When Ted Gall is just not feeling it, or he’s stymied, or blocked, or in need of opening up the channels to the muse, he slides into his hot tub and lets the hot jets and the gurgly bubbles wash over him and—voila!—inspiration retrieved. He’s recharged, refueled, reinvigorated and back to the studio, where his Freudian-Jungian-Boschian busts and sculptures await.
Yes, even an imagination as fecund as Gall’s can get a little stuck now and then. Which is when he needs to get out of his head in order to get back into his other heads. And faces. And mental lands of Oz—and Ozymandias, Shangri-La, the Wild West, Atlantis, Middle Earth, Pellucidar, and other imaginary realms.
“I do take great hot tubs,” says Gall. It’s like a womb. I sit in my hot tub and it comes.”
His pieces have been coming to him for many many years now. Especially since officially retiring from the various day jobs he’d held since he was a teenager.
Born and raised in Chicago (in the inner city, the West Side ghetto, which he didn’t realize till he hit his teens), he drew constantly. And well. Well enough that his parents (his dad drove a truck and his mom was a housewife) sent him to the Art Institute of Chicago when he was 11.
Influenced as much by comic books (“That’s where I learned anatomy,” he says) as what he was exposed to at the Institute and other bastions of fine art, Gall is the first to acknowledge the many mentors and supporters he’s had along the way. “My education and outlook on art were formed by people who mentored me,” he says. “You’re young and you absorb things.”
After graduating from high school, for instance, his uncle, who’d returned from World War II to live with Gall and his sister and parents and who got a job as the head prop man at Wilding Picture Productions, got his nephew a job at Wilding as an animation apprentice. At the time one of the world’s largest producers of industrial films, Wilding also had plenty of talent in its studios. “One guy did Woody Woodpecker and Felix the Cat,” says Gall. He became an animator, and during his five years there got to meet John Carradine and go to lunch with Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz).
The Vietnam War, though, intervened. Gall joined the Reserves and by the time he’d returned to Chicago, his beloved animation job was gone. So he switched specialties, having found work as a graphic designer at RR Donnelley, the massive Fortune 500 printing company famous for putting out the Sears & Roebuck Catalog.
Gall learned plenty (Donnelley had a huge library, where he pored over studies for ergonomic chairs and books about the human figure) but missed the variety of animation. “I had all these other things I could play with there—like sound and movement,” recalls Gall. “So I took up sculpting at the Art Institute, and then, on a lark, I got a one-car garage and a welding tank and started doing art fairs.”
He’d also gotten married by then, and had begun teaching at a private school. When sculptor Abbott Pattison needed a sub one day, Gall stepped in. He seemed to have made quite an impression. Enough so that Pattison recommended Gall to Lewis Weinberg, the co-president of Fel-Pro, a gasket manufacturer based in Skokie (15 minutes from Chicago). Weinberg was more than just an arts enthusiast, or even an arts patron; during his time at Fel-Pro, he turned the company’s factory into a veritable museum. And gave Gall carte blanche to do what he wanted.
“I called it the Weinberg Medici,” says Gall, who worked at Fel-Pro for 20 years. Gall would go through the factory, find punchings and other castoffs, and make art from them. “I had the opportunity to get involved in lots of huge pieces. It was a real Renaissance thing.”
Gall made sculptures for Ford, for the president of Fel-Pro, and for many other companies. And for the people of Skokie—giving away pieces to the local park, which eventually grew into the Skokie North Shore Sculpture Park. “Their benevolence got them into places,” says Gall of Fel-Pro, which consistently placed in the top five best places to work. By age 55, though, and wanting to scale down (from the monumental works he’d been doing for Fel-Pro—many of which took a physical toll on Gall, who’s sustained two rotator cuffs, a torn biceps over the years), he decided to “retire” and focus entirely on his own works.
Which he’d essentially been doing for a number of years anyway. This year marked his 43rd year at the Chicago’s Old Town Art Fair. And it’s a route he chose consciously. Most artists opted for galleries. Gall chose both. Never snubbing his nose at the fairs. (Which is his way of keeping his eyes open.) Or the fairgoers. “I’ve gotten a nice notoriety from the fairs,” he says proudly.
Not that there’s anything wrong with galleries. Especially Hunter Kirkland. “Nancy is the best to deal with,” says Gall. “She loves my heads. Which I started doing about 25 years ago. And they’ve been able to support me.”
Probably as well-known for his heads as his monumental pieces (he has a 13-foot-tall, 18-foot-long three-figure piece in Birmingham, Alabama’s Barber Motorsports Museum and did a 15-foot-tall, 8,000-pound piece for Fel-Pro), Gall started the heads—in bronze, aluminum, stainless steel, and welded Corten steel—as hats back in the early 90s. They evolved into heads with masks, that then became elaborately constructed, articulated heads-within-heads, and scenes within the heads—often opening not just once but twice.
“I try to do psychological things that are off the wall,” says Gall, who gravitated early on to the work of Chicago sculptor Richard Hunt and who also studied at the American Academy of Art. “It’s a thing I learned from a Don Seiden sculpture. If the viewer doesn’t stop, you gotta get them to stop. So I don’t give them everything. I leave questions. I don’t give answers. And I try to be philosophical about it. Though my wife,” adds Gall with a laugh, “says my work is much deeper than I am.”
Dreamlike and tableaux-rich, they all tell stories. And they’re chockfull of anything imaginable—from creatures and characters from The Wizard of Oz to fish to cowboys to birds to animals real and imaginary, plus flowers (orchids from his own nursery), computer parts, carabiners, hooks, screws, nuts, bolts—everything is art. And Gall leaves out the titles when he can. So as to encourage the viewer to make up their own—titles, situations, narratives. The whole shebang.
Gall has gone from the Corten steel and welder’s torch of his younger days to a lost-wax casting process and patination. “It has opened up a lot of avenues,” says Gall, who has since taught at Clay People in Chicago, The Northshore Art League, and the Ojai Art Center. “I can use different materials, and a lot of my forms and shapes are very eclectic. And they became arrangements.”
He’s a sculptor who mixes acids as if they were watercolors, and whose patinas are as big a part of his pieces as their shape. “I’m a sculptor,” declares Gall, “who’s able to use color.”
He also loves to wrap his hands around things. Which is why people love his work so much, and relate to it. A lover of the tactile, he almost demands that people touch his work. “People have been so browbeaten into not touching art,” says Gall, galled by the distance that so much art puts between itself and the viewer. “But by not naming my works, and encouraging people to interact with it, open it up—literally—people become closer to the piece. They go deeper with it. And yes, you should be able to touch things—it opens peoples’ eyes. They become part of it more.”
And part of Gall’s uniquely phantasmagorical worlds.