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The art of lasting connections

May 28, 2018

Master craftsman and alumnus Mark Gagnon has created art nearly every day since graduation, and he’s never lost touch with his Buckeye roots.

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Ohio State alumnus and artist Mark Gagnon

Mark Gagnon’s relationships around the art world have led him from one fascinating project to the next over a career that’s spanned 35 years, and his ties to Ohio State have always been part of the picture. They’ve enriched not only his career but his life.

Taking flight for New York City shortly after earning his art degree, Gagnon paid his dues waiting tables and selling ties — all the while making his art. When he applied for a retail job at Macy’s, the creative director channeled his talents to window design. No one could have imagined that admirers would one day be jostling for a view of his work on a jam-packed sidewalk along Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.

Gagnon was the artistic genius behind 83 delightful creations — mostly in papier-mâché — that filled the landmark Berdorf Goodman department store this past holiday season. Part of a “To New York with Love” display paying homage to the New-York Historical Society, the pieces are now on long-term loan to that keeper of the city’s treasures.

“This is the best job I ever had,” says Gagnon, whose work has graced a White House Christmas tree, the covers of books and leading magazines, a historic public school in the Bronx and an abundance of other outlets for his creativity. “Every object [in the Bergdorf Goodman window] had to be based on part of this significant cultural collection. From there, I had license to experiment, which I did with every single piece.”

Mark Gagnon paints in a class during his time as a student at Ohio State.
Mark Gagnon poses in front of the window displays he created for Bergdorf Goodman department store in New York City.
Gagnon's window displays at Bergdorf Goodman draw thousands of visitors.
Gagnon poses with collaborator David Hoey, senior director of visual presentation for Bergdorf Goodman.
Gagnon's work has been featured in a number of different places, including this cover image from New York Times Magazine.
Seven books that Gagnon sculpted topped Christmas trees in the White House Library. Michelle Obama curated the book collection.

Gagnon studied for that artistic license at Ohio State, where he “met some really important people to meet, who would be important for the rest of my life.” He recalls now-Emerita Professor Barbara Groseclose, who taught an American art history class “that just thrilled me. It opened my eyes. I was just every day into learning who and what came before me, and how to be an artist.”

Patricia Briggs shared an art locker with Gagnon back then. Today, she directs a gallery in Jamestown, New York, where she has shown her old friend’s work.

“Mark is a delight,” says Briggs, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s in art from the university in 1984 and ’89, respectively. “Ohio State gave us that. We really challenged each other then, and we’ve been talking and arguing about art ever since.”

Another lifelong friend from Columbus is Beth Wiltberger Ullum, who graduated the same year as Gagnon. In 2010, when Ullum was part of the team that coordinated the opening of the new Ohio Union, she invited Gagnon in as the featured artist.

“He installed a whole bunch of pieces all over, and people were thrilled,” she recalls.

“Add art to public spaces, add Mark’s art anywhere, and people will stop, breathe, think, read an artist’s statement. A building all of a sudden has a heart in it.”

When Ullum led students to the heart of New York City a few years later, she wanted to give them the ultimate insider’s tour of the Whitney Museum of American Art. So, in addition to their official docent, they had Gagnon, an inspired alum and accomplished artist, as their guide.

In a different New York event last fall, Gagnon took part in a networking opportunity for student leaders. Ullum says when she proposed the idea to Gagnon, “he was like, ‘Oh, I’m all in.’ And you know what he did? He hosted this event the night before that likely changed some of those students’ lives. They got to meet him where he lives, talk to him as an artist. They had so many questions that you couldn’t get anywhere near him.”

As assistant director of parent and family relations, Ullum often sees that sort of commitment from Ohio State alumni.

“We have so many graduates who go the extra mile. It’s not like you’re a Buckeye for four years and then it’s over. These are connections that last a lifetime, and Mark is a great example of that,” Ullum says. “From the outside, you might think it’s impossible for Ohio State to be so friendly because it’s so big. But the reality of it is that you’re going to find your 25 people, your tight 10 people, your best bud. What’s so spectacular about this place is that you can be lots of different things.”

Learn more about Mark's story in the latest edition of Ohio State Alumni Magazine.