Cleburne Times-Review, Cleburne, TX

Features / Living

October 3, 2010

Larue Barnes: A brush with greatness

Cleburne native Alex Gardega’s art gallery is the world. His work is everywhere.

In New York City, virtually everyone touches Alex Gardega’s art. All the paintings that appear on telephone Yellow Pages covers are his. He is a sought-after painter, glass etcher and glass carver. He says his inspiration began in Cleburne, where he spent his childhood.

The artist’s website lists that he specializes in intricate deep-carved glass work, visible in The Chrysler Building as well as The Museum of Natural History and numerous galleries across the United States. He is also a freelance instructor at the prestigious Urban Glass League.

Gardega’s clients have included Drew Barrymore, Matt Dillon, Art Garfunkel, New York Jets NFL owner Woody Johnson, The Hayden Planetarium, DC Comics, Armani Exchange, Hugo Boss, Warner Brothers, Discovery Channel and top architects and designers. He was chosen by the Times Square 2000 Committee to create the official mural of the millennium, which was featured as a centerpiece of the New Year’s celebration.

Commercially, he has made a name for himself as the cutting-edge cover artist for the Ambassador Yellow Pages.

On our interview by e-mail, I found him to be gracious and willing to share his story.

Born December 18, 1968, in Huntington, Long Island, New York, Alex and his parents, Al “Skip” Gardega and Edwina Gardega, moved their family to Cleburne, Texas, when Alex was a preschooler.

He said, “My dad wanted to start a lumber mill. I think my mom really missed New York, and she wasn’t very happy in Texas. I have two sisters, Jennifer and Rachael, and a brother, Marcus.

“Living on a farm in Cleburne — our driveway is now Gardega Road by the present Santa Fe School — was the best thing that ever happened to me as a human and an artist. I used to play in the creek, collect fossils, went on journeys to the back of the farm all day, alone. I really got in touch with nature and that connection has never left me as an artist. I watched the storms, the thunderheads rolling in, tornadoes — all that still feeds me and my art to this day — it was a magical gift.”

Alex started drawing obsessively, he said, around age 3, always in pencil. He never owned coloring books, as his mom knew he didn’t like the idea of drawing inside someone else’s lines.

“That is still my motto today: draw your own lines.”

His memories of Irving Elementary School in Cleburne were good.

“My teachers knew I had talent. I started first grade there. I liked my teachers and all my subjects except math — I have no math brain. I wasn’t much of a leader, and was a pretty quiet kid. Sports were fun, but I was most interested in drawing and eventually painting which I began when I was 8.

“Leonard Schallawitz taught me how to paint and changed my life. At first he told my mom he didn’t teach kids, but he took me and we became very close.”

When Alex was 9, a report in the Cleburne Times-Review promoted an upcoming art show.

“He rarely copies, but does his caricatures freehand [in sculpting],” Schallawitz commented at the time. “If Alex continues to develop his talent, he can’t help but become one of the truly great artists. Since he works well on his own and already possesses rare talent, his future in the art world is assured.”

Walter Cox, of Cleburne, a childhood friend, remembers Alex molding an exact replica of a Model T Ford from a three-pound block of wax, using a soldering iron.

Cox, whose family lived on a farm near the Gardegas’ 100 acres, recalled,

“Alex and I started first grade together. He had a great imagination — and no fear whatsoever. I knew even as a child he had a special gift — he could sketch, draw, paint and mold a work of art from nothing. Even then, he was a restless soul, forever working on some new project.”

Gardega said, “I left Texas after fifth grade. It was so sad. Walter and I were like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I remember our truck pulling away as I cried and waved goodbye to my friends and farm. I still feel that moment deep inside my gut — childhood pain stays with you.”

The Gardega family returned to Long Island where Alex adjusted well to school until he reached high school.

“I hated my high school. It was a bunch of rich kids, a sports school, where art was not important. I wasted my time there — art is all I’ve ever cared about.”

He attended the School of Visual Arts and the Art Students League. To help with college expenses he taught himself to glass etch.

“In truth, I never liked etching; it is so hard and very bad for your health. But I became one of the better etchers and it has helped me make money so I can paint and draw — my true loves. I etched the elevator panels at the Chrysler Building in New York City and all the benefactor names at the Natural History Museum. Those will be there long after I am gone.”

He finds pleasure in his own fine art glass etchings.

“I make portraits of women — timeless women — and also a lot of strange nature-inspired surreal things. Right now I am etching five very large windows of St. Joseph for a mausoleum-cemetery in New York. This will take six months. Doing religious art makes me feel like I can experience a bit of the Renaissance — my favorite time in art.”

He had to drop out of college for financial reasons, he said. He had moved out of his parents’ home when he was 17 and never returned. The move was not an easy one.

He said, “I moved into New York City in my 20s without a single connection and no money. I worked as a bartender and lived in “Alphabet City” apartments when they were still really bad with gangs and drug addicts.

“The day after I moved into New York City I sold my first piece of art — a glass carving — for $10,000. That’s the piece I’m most proud of because everyone told me not to move into the city, including my parents, but my mom was an angel and always believed in me more than anyone in the world.”

 Gardega gives free art lessons on line. He also promotes $10 art.

“I’ve run this popular site, www.tendollarart.com, for years. If anyone wants to own one of my original drawings they can buy one for $10. I started this to protest modern art and the prices that art was selling for---20 million for a stuffed shark?

 He’s still a restless soul, meeting constant killer deadlines.

“I slept on park benches in the beginning, and the dues I paid were heavy. Those things were gifts from God. You will never learn anything about yourself if your career is handed to you. Adversity builds character and reveals the face behind the mask.”

Larue Barnes may be reached at laruebarnes@yahoo.com.

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