First published: Fall 2015
It was a summer day in 1972 in East Hampton, when Jerry Torre saw an elegant woman in big, dark sunglasses and a headscarf making her way towards him. He was sixteen years old and employed as a gardener and maintenance man on the grounds of J. Paul Getty’s mansion, and he watched as the woman walked along the narrow path that led to the entrance of the neighbouring property, Grey Gardens, whose owners he also assisted.
August, 2010, limestone with moss, 15 x 17 x 11 ins., 38.1 x 43.2 x 27.9 cm,
photo by Edward M. Gómez
The visitor, it turned out, was Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, the former American First Lady and widow of President John F. Kennedy, who was now married to the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. At the time, Getty was one of the richest men in the world, and there in East Hampton, on the far east end of Long Island to the east of New York City, young Jerry found himself surrounded by wealth and those who enjoyed its privileges.
How he came to find himself in such circumstances and, in time, how he started to make hand-carved stone sculptures, which only very recently have begun to attract the New York art world’s attention, are parts of one of the most unlikely personal stories ever to have surfaced in the world of self-taught artists.
Gerard Joseph Torre was born to Italian-American parents in Brooklyn in 1953. In a recent interview at his home in the Queens section of New York, he recalled visiting the 1964/1965 New York World’s Fair, where, in the Vatican City’s pavilion, he saw Michelangelo’s Pietà. The sculpture of the grieving Virgin Mary, holding her crucified son, which a 24-year-old Michelangelo had produced at the end of the fifteenth century, was displayed behind bulletproof Plexiglas. Torre said, “I was deeply moved by what this extraordinarily talented sculptor had brought forth from a piece of stone.”
A few years later, mainly to escape a father he described as “very tough, even abusive”, Torre moved to a town on Long Island, where his uncle was building himself a house. Torre said, “I was close to this uncle, who helped me in many ways. To construct his house, he used old cobblestones that had been dug up from Brooklyn streets that were being repaved. Cleaning them and learning how to use them to erect walls – all of that was part of my first encounter with stone. My uncle was a skilled mason.”