Gandalf Gavan meant the world to me. He was my brother, my partner, and my inspiration. A bright star that filled our lives with magic, meaning, music, laughter, and love. He was a force. If you were ever lucky enough to meet him, you will never forget him.
Gandalf was a great human being who believed in the power of ideas—and of art, because in his view of the world, art and life were inseparable. Passionate about building a beautiful world around him, he was dedicated to his friends, his work, and most importantly, Nicola Lopez—the center of his world.
I first met Gandalf at Bard College in 1996, after hearing much about him. I was a second semester freshman and he had just returned from studying realism at the Repin Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Russia. He was tall, muscular, had long blond hair, wore a gold hoop earing, and was commonly referred to as “Fabio on the Hudson.” One day, while working on a set of large, semi-realist paintings that I had decided to make, I was taken by surprise when I felt someone tap me on the back. As soon as I took my headphones off, Gandalf explained to me that the way I was seeing form was “all wrong.” He proceeded to bring out some of his own drawings of figureheads that he had made in Russia, to demonstrate the “correct way” to draw. I hated him.
It was not until sophomore year—when Ray Oglesby invited us out for some drinks—that I really talked to the guy. Still, talking to him was intimidating for me. I would say a couple words about art, and he would retort with some highly defined philosophical jargon, including quotes and using words that I had never heard before. Meanwhile, with almost gymnastic precision, he would wave and twist his arms to the rhythm of his words.
Slowly, over the course of that semester he started to grow on me (although we did not become close friends until years later). I remember missing his loud whistling, stomping, and random monkey screams on days that he was not in the art department. He made it feel active, and certainly created a spark that ignited many conversations, good and bad.
The summer of my junior year, Gandalf and Nicola decided to travel down to Cuzco, Peru (where I am from) to live and work for a time. One would think that our relationship would have flourished in this time, but it didn’t. We clashed. He wore leather pants and a very large lion-face doorknocker as a belt buckle. I remember thinking, “Jesus, I can’t walk around the streets of Cuzco with a man that has a fucking door knocker in front of his zipper.” He made sure he was present wherever he went.
It was in the fall of 2000—while I was living in High Falls, NY—that Nicola and Gandalf came up for a weekend to escape the city. We drank wine, danced salsa (for those of you who never had the privilege of seeing Nicola and Gandalf dance together, well, it was magic), and stayed up late drawing together for the first time. I fell in love with them. Their generosity and curiosity was felt, and the sense of play in their relationship—encouraging and challenging each other—inspired me. It was then that they managed to convince me to join them in the insane—but amazing—project of renovating a huge industrial space in an old Brooklyn steel production factory, where we would come to have our homes and studios. That was Gandalf for you. He saw things more as opportunities than challenges.
Needless to say, we severely underestimated how taxing the project would be. Without any money, but with the drive to create our own world within the world that is New York, we worked day and night—odd jobs here and there, and building all night. I didn’t know anything about building out a space like that, and am sure that without Gandalf’s energy, persistence, and generosity in the process, I would have abandoned all efforts and moved to a tiny apartment somewhere. He taught me and the other people he had recruited to be a part of the project to build, put in gas lines, put in heaters, install the electric wiring. He helped each of us with our own spaces. He simultaneously had a full-time job as a photographer for Patrick McMullan and was working on his art career. A true Waldorf child, Gandalf was well versed in all life skills and passionate about any project he undertook.
As a peer in art, I always trusted his eye and sincerity. He never hesitated to call me on my bullshit. Our days and nights together were spent creating and conversing. We talked about artists we admired, about the directions we wanted to take in our lives and careers, about the meaning of form and material, about utopia, and the many projects and collaborations in mind. He was generous with his ideas and inspired friends to collaborate with him. We built shows together in Berlin with Tra Bouscaren, in Bolivia with Rodrigo Rada, and we made videos and projects with Jessica Segall, Kellam Clark, and many others in New York.
In New York he collaborated with a number of artists. Among the outstanding was his longstanding collaboration with Ronnie Bass and their performance/music project, DAS, as well as his Teaching a Chicken How to Fly I – IV series, which was undeniably powerful. From the series, Teaching a Chicken How to Fly III, held at Larissa Goldston Gallery in 2010 (in collaboration with Nicola Lopez, Ronnie Bass, and the clothing designer Layla Abramowitz), was the most impressive in its ability to be both a work that stood on its own, and a catalyst for the creation of situations where different dynamics could arise. (See the Rail’s interview with Gandalf in May, 2010.) The first of those projects was made in Bolivia while he and I shared a residency in Santa Cruz called Kiosko. We had a chicken living in our house. That chicken shat on my drawings. Gandalf said it was very Beuysian, and I should appreciate it. I might frame them now.
A month ago Gandalf came to visit me, my wife, and our nine-month-old daughter in our home in Ollantaytambo, Peru. As he often did, he showed up wearing a strange, eccentric outfit: Chinese wrap-around pants, a stained, see-through white linen shirt, old red high-tops without laces and no socks, and blue tinted aviator glasses. He brought with him a small handbag containing a book, a toothbrush, a notepad, and a bag of agave seeds. Nothing else. We planted the seeds for our children and talked of parenthood. He drew and wrote more than I had in the last year. I got mad at him for using up all of my fancy watercolor paper that I had brought from New York, and for leaving ink stains on the walls and floor. Now I wish I could offer him more paper. All the paper he wanted. I will miss his mocking bird whistle, his Russian songs late at night, his lack of conventional social etiquette, his bizarre style, his boundless love, and his energy. I cannot fathom a world without him. Meanwhile, I just found this small note he wrote me a year ago. I guess we had differences in opinion from the time we first met:
Just woke up from a beautiful dream where you and I were painting/collaborating together. It reminded me of the first time I met you at Bard when you painted the large Peru portrait.
happy Valentines Day my dear friend
ContributorIshmael Randall Weeks