Artists William and Laura Gentry
by Michele Pettit
“The quickest way to find your purpose
is to do the things that feel most joyful to you.”
I found this quote stuck in my notebook after meeting Laura and William Gentry for an interview. The funny thing is I wrote this quote before our chat, but I’ve found no better way to sum up their art. The Gentrys bring joy to their shared endeavors, as well as to their individual works that is easy to pick up on; it radiates when they talk about art.
William and Laura create with words, paint, photos, movement, music, and laughter. They meld multiple disciplines. William is a photographer and composer. Laura is a dancer, painter, writer, filmmaker, songwriter, and Laughter Yoga instructor. They unify their artistic disciplines with shared enthusiasm. As William describes it, “Art is a healthy endeavor. When you are collaborating, the process and the connections are strong. Art empowers people.”
William was born and raised in Alaska. He describes himself as an observer as a child, watching and checking out details. His mother Verona still lives in Anchorage, Alaska. “My mother inspired me musically. My father inspired me visually. Shortly before he passed on, my dad presented me with a camera. Now I could capture all the things I was exploring.“ he says.
Laura is a native Iowan. She was an energetic and artistic young girl. A family vacation to Germany introduced her to an artist married to a distant cousin. The man had a fabulous art studio hidden away in his attic. This was the moment she felt the magic and knew she wanted to be an artist.
The Gentrys met in seminary in Berkeley, California, and married in 1996. They lived in L.A. for five years, and then came to the small river town of McGregor, Iowa in 2001, for their work as pastors. William is minister of the First Congregational Church of McGregor. Laura is minister of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Lansing.
William says his focus in photography is to remember things, document and share them. He doesn’t manipulate photos with digital programs. He has appreciation of the power of light in a photo. “There are no tricks. My photographs capture what you would see if you were there. Like the street photographer Gary Winogrand, I photograph things to see what they look like.”
Many of William’s projects focus on people. His Portraits of Senior Citizens highlight the beauty and wisdom of the elderly. “Along the Way” features portraits of people met in daily life: “These are people who serve coffee, ring up groceries, share the sidewalk with you and sell movie tickets. Stop and consider what will happen if you pause to acknowledge them as fellow human beings.”
Laura’s Laughter Yoga projects
Laura states, “In 2006 I became involved in the worldwide laughter movement. Laughter Yoga was a wonderful way to integrate my gifts in the arts with a mission to increase world happiness. I have embraced laughter as a vehicle for healing. As a result, my art has become more playful and exuberant.”
Laura utilizes her experiences in theater, dance, and music in Laughter Yoga work. Last year she released a Laughter Yoga DVD for kids, “Laughter Friends,” featuring children from Decorah and the surrounding area, aged four through 14. She released “Laugh Your Way There,” a CD for commuters in 2008. This month she is launching an album of children’s music called “Today is a Laughing Day.” Laura wrote the lyrics and collaborated with William and Luther professor Tom Bourcier to compose the music.
Her latest project is a marketable poster, “Live a Laughing Life,” featuring painting and words of inspiration to bring more laughter to your life.
Most of what the Gentrys make involves viewers as part of the participation. In some cases the art isn’t created until the audience participates. This is the case for one of their joint endeavors, “Living Word.”
On one level, “Living Word” is a collection of portraits published as a book by Penfield Press in 2005. On another level, the project was about the engagement of all involved. 100 participants mused individually about their identity in order to choose a personal, one-word definition. People chose not only adjectives for themselves, but also adverbs, conjunctions, nouns, prepositions, and verbs. Laura created t-shirts for each person, and William took the portraits. William looked for the moment when the participant reflected their word, whether it was “inspiration”, “giggle”, “bridge”, “now”, “hungry”, “adventurous” or “free”. The Gentrys were surprised by the positive choices people made when faced with defining themselves in one word. “People became part of the art as they were photographed.” Laura says.
Both Laura and William are Art-o-Artists, which means they create pieces for Art-o-Mat machines, a worldwide project featuring old-style vending machines. Instead of cigarettes or candy, these machines offer small pieces of art. William currently has photographs available as bag tags and Laura makes ceramic sculptures called stray eggplants. Laura says, “The founder’s concept was Equality in Art. Everyone should be able to afford art and art should be available in regular places. For about $5 you can buy a piece of original art. I hear back from Art-o-mat buyers and have an online gallery with nearly a hundred of their photos. In fact, William and I are going to be visiting an eggplant owner in Japan this month. This art connects people.“
When I ask the Gentrys if it takes bravery to put art out into the world, they agree they can feel vulnerable when they share their work. “Art is personal; but this is where real sharing between people occurs.” Laura says, “If you don’t express what is in you, it will be lost lost. No one else in the world offers the same creative gifts that you do. If you don’t create, you’re depriving yourself and others.” William adds, “Art needs to be shared. Someone out there needs what I’m doing. Someone will relate and understand.”
To the Gentrys, art is about participating in life joyfully and passionately. You can find their latest projects at their website: www.thegentryjoint.com
Michele Pettit graduated from Luther in 1992 as an English major; and took plenty of theater and art classes because she loved them. She’s been Library Director at McGregor Public Library since 1999, where she started a weekly writers group (which still meets every Wednesday). She enjoys journaling, looking for symbols in dreams and waking life, writing poetry, panting, and reading.
This article was published in the Winter (December 2008/January 2009) Issue of Inspire[d] Magazine.
All photos in this article by William F. Gentry II.
For more press on Laughing Laura, visit the Press & Testimonials page.