The ocean is a long way from the Black Hills, but that doesn’t stop Jerry Root from making it the focus of his art.
The self-taught artist spent his entire life in Rapid City but developed a love for life-at-sea after receiving a copy of National Geographic from a friend with a how-to on building a ship in a bottle.
“He got the magazine from a friend with a how-to-do on building them. He said he could have written it better by the time he had finished,” said Root’s wife, Laurie.
His introduction to art began in fifth grade during a fun day. He was blindfolded and asked to draw a cat on the chalkboard without lifting the chalk. The drawing was a hit among his classmates.
Root took his love of art and put it towards his career. He worked as a sign painter for many local businesses in the area. Towards the end of his career, he began designing casino signs that are featured in casinos all over the world. Root devoted himself full-time to his art after retirement.
The first ship Root built was the U.S.S. Constitution. After completing the first ship, he decided to build the rest of them based on actual ships. His favorite one is a replica of the Charles W. Morgan whaling ship, the only wooden whale ship still in existence. Root got the opportunity to tour that ship a few years ago when it was on the dry dock in Connecticut.
Root enjoys working with different forms of art. In addition to building ships in a bottle, he also creates wood and stone carvings and his favorite method is oil painting. He had to give up oil painting in 1989 because the smell bothered his wife so much. His love of the ocean has been a huge focal point of his art and he has many other pieces of nautical art in his collection.
“He’s always loved the ocean. The one watercolor he has in the art show is of Cape Kiwanda in Oregon. He’d never even seen the ocean. We also have a whaling village in our backyard,” Laurie Root said.
Root finds inspiration in other aspects too. One of his favorite pieces he created is a still life of an Army Colt pistol. Jerry got the idea for the piece after seeing one by artist William Michael Harnett. He came across it hanging in James Brennan’s downtown law office while painting a sign on his door. Jerry inquired about purchasing the piece, but it was told it was not for sale. Despite not being able to buy the piece, it had such an impact on him that he decided to model his paintings after Harnett’s work and create his own exact replica of the piece. Root came across a similar painting in Maine at a gun show.
“He wishes he would have bought it then. As awesome as it was, it too had flaws so he was tickled by that,” Laurie Root said.
As with any artist, knowing when a piece is finished is a challenge. When it comes to his ships in bottles, Laurie Root says her husband knows it’s finished once the ship is in the bottle successfully and everything is glued in place. His paintings take a little more work.
“You can always look at a painting and figure out something that you can change to make it better. There’s always something about his paintings that he feels he could change,” she said.
As for his wood and stone carvings, Root knows it’s finished when it’s good enough for him, Laurie Root said.
About five years ago, Root suffered a series of strokes that sent him to hospice care. The doctors told Root that his chances of survival were slim. He approached the doctors after three weeks and told them he was ready to start his recovery.
“He told them, ‘Apparently I’m not going to die. Can I start walking?’ He went to rehab for three months and did that five days a week. He was admitted in February and came home at end of June.” Laurie Root said.
Despite Root’s setback, he was determined to continue his art. He also had the chance to visit the ocean for the first time. One of the highlights for him was traveling to Maine for his 70th birthday. Root spent five days on the coast and was able to ride and pilot a schooner. Root’s love for the ocean had finally come full circle.
The reception for Root’s exhibit opens at 5 p.m. Friday, Nov. 17 at the Inez & Milton Shaver Gallery in the Dahl Arts Center, and will be on display through Jan. 20, 2018. Admission is free, however, donations are encouraged. For more information, visit thedahl.org or call 605-394-4101.