First, he starts with the composition itself — often inspired and energized by the local waters where he and his husband, Jeff Ragovin, avidly fish and take photographs.
Next, the artist chooses his color palette. And then, it all comes down to math.
“If I’ve got 576 blocks at four different depth profiles, and I have a palette of 12 colors, how many blocks of each depth profile has to be each color?” he said, offering a hypothetical problem. “Oh yeah, it’s a whole thing. But then it gets worse from there, really.”
Fabricated from a material called sintra, each painted block — which include 2-inch-by-2-inch, 3-inch-by-3-inch and 4-inch-by-4-inch squares — is then strategically, and carefully, attached to a board using industrial strength glue. It can take up to two days to assemble — and at least two people to move and install once it’s dry, typically clocking in at 125 pounds.
But once it’s hung, it’s magic, Giehl said.
“The shadows change throughout the day, so the painting, with all of its different depth profiles, is in constant motion,” he said. “I started doing these during the pandemic. And as I look back, it’s very reflective in terms of how I felt — and I think a lot of people experienced — during the lockdown: personal growth from a somewhat restricted environment.”
Starting Thursday, August 26, a selection of Giehl’s block paintings will be on view as part of the Confluence Art Collective’s inaugural show, “Confluence,” on view through Monday, August 30, at Ashawagh Hall in Springs — representing a true meeting of the minds, inspiration and art between fellow creatives Daniel Vernola and Aaron Warkov.
Together, they created a piece that they will auction off to support the South Fork Sea Farmers, a non-profit that works collaboratively with the East Hampton Town Shellfish Hatchery to expand and broaden educational programs and encourage residents to be stewards of their marine environment.
“The whole idea behind this show was the three of us coming together and realizing, and acknowledging, that we have very similar inspiration, in terms of what we use for our art — but yet we each have three different ways of translating that inspiration into our paintings,” Giehl said. “We thought it would be interesting to see how those three inspirations came together as one show.”
Five years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible. At that time, he spent his days on the frenetic Wall Street trading floor as an executive director with J.P. Morgan Investment Bank, putting out fires left and right — from legal and operations to technology and service.
By age 50, he’d had enough.
“I was like, ‘You know what? There’s gotta be more to life,’” he said. “It was a great career, all good, but I really needed to explore a plan B.”
It started with the couple selling their Harlem apartment and moving to their home in Springs full time. And for Giehl, with that came a reawakened urge to paint — a hobby he had enjoyed as a child, but wasn’t particularly encouraged to pursue.
“For the same reasons why this area has drawn so many artists for so long, it’s the natural beauty, it’s the light, everything about this is inspirational,” he said. “And then I also, frankly, needed something to do. I was like, ‘Okay, wow, I left J.P. Morgan — now what do I do?’”
He traded his business casual attire for paint-spattered shorts and T-shirts, Wall Street for an at-home studio. He can’t remember the last time he wore a tie, he said, and he would have it no other way.
“I’ve never thought twice about that decision, ever. Best decision of my life,” he said, adding, “My wardrobe has gone from one extreme to another extreme. It’s shocking. It’s so funny, I still hold on to some of my suits and my ties — I have so many ties. I’m like, what am I doing with these things? And I still look at them like, ‘Oh, I love that tie.’”
Outside of his clothing, much of Giehl’s day is still the same and extremely structured. He’s early to rise, usually awake between 3 and 5 a.m. thinking about artistic processes — which was true of his time at J.P. Morgan, too, but in a different sector.
Then, he paints for a set number of hours and devotes the rest of the day to marketing, connecting with clients and managerial tasks.
“It’s nice to go back and forth,” he said, between right and left brain activities. “Trust me, you should see the way I track my paintings. I asked another artist, ‘How many paintings have you ever painted?’ And he’s like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I’m like, ‘What percentage sold are you?’ I definitely keep track of all that stuff.”
With his new lifestyle has come a sense of freedom that he’s never experienced, though, Giehl explained — the scope of his work only expanding and his confidence as an artist only growing as time ticks on.
“It’s a tremendous feeling, knowing that you sell a painting and that painting may be in that person’s life for the rest of their life, and then maybe their child grew up with it and always admired it and wanted it,” he said. “It’s great that these paintings take on a whole life of their own and you may never know where it goes, and I love that.”
The Confluence Art Collective will open its inaugural exhibit, “Confluence,” featuring work by Kurt Giehl, Daniel Vernola and Aaron Warkov, on Thursday, August 26, at Ashawagh Hall in Springs. A reception will be held on Saturday, August 28, from 5 to 8 p.m., and the show will remain on view through Monday, August 30. For more information, call 631-267-6554 or visit ashawagh-hall.org.