EXPIRED: 11/04/09 – Gregg Edelmann, 42, didn’t need to develop a personality or start a career to inspire people. Decades ago, if you were born with a single ventricle congenital heart defect, the chances were that you might very well die in infancy without surgical intervention. Survivors of the surgery faced lifelong hurdles. From day one, Gregg had a big fight ahead of him and, without knowing it, he started inspiring people immediately.
Despite its physical limitations, his heart was practically limitless in it’s ability to laugh at life and love living it.
For Gregg, that meant living a life with art – studying it, creating it, admiring it. If you were an artist, a musician or a writer, he’d ask about your latest project. If you weren’t, he made you feel like you were. To Gregg, everyone was an artist; it just depended on your perspective.
His passion for art led Gregg from the High School stage to Syracuse University, and he returned with both a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Advertising Design – and the heart of Irene, the woman who would become his wife.
Many wondered if Gregg had room in his life for anyone, or anything, besides the music of guitarist Frank Zappa. One of his earliest dates with Irene was a viewing of the Frank Zappa movie, “200 Motels.” It was a test, really: if Irene could stand the film, she could stand Gregg. The credits rolled. Irene stayed. Zappa came with the territory.
Eventually they settled down and started a family that now includes sons Max and Kristopher, Mojo the family dog, and a well-documented tradition of going ga-ga over Halloween.
The intersection between art appreciation and Halloween was common at the Edelmann’s. For his first trick-or-treat they dressed Max, their firstborn, as his namesake, the lead character in Maurice Sendak’s illustrated children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are.” Another year found Gregg and Irene decked out as Thing One & Thing Two from Dr. Seuss’ “Cat In The Hat.” And Gregg was once oddly perfect as Bob Ross, the artist with the afro who painted those cheesy landscapes on PBS.
But costume creation wasn’t Gregg’s only artistic ambition. He was a brilliant artist who explored collage, pen & ink, paints, metals, wood, sound and a variety of other mixed media. An entire gallery could be dedicated to his elaborate study of skulls & skeletons alone.
Studying in the UK, Gregg visited Tintagel Castle, linked to the legend of King Arthur. It was here that he came across what is commonly called the Rock Valley Labyrinth, an ancient stone carving symbolizing the path of life. A tool of pilgrimage, the labyrinth allowed settlers to ascend towards enlightenment thru meditation even if they were physically unable to travel to a holy site.
Gregg found great strength in this symbol, speaking of it often and allowing it to inform his artwork. In a bronze miniature replica, he created a piece for the viewer to run a finger through its grooves, tracing its path. This allowed others the opportunity to have a similar connection to his without having to make the pilgrimage he did. And so the labyrinth’s purpose continues.
Another of Gregg’s inspirations was Andy Goldsworthy, a British artist who collaborates with nature to make transient creations, working with whatever comes to hand. Gregg took that approach further, collaborating with friends by motivating them to create, often at the spur of the moment. Some of Gregg’s most cherished pieces were spontaneous “group” efforts.
His art also included live performance. This was best witnessed at Tortilla Flats, a NYC restaurant known for hosting an oddball annual event in honor of actor Ernest Borgnine. To Gregg, the situation was ripe for artistic expression and his obscure but deadpan homage of CSI Miami’s David Caruso imitating Borgnine was the night’s ultimate crowd pleaser.
When he wasn’t making art, Gregg was making mayhem at the poker table — not that he was any good. He’d play a few hands, drink a few Manhattan’s, and in the end, break out his checkbook to pay off his losses. And he loved every second of it!
He also appreciated the spectacle of the Las Vegas-style “roast” where celebrities poked fun at each other’s foibles and misfortunes. Figuring there was no better fodder than himself, Gregg, in act of pure artistic selflessness (some would call it foolishness) asked a group of friends to “roast” him this past summer. They did…and it was brutal. Jokes about his art, his health, and his lousy poker bluffs flew. When it came time for the Guest of Honor to respond, Gregg walked to the podium, smiled, and whispered into the mic, “It’s so easy to pick on the weak one…”
You couldn’t help but wonder if the entire event was orchestrated simply to set him up to deliver the best punch line of the day – his own.
Through it all – the laughter, the love, the costumes, the making of art and the raising of kids – there were exhausting tests, prolonged procedures and life threatening operations. Gregg faced it all with courage, determination, and most remarkably, an intact sense of humor. It was his ability to laugh at himself and his situation that somehow made the unbearable, bearable. He brought warmth to even the dreariest of times. Here was someone with everything to complain about, but you never heard him complain. He taught all those close to him to embrace the positives rather than dwell on the negatives.
For example, during the Edelmann’s annual Halloween event last weekend, Gregg sipped an unrecognizable cocktail. Asked what the concoction was, he explained what was in it, but more importantly, what was not.
“Kahlúa,” he smiled. “We don’t have any kahlúa. But it’s still excellent all the same!”
That was Gregg. Always willing to take what life gave him and always thankful for it. With Gregg, the glass was always half-full.
He decided to stop dialysis several days later. Irene and he invited friends over to spend some time and after an evening of chatting Gregg excused himself to retire for the night. With his usual dry wit, he said, “”If I don’t see you guys later, goodbye.”
Company went home. Husband and wife crawled into bed and, as they had done so many nights over the years, fell asleep to sounds of Frank Zappa guitar solos in the background.
Gregg will continue to inspire. His final piece – created in wood sculpture class even as his health worsened – remains unfinished, but it serves as a reminder to just keep trying, to stay inspired. What you leave behind may be motivation enough.
The symbol of the labyrinth from Tintagel Castle will be incorporated into Gregg’s memorial stone. It seems such a fitting symbol as Gregg continues on his path.