In a career that spreads across two continents, Tyrone Geter has built an international reputation as a world-class artist, painter, sculptor, illustrator, and teacher. Recently retired associate professor of art at Benedict College in Columbia, Geter grew up in Anniston, Ala., during a time defined by strict segregation laws and social injustice. Anniston was a site of numerous acts of racial violence during the Civil Rights Era. The immediacy of these events and an inherited legacy of spiritual strength and fortitude against all the odds inform and shape Geter’s work.
He received his Master of Fine Arts from Ohio University in 1978 with an emphasis on painting and drawing. An exceptional draftsman, his portraits are sensitive, timeless, and masterfully executed. Their power, displayed through their expression, gesture and adornments, seem often suspended in an otherworldly environment. Equal to the history his figures embody, they also speak of a spiritual world overflowing with compassions and empathy. In this regard his work is uniquely distinctive.
In 1979, Geter relocated to Zaria, Nigeria. For seven years he lived, drew and painted among the Fulani and other local peoples of Northern Nigeria. During this period, he created numerous paintings that captured the richness and depth of the cultures of the region. He describes the experience as an experience that taught him “to understand the nature of life in a society where life and nature are sometimes both hard and cruel.” Further, he experienced “a lesson in the creative process that no art school would ever teach me.”
Those years in Nigeria proved to be a turning point in his development and the most important influence in his life and art. In 1987 he returned to the U.S. and a teaching position at the University of Akron, where he transformed his experience in Nigeria into the most powerful work of his career.
His work has been exhibited at the Columbia Museum of Art, Florence County Museum, and WaterFront Gallery (Charleston) in South Carolina, Center for Afro-American Artists (Boston), Butler Institute for American Art (Youngstown, Ohio), Hampton Institute College Museum (Hampton, Va.), and Museum of Fine Art (Boston) to name a few. His honors include placing first at Moja Arts Festival and in the Robert Duncanson Award from Taft Museum (Cincinnati), and he received an artist fellowship grant from Foundation for the Arts and Humanities (Boston) and a grant from Columbus (Ohio) Arts Council.
"For most of my life as an adult artist, that's what I've been trying to do," Geter said. "Find a way to speak a universal language that will talk to anybody that sees it, and this is the first time I feel like I've gotten close.”
For a long time, Geter said his main subjects were family, because his mother, sisters, wife and children represented such a powerful successful illustrator of children's books and now claims nearly a dozen to his credit.
For twenty years, he taught art to students at Benedict College in downtown Columbia. He and his family lived in the Waverly area near the campus until his wife’s death in 2004. She was his ballast - and also the organizer of his many projects- so he determined he could not stay in the home where they had been so happy and raised their family.
He moved to the little community of Elgin, a 30-minute commute from the college, where it is unlikely his neighbors know an artist resides in their midst. There he creates art in his cluttered second-floor studio and contemplates how to approach the big questions of life.
My life has been one big wall.
Geter has rarely listened to voices except those inside of his own head. So he has been shocked by the response to the two dozen pieces that hang on the walls of the Columbia Museum of Art.
People have come to him, some crying, saying how much the paintings move them emotionally.
Geter said that’s what he has been trying to do all along.
“I’m trying to make you get past the fact that this might be a black face,” Geter said. “That face is the same thing your mother went through or your father went through.”
"If I'm talking about any particular issue, you can darn well believe that whites, Hispanics, everybody got that same issue, so when you look at it, that’s where they go; they go to their own experience with that. They don’t see that black face anymore, they see themselves. It may not be a universal statement but it’s mine.”
The path for Geter has been filled with more roadblocks than most artists might go through. Although he’s been featured in other exhibitions including museums and galleries in Boston and New York, Columbia has been one of the most important.
“What I do, it's never on that cutting edge, what they’re demanding out there. I’m always at odds with the market, so that’s one continuous wall for me,” Geter said.
He remembers a director at the Aiken Art Museum who told him he was going to struggle his whole life, because Geter's work is difficult to pigeonhole. He said when galleries can't do that, it's hard to find a track record for selling what he does.
"I don't know how to get beyond it either and at this point in my career I really don’t care about that wall anymore,” Geter said. “My thing is that I can live with ‘me’. I think there was a time I really hated myself, but right now I’m OK with me.