NEWARK, NJ - Jerry Gant, a Newark native whose art indelibly colored the landscape of his hometown, was celebrated for a life well lived, both as an artist and as a human being.
"Jerry Gant had swag-matism. Swag-matism is the ability to be so distinct, so bold, so present, that people are drawn to you," said the Rev. Kevin E. Taylor, pastor at Unity Fellowship Church, as he eulogized Gant on Monday in front of more than 500 people at a service inside Newark Symphony Hall. "If he saw you for a moment, he pulled you in."
Gant, who died earlier this month from liver cancer at age 56, was a renowned visual and performing artist who treated Newark as his canvas. His work was eclectic, made of wire, paper, wood, vinyl, denim, light and leaves. His work was prolific, seen at Newark Penn Station, on Clinton Avenue, on trashcans, and even snow mounds.
Known by many Newarkers as "Dr. J, the ghetto optometrist," Gant unleashed his artistic vision on the city long before art galleries graced the city's downtown.
"Before Newark had an arts scene, we spray-painted on the walls, because the walls were ignorant. My man Jerry Gant was spray-painting the walls," said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. "Artistically, Newark was a base but had no statue. Now you can look around and see what he did. If you don't know Jerry Gant, you don't know our city."
Gant even made up his own noun - Gantalism - to describe his essence and ethos. His admirers at his service testified to the fact that he never let race or socioeconomic background foil his Gantalism agenda.
"As our city grows and develops, it's nothing without the arts that helped us get to here. We have to remember that, and we will remember that," said Jeremy Johnson, the executive director of Newark Arts. "We stand on Jerry's shoulders."
Gant was known for never letting anyone out of his presence before he gave them a hug and took their picture. Emma Wilcox, co-founder of Newark's Gallery Aferro, was haunted by something Gant said when he was on the verge of leaving this world - "Don't let them forget me."
"Jerry, how could we forget you? We will always remember you," Wilcox said. "Jerry, you were loved."
That love was demonstrated at the end of the service when dozens of mourners swarmed Gant's coffin to tag it with graffiti, marking it with messages as Gant had marked the city.
Before people left with their memories of Gant, the Rev. Taylor left them with a mission. It was a version of the slogan Gant wrote on walls across Newark - "Detox the ghetto", meaning not just water and air, but also the mind.
"We didn't just walk with some man. We were present with a titan who dared to believe that we didn't have to go looking up at some big Mount Olympus for art. We are the art," Taylor said. "You can't forget about him because he left a legacy to make sure you have to talk about him. So that any one who says 'I can't get it done', all of a sudden you're on the Number 27 bus going right past Military Park and see one of his sculptures. Then you go 'God darn Jerry, I must do the work because I am the work.' You want to honor him? That's your assignment. Get over yourself and get to work. You ain't done nothing if you don't leave no work."
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