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Globe West Arts

Laid-off Groton artist puts skills to work for oil-spill victims

“Gulf Clean Up’’ by Paul Gaj, who says he was inspired by the resolve of those affected by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. “Gulf Clean Up’’ by Paul Gaj, who says he was inspired by the resolve of those affected by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
By Nancy Shohet West
Globe Correspondent / August 4, 2011

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A year ago, Paul Gaj found himself in what he refers to as a pit of discouragement.

A lifelong artist who early in his career made the leap from fine arts to the more marketable arena of commercial arts, he had been laid off from his position as creative director for a human resources technology company, and although he’d worked as a freelancer in the past and possessed skills in graphic design, exhibit design, architectural design, and book design, his most recent position had lasted long enough that he’d lost touch with most of his previous contacts and clients.

Then one evening he was in his Groton home watching news coverage of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year.

“I saw footage of a Vietnamese fisherman in the Gulf who could no longer fish due to the accident and was retrofitting his boat so he could skim oil. He was not even sure if he’d get paid for that, but he said he just felt he had to do something. At that moment, I said to myself, ‘Why . . . are you complaining, Paul? Here’s a guy who has industry, nature and the economy against him, and he’s still doing everything he can do.’

“That image inspired me to think about how I could do more to cope with my current circumstances and survive the situation I’d been given, maybe expose myself to a different kind of work and maybe even do something good and useful. And that’s how the ‘Eye on the Gulf Coast’ project was spawned.’’

Gaj decided he would travel to the Gulf of Mexico to photograph, draw and paint scenes of the devastation from the oil spill. But he needed funding. He turned to www.Kickstarter.com, a website that gives artists a channel through which to solicit donations for specific projects.

“I had plenty of experience drawing up budgets for projects like this,’’ he said. “And I still had no job prospects. So basically I was grasping at straws.’’

Although he wasn’t able to raise the amount he needed in time to qualify for Kickstarter backing, he was able to approach the individual donors who expressed interest and receive funding through them. By mid-October, Gaj had raised the amount he believed he would need for the three-week trip; before the month ended, he was on his way south.

“And oh, what a journey it turned out to be,’’ Gaj said of the 3,200-mile drive through Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. “What really interested me was the difference in perspective that a New Englander would have as opposed to someone living in the Gulf region.

“I wanted to look at it from my point of view and get some perspective and insight from their point of view. What I found as I traveled was that the people of that region are so hard-working, determined, and religious. Observing them, I came to understand how they were surviving: by picking themselves up every day, praying, relying on family and friends, and getting back to what they needed to do.

“They love the Gulf of Mexico, and I could see why. It is an absolutely gorgeous part of the country,’’ he said.

“I drove to Pensacola, Fla. and from there all along the Gulf, staying as close to the water as I could, stopping in as many towns as possible, until I reached the mouth of the Mississippi River. Then I chartered a sport boat and hired a gentleman to take me out into the Gulf so that I could get a better look at the effects of the spill.’’

Time was tight, Gaj said. He had allotted three weeks for the whole trip, and simply driving there and back consumed six days.

“I wanted to capture as much imagery as I could, but I did not want to take up entire days with painting,’’ he said. “So I did a lot of photography while I was there. I came home with 2,700 photos that I then used as references for my paintings.’’

Back in Groton, Gaj began painting in earnest, and the resulting body of work - which includes acrylics, water colors, pencil sketches, and digitally enhanced photos - is on exhibit at the Groton Public Library, 99 Main St.

Gaj compiled his work, along with explanatory text, into an 80-page self-published book titled “Eye on the Gulf Coast: The View from a New England Artist.’’ The book can be ordered from his website, www.pgajdesign.com.

Gaj will present his work to the public at a reception and artist’s talk Tuesday from 6:30 to 8 p.m. The exhibition can be viewed through Aug. 27 during regular library hours, Tuesdays through Saturdays.

For more information, call 978-448-1167 or go online to www.gpl.org.

LATIN JAZZ AT MARKET: As part of its weekly series of free hourlong concerts, the Waltham Farmers Market presents the Sugarfoot Latin Jazz Duo on Saturday at 11 a.m.

The duo is headed by Cornell Coley, a drummer, dancer, and educator based in Boston.

Coley has toured regionally and internationally in Bali, Brazil, Cuba, Ghana, Java, Jamaica, and Mexico, with a mission “to bridge the African and Latin cultures in the US and to expand this bridge from traditions to the contemporary and innovative.’’

The Waltham Farmers Market convenes in the Sovereign Bank parking lot, 1 Moody St., from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every Saturday through Nov. 5. For details, call 781-899-6230 or go to www.walthamfarmersmarket.org.

ALL FOR VANILLA FUDGE: It may be the last chance to see all four original members of Vanilla Fudge together. Their farewell tour makes a stop at the Center for Arts in Natick, 14 Summer St., at 8 p.m. Saturday.

The band will perform its 1960s classics, including “People Get Ready,’’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,’’ “She’s Not There,’’ “Shotgun,’’ and “Season of the Witch.’’

General admission tickets are $45, or $40 for TCAN members, with student and senior discounts. Call 508-647-0097 or visit www.natickarts.org.

HILLS STILL ALIVE: The Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston concludes its 43d summer season in Waltham with “The Sound of Music,’’ starring stage and screen idol Patrick Cassidy as Captain von Trapp and Broadway luminary Sarah Pfisterer as Maria.

“The Sound of Music’’ opens tomorrow at 7:30 p.m., followed by 2 p.m. shows Saturday and Sunday, and additional performances on Aug. 11 through 14.

Tickets are $35 to $57; or $25 for youths 5 to 18, and senior citizens get a $2 discount. Group and student rush discounts are also offered.

Tickets are available online at www.reaglemusictheatre.org, by calling 781-891-5600, or in person at the box office at the Robinson Theatre, 617 Lexington St. in Waltham.

AN ISLAND TALE: The Lexington Players’ YouthStage ensemble wraps up its summer session this weekend with performances of “Once on this Island,’’ a Caribbean-flavored musical by author Lynn Ahrens.

The shows are tomorrow at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 3 p.m. at the Hancock Church, 1912 Massachusetts Ave. in Lexington.

Tickets are $10 and are available at the door, at the Wales Copy Center, 1810 Massachusetts Ave., and at the Crafty Yankee, 1838 Massachusetts Ave.

Send ideas for the Arts column to westarts@globe.com.