Verna, Gelsy

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Gelsy Verna


Artist, educator

Gelsy Verna was an artist and art professor highly regarded by students and peers alike. Born in Haiti, Verna was an experienced, multilingual world traveler before she was in her teens. The richness of her early experiences in Haiti and central Africa, and then Canada—where her family eventually settled—are reflected throughout her work, particularly in her characteristic habit of mixing motifs from a variety of geographical and cultural contexts. The force and originality of her artistic vision, combined with the well-attested warmth of her personality, made her extremely popular among art students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she taught for seven years, and it was with profound grief that that campus greeted the news of her sudden death in March of 2008 at the age of forty-six.

The second of six children born to Joseph Marie Verna, a radiologist, and Clara Lanier Verna, a teacher, Gelsy Verna was born on March 31, 1961, in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. In a 1999 interview with Jane Robinette of the Iowa Women Artists Oral History Project, Verna said, "I come from a family of eccentrics…. They like an independence of mind and to chart their own path in some ways." The family spent several years in the mid-1960s in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), an experience often reflected in Verna's art, particularly in her adaptation of traditional African motifs. In 1968, however, the family settled permanently in Montreal, Canada.

For much of her youth, Verna intended to follow her father into medicine, and she excelled in biology. Her interest in art grew gradually. Aware from an early age that she had a good visual memory, her parents encouraged Verna's explorations of shapes, colors, and textures. Her first painting, for example, was a paint-by-numbers kit her mother brought to her during a hospital stay at about the age of ten; Verna would keep the result in her studio throughout her professional career. Her father was similarly encouraging, as an anecdote she told Robinette revealed. "I remember going to the park across from our house [in Montreal]," Verna said, "and there's this piece of root that I found, and I brought it home and I said to my dad, ‘I think I want to do something with it.’ And he said, ‘Okay, well, I'll buy you some sandpaper, and what about if you sand it and then you varnish it with something, or stain it.’ The thing that was interesting to me was that it was a root, but it reminded me of a fish. I like shapes that remind you of something else."

Even as they encouraged her artistic explorations, Verna's parents saw to it that she took advantage of more traditional educational opportunities. These included English lessons at a YMCA summer camp, Saturday art classes as a young teenager, and the Paris American Academy, a fine-arts program in the French capital that she attended in the summer of 1985. Her experience in Paris influenced her to apply to art school, and in 1986 she entered the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) as an undergraduate. After receiving her BFA degree in the winter of 1988, she remained at the school to enter its graduate program. She would later describe her years in Chicago to Robinette as a "great experience," noting in particular the help she received from drawing teacher Betsy Rupprecht and the inspiration she drew from the art institute's world-famous collections. She also was able to spend a semester abroad, studying printmaking in Germany.

After receiving her MFA from SAIC in the winter of 1990, Verna spent several years expanding and improving her portfolio before attaining her first major teaching position, at the University of Iowa, in 1995. She would remain there for six years, gaining confidence as a teacher and collaborating with colleagues, notably painter David Dunlap, on several major pieces. In 2001 T. L. Solien, a former colleague who had left Iowa for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, persuaded Verna to make the same move. As at Iowa, Verna carried a full course load in Wisconsin, teaching both introductory and advanced, graduate-level classes in painting and drawing. She was also a sought-after mentor known for her kind but honest appraisals of student work. As graduate student Jose Rodriguez remarked in a tribute posted on the Web site, Verna "always offered honest and constructive feedback and never failed to bring insightful and enlightening resources and references to the table."

Verna worked in a wide variety of formats, including prints, collage, mixed media, and oil on canvas. In such works as Untitled—Red Fro (1999) and MLK Jr., Reveries/Reverends (2005-08), she explored issues of personal identity—particularly racial identity—and collective memory. The latter work, for example, juxtaposes a formal photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with mundane family snapshots and living-room bric-a-brac. The contrast prompts the viewer to ponder the ways the civil rights struggle has affected the way ordinary people view themselves, their place in society, and their past. MLK Jr. is technically a mixed-media piece, not a collage, but its collage-like juxtaposition of disparate elements is highly characteristic of Verna's work. As she remarked in an artist's statement posted on the Iowa Women Artists Web site, "My images develop through sifting, moving things around."

Verna died suddenly in her sleep on March 11, 2008, at her home in Madison, Wisconsin. The cause was a brain aneurysm. A longtime sufferer of severe headaches, Verna and her doctors knew of the problem; surgery to correct it had been scheduled for the following summer. By prior arrangement, her young daughter, Clara, moved to Canada to live with an aunt. Other survivors included her mother and her five siblings; her father died the same week, and a joint funeral was held in Canada on March 22, 2008.

As the Wisconsin campus struggled to come to terms with the sudden loss of one of its most popular professors, dozens of colleagues and students offered tributes. One of the simplest was given by Elaine Scheer, chair of the art department, who told Amanda Hoffstrom in the Daily Cardinal, a student newspaper, that Verna "was just a really wonderful teacher." Her work can be seen in collections across the United States, including at the Princeton University Art Museum in Princeton, New Jersey, and the University of Mississippi's Southern Graphics collection in Oxford, Mississippi.

At a Glance …

Born on March 31, 1961, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti; died on March 11, 2008, in Madison, WI; daughter of Clara Lanier Verna (a teacher) and Joseph Marie Verna (a radiologist); children: Clara Alicia Verna. Education: School of the Art Institute of Chicago, BFA, 1988, MFA, 1990.

Career: University of Iowa, professor of art, 1995-2001; University of Wisconsin-Madison, professor of art, 2001-08.

Awards: Winter Fellowship (Visual Arts), Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown, MA, 1997-98.

Selected artwork

Belongings, 1995.

Sketchbook—Dennis & Voodoo, 1996-97.

Untitled—Red Fro, 1999.

Crowd—Salt, 2000.

Untitled (Head), 2001.

MLK Jr., Reveries/Reverends, 2005-08.



Hoffstrom, Amanda, "‘Beloved’ U. Wisconsin Art Professor Dies Suddenly," Daily Cardinal (Madison, WI), March 13, 2008.


"Art Department to Host Memorial Service for Faculty Member," University of Wisconsin-Madison Art Department, April 29, 2008, (accessed July 14, 2008).

"Gelsy Verna (1961-2008),", (accessed July 15, 2008).

Robinette, Jane, "Gelsy Verna" (interview), Iowa Women Artists Oral History Project, August 1, 1999, (accessed July 14, 2008).


Author's personal acquaintance with Verna, 2006-08.

—R. Anthony Kugler