Lorenzo Gaz stood at the top of his 10-foot ladder and realized he was surrounded by 10 other artists with almost nothing in common with him. Among them were a high school art teacher. Another was a former administrator at the High Museum of Art. Another was a renowned street artist who had done work for The Smithsonian Institute and Major League Baseball, among others. Nearly all held art degrees.
But there was Gaz, in his 70s, at the Lee/Murphy Tunnel on the Westside Trail of the Atlanta Beltline. The Forsyth County resident coated a 15-feet-tall slab of concrete with white paint to begin his piece that was selected out of more than 200 entries from across the country for this year’s Art on the Atlanta Beltline Walls mural festival.
As the other pieces came together, Gaz was struck by their complexity, as might be expected from trained artists. Gaz’s piece stood in stark contrast for its simplicity. Titled El Amante Feliz – “The Happy Lover,” in Spanish – it is an abstract heart outlined in red acrylic paint and filled in green. Gaz added thin running legs that meet and cross in a circle, a small smile, and oval eyes that connect with other sections of the red outline to form the word ‘love.’
“Mine is simple, but there’s a message there – the happiness and trying to make people feel better,” Gaz said.
Gaz makes for an unlikely artist. He spent much of his life in the cerebral worlds of chemical research, start-ups and academia. Gaz grew up in Ohio, went to college in North Carolina, earned a graduate degree in Connecticut and then went to work for the Dow Chemical Company, in Midland, Mich., as a research scientist. He then moved to Boston to head up Dow’s long-range basic research laboratory. He eventually became vice president of research for some of the largest chemical companies in the world – Rohm and Haas in Philadelphia, BASF in Michigan and the Celanese Corporation in New Jersey.
While in New Jersey, Gaz started a computer company that he sold. Then it was on to Virginia Beach, Va., where he started a mergers and acquisitions firm. After about six years, he felt pulled back to his roots in academia and took a position at South Dakota State University. Three years later, in 1997, he was hired by Kennesaw State University. He formally retired in 2014.
“When I retired, I threw away my watch,” Gaz said. “I said I’m just gonna take life easy. I’m gonna change my lifestyle. I’ve tried to be happy and not so serious and have fun. I can be a kid now.”
Gaz took inspiration from his son, David, a world-renowned artist. “I thought, ‘Gee, since he’s been so successful maybe I have it in my genes,” Gaz said. In his winter home of Puerto Vallarta, a resort town on Mexico’s Pacific coast, Gaz began to take classes at a local art gallery. He learned rudimentary skills, like how to blend colors and basic composition.
Gaz embraced his neophyte status. Maybe it was an advantage. From the beginning, he created original works inspired by scenes and sculptures on the Malecon, the resort’s oceanfront boardwalk, and the mountains that surround it, but his interpretations were more abstract and minimalistic, and he experimented with unexpected color contrasts, all for the purpose of capturing an emotion. Gaz began to submit his pieces for art auctions at the local library in Puerto Vallarta, and he noticed people gravitated toward them, which gave him some validation.
About a year ago, he began to play around with the concept that became El Amante Feliz. Gaz had visited Barcelona and seen its thriving street art scene, so he began to offer to paint the piece around Puerto Vallarta’s south district, a dense area filled with cafes and shops. A jewelry store owner gave him permission to cover up a graffiti-covered cortina. Gaz painted it in the colors of the Mexican flag. He painted one on the stucco wall of a Corona store.
Gaz continued to refine the piece. He added a smile. He added legs. More recently he has started to add arms.
“People in Mexico are happy, excited people,” Gaz said. “Static things, I don’t think people relate to those as well as something dynamic and moving and action-oriented.”
As he vacationed in Puerto Vallarta, Gaz discovered the call for entries to this year’s Art on the Atlanta Beltline mural festival a week before the deadline. He crafted a 15-page submission and mailed it to a selection committee.
And he was selected.
“I was just flattered,” Gaz said. “I was delighted. It is a milestone in my professional and personal career – it really is – to get accepted to something like that and have my art out there.”
Gaz began work on the piece on July 28. He started by priming the concrete slab. A few days later he returned to sketch the piece in chalk. The red outline came next, then the green, a color he chose to fit with the Beltline’s environmental significance. On Aug. 7, Gaz completed the mural. He’s since returned to see it, and he’s noticed people stop on their walk to look at the running, smiling heart with the message of love.
“Mine is the simplest one,” Gaz said, “but people relate to it.”
Even in his retirement, Gaz has more ambitions. He’d like to paint the El Amante Feliz in Barcelona, maybe Venice, perhaps Berlin. A six-story building with oceanfront condominiums in going up in Puerto Vallarta; Gaz has eyed the flat, windowless side that faces away from the water. He found a stencil art competition in Australia. The top prize is $10,000.
Gaz said he doesn’t care about the money. When he was leading research departments at billion-dollar chemical companies and building new businesses, Gaz said he was consumed with work. He felt guilty if he wasn’t being productive.
“I didn’t have time to even know who I was,” Gaz said. “It was all-consuming.”
Art has changed that for Gaz. Now, he sometimes goes three weeks without painting. Then inspiration will hit, and he’ll produce four or five pieces in a few days. There is no regimen, no plan. But the art is always there if Gaz needs it.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve really appreciated the importance of art in our lives,” Gaz said. “I think art allows us to see things that make us stop and think and see and think a lot deeper about the things that are important to us in life.”