Artist and activist G. Ray Kerciu – always willing to fight the good fight – to receive Lifetime Achievement award at Art Star event

By THERESA KEEGAN

Starting his career, artist G. Ray Kerciu specialized in abstract landscape painting. So, it’s hardly a surprise that when the landscape outside his teaching studio at the University of Mississippi erupted into chaos in 1962, Kerciu painted.

But gone were the colorful swirling scenes of his MFA program at Cranbrook. Instead, he painted what he saw, and heard, from his front-row seat watching one of the most vicious integration fights in the country play out.

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Photos by Theresa Keegan

Laguna Beach artist G. Ray Kerciu is the recipient of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award by the Laguna Beach Art Association. He, and other selected artists and groups, will be honored at the Art Star Awards on April 26. His home is filled with his artwork, including sculpture, glass, oil and prints on aluminum. The glass on the fireplace was a gift from a student.

His midwestern upbringing in Detroit – even his years in the Korean war – hadn’t prepared Kerciu, then aged 29, for the hate, venom and rioting he witnessed as James Meredith, a black man, integrated the Ole Miss campus. There was an escort by federal marshals. There was an angry mob of more than 2,000 white people with bricks and guns. As the fighting persisted, 5,000 army troops were brought onto campus. Hundreds were wounded in the melees. Two bystanders were killed. More than 200 people were arrested as more than 200 marshals and soldiers were wounded.

And Kerciu, on campus as a visiting instructor in printmaking and painting, captured the chaotic, hateful essence of this historical moment in his art.

“It was so horrific to watch the riots take place,” he recalled. “All of this unfolded in front of me.”

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G. Ray Kerciu and his wife Mihae Park, along with Hopper, (who is named not after the artist, but by the trait of always hopping about) are seen in their Laguna Beach home

He took the words he heard and the sights he saw and captured the mood in paintings featuring graphic language and images. Then he posted them as his end-of-year visiting professor art show.

“It brought down the house,” the artist said of the paintings.

Within days, the president of the university insisted he remove pieces from the show. Then Kerciu was arrested, charged with desecrating the Confederate flag – which he’d used as a base for some work – and charged with obscenity, for a thinly veiled rendition of the f-word.

“They were their (anti-segregationists) own words and I put them right back in their face,” said Kerciu. “I just had to do something. I had to make a statement.”

His arrest was picked up by the national media who were on campus covering the integration story and overnight he was catapulted into fame. The television networks featured him. His story appeared in Time Magazine. The New Yorker wrote about him. Everyone was talking about the young activist artist who’d been arrested.

“It was not my intent to be a civil rights person – I was just a mild-mannered young man,” said Kerciu. “But this exploded in front of me…. It was the good fight, and I’ve always stood up for the good fight.” Ultimately, the charges were dismissed and at the end of the school year he left campus in the middle of the night, still fearing for his safety.

But that commitment to justice, once ignited, would continue to direct much of Kerciu’s life, even as he enters his ninth decade, and it is a primary reason he will be the recipient of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the Laguna Beach Art Alliance’s Art Star Awards program in April. Multiple groups nominated him for the honor.

“As a celebrated painter and sculptor, his remarkable journey reflects a lifetime of unwavering commitment to social justice, shaped by significant historical events,” said the nomination from the Festival of Arts.

Upon leaving Mississippi, Kerciu drove to New York, where his artwork was in a Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) exhibition at the Martha Jackson Gallery. He suddenly found himself rubbing elbows with his artistic heroes, who were congratulating him on his work. There were midnight dinners in penthouses. It was a heady time for a young artist.

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After moving to California, G. Ray Kerciu developed his USA series, continuing his political activism. Some of the pieces now hang in his Laguna Beach studio. Other work is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian, the Hammer Museum and various institutions throughout the country. A 2013 retrospective at CSU’s Fullerton Begovich Gallery spanned six decades of his work, from 1957-2012.

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But it was also time for him to make a career decision. Kerciu answered California’s siren song in 1963 and took a teaching job at South Orange College. When he arrived to find portable structures in the midst of a grove of orange trees, and a community that had given birth to the John Birch Society, he wasn’t sure what the future would hold.

But he stuck with it and ultimately built up the world-class art department and started the printmaking program at the college – which became Cal State Fullerton. His personal work evolved with the academic setting. From his 1964 USA series of lithographs, he later delved into new media including glass, ceramics and sculpture. Through the years, he pushed boundaries and encouraged students to do the same.

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In the late 1960s, G. Ray Kerciu traveled to the French Riviera which reminded him of Laguna Beach. When he returned to Southern California, he bought a small cottage with an expansive view in Laguna Beach. It’s been his home ever since.

“I was a very good teacher,” said Kerciu, who retired from teaching in 2002. “It wasn’t just a job.” In 1967, after a sabbatical to France, he decided to move to Laguna Beach which reminded him of the French Riviera. He bought a home overlooking the Pacific, and the blues of the sky and ocean influenced his work while the artistic community inspired him.

“Southern California is so spread out, and to find a community of so many artists was great. It was the ‘60s and we were all hippies… and it was so fun. Then,” he said, his voice becoming very droll, “I became a responsible citizen.”

But the fighter within remained.

In the spring of 1996, when the Laguna Beach Art Museum was sold to a Newport collective, with the concept of creating a county-wide museum, the fire in Kerciu’s belly re-ignited.

“They absolutely raped our museum,” he said of the merger. “I immediately called all my artist friends, and we built a little rag-tag army to fight these guys. They took our art, our building and our endowment.”

The Save Laguna Art Museum, with Kerciu at the helm, was persistent. There were months of protests and meetings and posters telling Laguna to wake up. There was even a SLAM float in the Patriots Day Parade until finally, the pressure on the organizers of the county plan worked.

“Once they blinked, I knew we had something,” said Kerciu. The Laguna Museum received back its building, half its artwork and half its endowment. Kerciu was named president of the new entity. He accepted the title reluctantly.

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The artist G. Ray Kerciu often finds beauty in the mundane. In his 80s, he started creating a series of tall, fragile sculptural towers using balsa wood and coffee stirrers.

“I don’t want to be president of anything,” he laughed, “It’s not my style.”

But the passion that fought for the museum stayed alive and for years he ensured it was on steady footing, grooming a new generation of art lovers and museum supporters.

“It’s in the museums where culture and values can be seen,” Kerciu said. “No one goes to Europe to look at corporate offices. They go for the museums, for the art, to be inspired and learn.” But he knows well the challenges of cultural institutions.

“It’s tough to keep museums going – the symphony, the opera – they need everybody’s help,” he said. “You have to fund these darn things to keep the doors open.”

It’s a good fight and his nomination for the Lifetime Achievement Award acknowledges this: “As he continues to create and advocate for change, G. Ray Kerciu’s legacy serves as a testament to the enduring power of art in shaping our world. He deserves recognition for his lifetime of artistic achievement and unwavering commitment to social justice.”

For more information about the Art Star Awards, click here. The Art Star Awards will be held at the grounds of the Festival of Arts on April 26. The public is invited to attend. To purchase tickets, click here. To see current work by G. Ray Kerciu, visit his Instagram page by clicking here.


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