.