January 09, 2008 | Myrna Anderson

Calvin College was given the Gerbens family's entire Prodigal Son collection as a gift.

“There are seven panels, and that’s Honduran mahogany,” Larry Gerbens told the visitor who was scrutinizing Prodigal, a wooden vase created by artist Charles Smalligan currently on display in the Center Art Gallery. Gerbens was in the gallery with his wife Mary to take a preview tour of the exhibition “The Father and His Two Sons: Images from the Larry and Mary Gerbens Collection,” held at the gallery from January 7 through February 7.

All about the Prodigal

Until recently, the 37 works in the exhibition—paintings, linoleum cuts, ceramics, serigraphs (silk screens), ink drawings and other pieces, all based on the biblical theme of the Prodigal Son—belonged to the Gerbens. The exhibition marks the couple’s  donation of the entire Prodigal Son collection to Calvin College’s permanent collection.

“I’m getting older, and we have a lot of art,” said Gerbens, a major gift officer in Calvin’s development department, “and you start asking the question, ‘Where do you want this to go to reside someday?’ We decided Calvin was the best place for it to be seen and appreciated.”

Artistic background

The exhibition includes the work of 30 artists, and Gerbens took time out from his inspection tour to give a little background on several of the pieces. “What do you see here, ‘dope’ or ‘hope’?” he asked, tracing a word in one of the linoleum cuts that make up the Prodigal Trilogy. “These are quite edgy pieces,” he added of the trilogy, created by artist Steve Prince.

He also paused beside “Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son Revisited,” a seven-by-five foot painting in which the artist, Jonathan Quist, depicted himself painting the reunion of father and son. “He put himself in as the elder son,” Gerbens said of Quist, pointing out a detail of the painting: “The elder son offers the spent tubes of pigment, whereas the Prodigal offers himself.”

Freedom to create

“The Father and His Two Sons” includes both works that the couple acquired and works they commissioned on the Prodigal Son theme. “The Gerbens are great patrons in the sense that they’re open to artistic expression,” said Calvin director of exhibitions Joel Zwart, “and that’s evidenced in the fact that they’ve collected a variety of media from a variety of artists, and, more importantly, they’ve moved on to commissioning artists and given them more freedom to express themselves within a certain subject matter.”

Freedom is key to the artistic process and essential for the collectors, Gerbens insisted: “We didn’t limit their expression,” he said of the artists who created original work on the Prodigal theme. “It was important to us that we give them freedom within their medium to interpret the parable.”

The Gerbens’ Prodigal Son collection was inspired by Henri Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. Not long after Larry read the book (back in the early ’90s) the couple purchased a serigraph—one of three in the collection—by John August Swanson. That purchase led to more. “And then I met artists and became confident around artistic expression,” Gerbens said. Around 1994, the couple began commissioning work. “I’m amazed by the God-given ability,” he said of the artists he’s worked with.

Looking to the future

The Gerbens’ donation is a significant one for Calvin, said Zwart. Their gift, and others provided impetus to give the visual arts a larger presence on campus. A significant part of that presence will be the new art gallery opening in 2010 in the remodeled Fine Arts Center. “The new gallery will be such a great addition to the campus because it provides us with a showcase for larger and multiple travelling exhibitions and also provides space for the college’s permanent collection to be displayed,” said Zwart. “And the Gerbens’ donation is now a great part of that collection.”

The inspiration for the show came from the Gerbens proposal to donate the collection to Calvin. Their conversations with Zwart, curator of the exhibition, shaped not only “The Father and His Two Sons” but this year’s Symposium on Worship, which takes the theme “And he told them a parable ... .”
The exhibition was timed to overlap the symposium, held by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship January 29–31. The institute sponsored the exhibition book and Web site.

An expanded audience

“We couldn’t be doing what we’re doing without their assistance,” Zwart said. He hopes to draw to the exhibition some of the around 1,500 people who attend the symposium from all over the world. “It is a great opportunity for the gallery to tap into an audience that’s sympathetic to this art and story.”

On the day of the Gerbens’ visit, the other gallery visitor was enjoying Prodigal Son theme. Finishing his survey of the Honduran mahogany, he asked, “This is your collection, is it? Great collection.”

“Well,” Gerbens answered, “it’s Calvin’s now.”

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