GERDA ELISABETH FIRANT: PAINTER AND WIFE OF EDGAR ROBERT FIRANT
TEXT BY PAM VANDERPLOEG. COPYRIGHT 2016 WEST MICHIGAN MODERn. PHOTOS COPYRIGHT LAUREL FIRANT.
One of the great joys of this architectural researcher is to be able to interview family, friends and colleagues of a subject, in this case Edgar Robert Firant. I was introduced to Edgar’s daughter Laurel by her cousin, Karin Swanson Maupin, who heard me speak at the Grand Rapids Women’s City Club.
In April 2015, Laurel, her mother Gerda Elisabeth and I sat together in the living room of the family home designed by Firant surrounded by original design boards of Edgar’s stunning church architecture and Elisabeth’s (as she preferred being called) beautiful paintings. We had a wonderful conversation, and I came away with a greater sense of Firant’s talent and the philosophy at the heart of his work. Decades after his death, when her mother was ill, and Laurel began to go through the artifacts of her father’s architectural practice, she found that the models were gone, but was able to give the remaining original blueprints to building owners, who were delighted to have them.
Only a few months after we met, Elisabeth died at the age of 99 on August 23, 2015. My husband and I attended the moving graveside service. We marveled at the coincidence that my husband’s father, a judge, and Laurel's father, the architect, had both passed away of heart attacks in their 50s at the prime of their careers, and were buried in plots very close together in Woodlawn cemetery.
Laurel, then, also became the guardian of her mother’s artistic legacy and the paintings she left behind. So I want to share just a little bit more about mother and daughter.
ABOUT GERDA ELISABETH FIRANT
Gerda Elisabeth Swanson Firant was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 1916. She received, as stated earlier, both the BFA and MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her paintings were exhibited all over the county including at the Art Institute of Chicago, Detroit Institute of Arts, Cleveland Institute of Art, Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. and the Miami Museum of Fine Art. Her work “Bell Toll” was chosen in competition for the “Painting of the Year” a two-year national traveling exhibit sponsored by the Mead Corporation in 1963. A review and photo of her work “The Time Before Spring” was featured in the “La Revue Moderne” in Paris, France, in 1966.
Laurel has recently inventoried her mother's paintings, stacked against the walls in the Firant home. They stand as an amazing record of the artistry of Gerda Firant. In a Grand Rapids Press review of a two artist exhibit in 1993 including Elisabeth, the reviewer Syliva Krissoff said that her “most colorful pieces are freely patterned abstractions…large calligraphic works…influenced by her background in creating stained glass windows for churches…Her work here has the patterning and spatial relationships applicable to stained glass windows, but are rendered with a bravura brushstroke.”
Indeed in collaboration with her husband, Gerda designed some phenomenal stained glass windows for Edgar’s church designs. None were more dramatic than the enormous and breathtaking window she designed for the award-winning Christian Catholic Church in Zion, Illinois.
Laurel Firant and I have continued our conversations while she prepares the family home for sale. I have since learned of Laurel’s own talent and the career patiently waiting for, once again, her full attention. She is a music composer who graduated from the Interlochen Arts Academy and the University of Michigan. She has had commissions, performances and radio broadcasts of her works in the U.S., Canada, Germany, France, Ireland, Italy, and the Netherlands. Most recently her compositions, performed by pianist Robert Conway, were part of a U.S. State Department sponsored concert in Azerbaijan and by the CUBE contemporary music ensemble of Chicago in the American Masterpieces series sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. Her works were recorded on the Capstone label, re-issued on the Ravello label and currently can be heard here on Sirius XM radio and on other stations around the world. Laurel also has worked as a journalist, as a copyeditor with the Ann Arbor News and freelance writer and music critic for AnnArbor.com
Talent runs deep in this family. Laurel and I have been able to marvel together at the beauty of both her father’s strong and bold modern building designs, and her mother’s warm and equally bold and modern paintings. It is truly an honor to have become acquainted with the family and had the opportunity to write this story.