The love between a scene and a man

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February 24, 2003 // UPDATED 9:03 am - April 30, 2007
By: Anna Pratt
Anna Pratt

Gus Gustafson and the Downtowners who miss him

I'm the first person to have a Gus-arita in "Gus," the old New French Bar, recently renamed to honor local photographer Gerald (Gus) Gustafson. Gustafson, 54, died of a heart attack Jan. 13 at Hennepin County Medical Center.

Gus was a regular at the New French. His favorite spot was on the patio, under the striped awning. "That's where he loved to sit," says Jimmy Shadler, who owns the special events bar.

He points out the window overlooking Washington Avenue. "It feels empty here without him," he says, puffing on a Cuban cigar. "I feel lightheaded."

Gus was a pioneer who helped found the Warehouse District arts community. With open arms, deep pockets and his camera, he helped artists receive grants, show their works and keep creating. Artists say Gus left a priceless legacy -- and that might be literally true.

His studio

The door to Gus' studio at the Wyman building at 1st Avenue North and North 4th Street is dressed with handwritten farewells messages such as "Victoria, why do you want to study history? Why don't you just make it? -- Gus 1987" and "You were the best friend," penned in blue permanent marker.

Photographer Larry Marcus, who shared the studio with Gus for 18 years, ushers me in quietly. It's dark except for the dim light of a few desk lamps. He just picked up the message I left for him on Gus' voicemail. He hasn't been answering that phone. "People have been calling just to hear Gus' voice," Marcus says, softly.

Marcus shoots the cover photos for the Minnesota Journal of Law & Politics. Usually, he takes pictures of people. He's trying to get back to work this week. He has to pay his rent.

Marcus knew Gus nearly 30 years. Often, they worked side by side. They joked that they made the Guinness Book of World Records for photographers who shared a studio the longest without an argument.

Sometimes they helped finish each other's assignments. Gus didn't work from 9 to 5. "He was always working," Marcus says. "Even when he was reading the New Yorker, he was working."

Gus shot in all formats. He had instincts about where to be and when. "Gus made the job look easy," Marcus says.

He shows me a black-and-white photo taken of Gus at the New French. It's the same photo on the cover of the funeral program. Lips pursed and peering out from half-moon eyes, Gus toasts his champagne to you.

"This picture tells you everything you need to know about Gus," Marcus says.

While I'm talking with Marcus, along comes another friend of Gus'. It's Craig Sinard, President and Executive Producer of Sinard Productions, an independent company that produces media for business and television.

Sinard's office is across the street. He's toting a hefty lens under his arm for Marcus to look at. Gus shot virtual-reality videos for Sinard's Web site and promotional photos for his company.

"While I was learning to stitch virtual reality together, Gus understood light," Sinard said.

He saw Gus daily and some days, two or three times. "He was the only one who would go to a football game with me -- and he knew all the standings," Sinard said. "He could tolerate anyone.

"Look," he says, grabbing my notebook and pen. He draws a diagram. In the middle of the page, he spells out G-U-S and circles it. From there he sketches spokes, extending to all the orbits he says rotated around Gus. Advertisers. Artists. Filmmakers. Gallery owners.

"Gus was the center of our universe."

His work

Gus photographed city officials, civic events and restaurant openings. He worked for nearby theaters, architects, insurance companies, advertising agencies, newspapers and magazines.

That was the paid half of Gus' work.

Often, he shot slides of artists' work, accepting some pieces as payment. Intentionally or not, his collection became an archive of a Downtown arts scene over its last three decades.

Gus' collection features sculptors who were just starting out, established painters and young and old photographers.

At the loft Gus left behind, the works lean against the walls, salon-style. Many of them have dedications reading "Thank you, Gus," testaments to a love between a scene and a man.

But it was his lingering footsteps down the sidewalk, across the street, through the skyways and on the floors of his studio that earned him notoriety as "Mayor of the Warehouse District."

Calling him that was a joke at first, friends say, but Gus never turned down a party, and wherever he went, people wanted to go. Flip through Gus' Rolodex and you'll find the names of countless artists, actors, singers and business-people. Dignitaries. Homeless.

All struggled to find standing room among a crowd of over 1500 people at the funeral ceremony held at Theatre de la Jeune Lune, 105 N. 1st St., where Gus took so many photos.

His world

Just around the corner from Gus' and Marcus' studio is the Kellie Rae Theiss Gallery, 400 1st Ave. N. Theiss is also the president of the Twin Cities Fine Arts Federation.

She wears a recognizable black pillbox hat and a long skirt with a matching jacket. She opens a binder and turns to a postcard of some of her work. She still owes Gus a painting of a fish, like this one -- see the deep colors and the light that shines on the fish?

She was close to Gus, she says. "It was hard to walk in the building for awhile."

"He was a giant," she says, "but he was invisible."

Gus wore pedestrian colors. He took lots of detours during the day. He shot trade photos that were meant to last days and others, with no particular intent at all, that will last years.

Some of the pictures he took -- like the deli order, short-order cook, ribbon cutting, and ice-skating rink -- are housed in permanent collections such as the Minnesota Historical Society's archive.

"He had a beautiful eye," Barry says, "but he never pushed his own work. He was too busy taking pictures of what other people did."

You won't find the photos Gus took hanging on the walls of his studio. Instead, you'll see other artists' pieces. Look above the haphazard heaps of contact sheets, headshots, cardboard boxes, an antique camera, a yellow phone, scattered across Gus' desk.

There's a painting of local artist Scott Seekins as Frida Kahlo and Seekins' tiny Madonnas.

Seekins' studio is just a block away, above Nate's Clothing, 27 N. 4th St. Gus shot all the slides of Seekins' work. They collaborated on photos of train models and Seekins' self-portraits.

Gus' photos of the models often landed the covers of the magazines where he and Seekins sent work that spanned over a decade. They planned to shoot more this spring.

That's not all. Gus and Seekins staged many of Seekins' self-portraits. Here's one of the last ones they did: Seekins as a bullfighter. Another black-and-white shot: Seekins as a beggar on the street, playing the drums on upside-down buckets.

Finally, a lifeless Seekins, wearing his white summer suit and sprawled on the curb, with red paint marks smeared across his dead body. It's called Victim '73.

It was taken next to the fire hydrant on Washington Avenue, just across the street from the New French. The original is mounted above the counter at the Urban Wildlife Bar, next to "Gus." Jimmy owns both bars.

Jimmy bought the original print of Victim '73. "It reminded me of how fragile life is," he says.

His Saturdays

One of the only photos Jimmy owns of Gus, who didn't like to have his picture taken, shows Gus casting his fishing rod into the St. Croix. He's got dimples. It's sunny.

Jimmy, Gus and Seekins fly-fished Saturdays.

"When Gus went into the water, he'd find a comfortable spot, he wouldn't move," Jimmy says. "He didn't really care if he caught anything or not. He just liked to throw his line."

"He never kept any fish; he always let them go."

Jimmy wrote a poem for Gus that he reads aloud in a thick, swashbuckling voice. He's never been to Gus' studio, they didn't talk business, but like so many others, he felt he knew Gus well.

Jimmy wants to put Gus' fishing rod on the wall at Urban Wildlife. But first, he'll take it to the river to go fishing.

Ask Jimmy if the bar serves margaritas. No. Just Gus-aritas. Made with Jose Cuervo, a splash of Cointreau, a little beer, sweet-and-sour mix, orange juice and topped with a layer of Grand Marnier, it tastes like a regular margarita, but it goes down easier, without the burn.

That's Gus.

"He fished with us," Jimmy says.