Gerald Donato, longtime VCU arts professor, dies at the age of 68

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Gerald Donato, an accomplished painter who was a key figure in the development of the VCU School of the Arts into a nationally recognized program, died on Sunday at the age of 68.

Donato, a professor emeritus of painting, retired from teaching at VCU in 2005 after a 38-year career. He was an influential figure on campus who helped push the school’s artists in new, daring directions, according to Richard Toscan, Ph.D., dean of the VCU School of the Arts.

“Jerry was one of a group of faculty who joined the school as young artists in the late 60s and early 70s and painted like they didn't live here,” Toscan said. “There was already a strong base here, but they blew open the options for painters in the same way and at the same time that others were doing the same in New York and Los Angeles.”

Howard Risatti, professor emeritus of art history at VCU, said that Donato managed to be both a serious artist and a serious teacher, devoted both to his students’ work and his own. He demonstrated to students the importance of going into the studio every day “even when you’ve got to do other things.”

“Serious teaching can be exhausting. It can make you feel used up as an artist,” said Risatti, Donato’s colleague for many years in the School of the Arts. “Sometimes professors have a hard time getting to their own work. Jerry was very committed to his students, but he also served as a model for them of what an artist should be.”

In 2007, the VCU School of the Arts Anderson Gallery hosted “Gerald Donato: Reinventing the Game,” an exhibition that gathered 40 years of Donato’s paintings, drawings and prints. A selection of images from the exhibition and essays on Donato’s work are available at on the Web site of Blackbird, an online journal of literature and the arts based at VCU.

In an accompanying essay to the exhibition, Richard Roth, former chairman of the Department of Painting and Printmaking at VCU, wrote that Donato’s “irreverent, in-your-face attitude, born of Southside (Chicago) streets, is an American story. He revels in the vulgar and the underappreciated, and he stands defiant of all forms of artifice and authority.” Donato’s work, Roth wrote, is a “distinctly eccentric, off-kilter and sometimes perverse take on painting.”

Donato’s whimsical works belie the devotion with which he approached painting. He began his artistic career as a printmaker and originally taught lithography when he arrived at VCU. However, Roth wrote, “he realized he had the sensibility and constitution of a painter.”

“Donato taught himself to paint, methodically and with great determination, over a period of many years,” Roth wrote. “He became not just a painter, but a hard-core, no-holds-barred painter’s painter.”

Donato was known for his witty, often subversive works that “mined both the high and the low,” according to Amy Moorefield, former curator of collections of the Anderson Gallery, who wrote the introduction to “Reinventing the Game.” In the early 1980s, Donato began to frequently use a figure named “Mr. Man” in his works. The character, who was an appropriation of the Disney character “Steamboat Willie,” would appear in Donato’s works as his alter ego, according to Moorefield.

Risatti said that Donato adapted many printmaking techniques to painting, creating a unique look and feel to his work. His paintings were post-modern, Risatti said, moving away from formal abstraction and occasionally employing multiple styles in a single piece, such as including a stick figure, a formally represented figure and a cartoon in one work. “He managed to bring them together and somehow make them make sense.”

Donato’s work at its core was about interpersonal relationships and how a society interacts with each other, according to Risatti. “There was this humanistic streak through everything he did.”

Donato’s work has been shown at a number of galleries and museums across the country, including in solo exhibitions at the Reynolds Gallery, the 1708 Gallery (where he was a founding member) and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. He received two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts during his career – one in painting and one in prints, books and/or drawings.

A celebration of Donato’s life is scheduled for Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Plant Zero Art Center, 0 E. 4th Street.