Artist Gerhardt Knodel Shares a Glimpse of His Newest Project

The newest project by the Pontiac artist and former director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art will explore the idea of transitioning to something new with its ”journey” theme.
Photograph by Sal Rodriguez

At 82 years old, Gerhardt Knodel could be content to sit back and enjoy the fruits of his storied career in the art world. Instead, he continues to look forward, working at his Pontiac studio of 40 years just about every day. On this day in January, he’s planning his next project.

The theme will be a journey — “the idea of transitioning from one thing to the next,” he says. He was inspired by Sumatran textiles in his personal collection. They contain embroidered depictions of boats that carry people’s souls into another realm.

Nine midsize rectangular panels hang on the wall, each captioned with a stanza he wrote. The panels are adorned with colorful human figures, a sailboat, and abstract shapes that he assembled from fabrics. For past architectural work, he directed a team of assistants. These days, he works alone.

“It has something to do with authenticity,” he says. “If you buy something of mine, you will know that I have done everything that’s there. I like that idea.”

The artist’s contemporary designs are sprinkled throughout metro Detroit. He completed a work for Henry Ford II’s office in 1976 at the Ford Motor Co. headquarters in Dearborn. Impressed, Ford and architect John C. Portman Jr. commissioned “Free Fall,” a textile piece in a newly opened Renaissance Center hotel the following year. Knodel also created installations for Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, the American Center in Southfield, and the Northville District Library.

Another hint of his work in progress can be seen suspended over his work desk. There, you’ll find eight paper marionettes hanging from wooden cross braces. Each represents a character on the journey, he says.

“I hadn’t done anything like this since I was 12 years old,” he says.

At that age, Knodel created a stage to host puppet shows in his parents’ home in Los Angeles. His love of theater inspired him — he sang in the children’s choir for two operas, Carmen and La Bohème, by the Los Angeles Conservancy, he says.

After six years as a high school art teacher in Los Angeles, Knodel took a job at Cranbrook Academy of Art as artist in residence in the fiber department. He would go on to serve in that role for 25 years, then as director of the school for another 12.

During this time, he guided notable students like Chicago sculptor Nick Cave, who opened at the Guggenheim Museum last November. Another is Katarina Weslien, an award-winning multidisciplinary artist with work displayed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and other major museums.

At Cranbrook, Weslien saw Knodel’s “work ethic, his research, his love of materials and love of the process,” driving factors that propel his creations to this day, she says. In particular, she recalls his textile history course. He taught the ceremonial significance of cloth and traced history through textile patterns, Weslien says.

These concepts appear in Minglings, a five-year series of works inspired by a Ming dynasty textile he obtained. Ships brought the textile from China to Portugal for a wealthy person to buy and use for bedding, Knodel says. The works explore the “migration of beauty.”

He unveiled the final installment in a ceremony in November 2022 — an aerial map of Pontiac with a flower symbol from the Ming fragment superimposed over it. The image splits into 28 parts, “kites” that make up a “flag.”

He handed the kites out, instructing each guest to install theirs in a public place and send him a photograph — he hopes to publish the work eventually if all goes as planned.

His next exhibition has no date yet. Last he spoke with Hour Detroit, he planned to film a video component for his marionette production in early March.

“Rather than working towards an exhibition, he works toward an idea that he has,” Weslien says.

His working idea is that attendees will view each panel and read each stanza in order, following the linear narrative of the journey.

At the end, they will reach a curtain adorned with a grid of squares and squiggly shapes representing a “field of abstraction, a completely different world from where all of this originated.”

On the other side of the curtain will be the marionettes at the end of their journey, dancing in celebration.

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Three Pieces By Gerhard Knodel

This story is part of the April 2023 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in our Digital Edition.