Alumni Profile • Larry Gerbens '69
Art's apostle

Larry GerbensWhen pre-med student Larry Gerbens '69 heard art history professor Edgar Boeve say the texture of food was more important than the taste of food, he thought, "What baloney!" By the end of the semester Gerbens was a true believer in color and texture, in the power of the visual arts. Now, in a second vocation, he is a visual arts apostle.

"Edgar's class was the seed," Gerbens said.

That seed lay dormant for 10 years while Gerbens attended to practical matters: medical school and residency, starting a family with Mary Bajema Gerbens ex'67, opening an ophthalmology practice in Grand Rapids .

But as soon as the eye doctor's life gave the dormant seed a little space and light, it began to germinate. Gerbens found himself with an artist, Don Prys, for a brother-in-law. They visited art galleries together. Before long, Gerbens was buying art.

One of his first purchases was a serigraph of the prodigal son story by California artist John August Swanson. "Then," Gerbens recalled, "Don gave me Henri Nouwen's book, The Return of the Prodigal . Nouwen sat for hours in front of Rembrandt's painting of the prodigal and wrote this meditation. I read it over and over."

Gerbens, a burgeoning art collector, began to seek prodigal son renditions by old masters and contemporary artists. Gradually he began to meet artists and to be comfortable with them, eventually commissioning them to create new expressions of the parable. He has collected some 30 works of art centered on the prodigal son, everything from an original Rembrandt etching to a vase thrown by two North Carolina potters he met through Chuck Colson's prison ministry.

"I think artists appeal to me because they're so unlike me," he said. "The art lover in me is my alter ego, I guess - the other side of my type A, precise and persnickety, scientist-self."

The alter ego receives more and more of Gerbens' time these days. After 27 years as a founding partner of Grand Rapids Ophthalmology, he decided to sell his share of the practice to his partners. Just after he made that decision he was offered the opportunity to buy the Bergsma Gallery - the art gallery where he bought his first prodigal son. He and three partners, including Prys, now own the gallery, renamed the Grand Gallery, with space in the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel and in a restored Victorian house in nearby Ada .

That was two years ago. Now he is Dr. Gerbens, ophthalmologist, just three days a week. Much of the rest of the time he is Larry Gerbens, apostle for the visual arts - and having, he says, the time of his life.

"My role in the gallery is to be out there: putting up shows in churches, meeting artists, looking for public places, especially medical places, that need good art."

The Gerbens' own home often becomes a public place. They designed it so that the many groups and individual guests they host can experience many works of art, up close, in every room. Larry Gerbens wants everyone to find, as he has, that "art enhances life, fulfills life, enriches life."

"My first occupation has been, over the years, very stressful for me," he said. "I use art as a daily reminder of who I am, where I come from and to whom I belong."