He opens it and tucks in a tab or two, transforming it into a six-sided sculpture that looks like a lantern-style lampshade.
The book, which served as a wedding invitation for a couple in India and took six months to complete, is one of the many carefully choreographed cutouts that Gene spends his time creating.
Gene, a paper engineer/graphic designer/illustrator, began his artistic endeavors at an early age.
His father, an artist/teacher and industrial designer who also acted as the architect of the family’s home in Baltimore, and his mother, a violinist who earned her living giving lessons, made him their prime pupil. He’s an only child, so they had much time to devote to him.
Under their tutelage, Gene completed his first painting – in oil – when he was 3 and started trying to figure out the violin when he was 4.
“I quickly discovered that I’m not musically inclined,” he says sans regret. “I still have the instrument – it’s 1/16th size, which is the second tiniest you can get. My lessons ended long before my fifth birthday.”
Gene’s interest in the other arts, however, soared and by age 10, he was learning carpentry in his father’s at-home woodworking shop.
“It just clicked with me,” he says.
Throughout high school, Gene continued to paint and putter in the workshop, but he never seriously considered fine art as a career. In fact, he embarked upon the study of architecture.
“I was fascinated by all the templates and equipment that architects used and that I always saw around our house,” he says.
By his second year at the University of Maryland, however, Gene started to rethink his goals.
“I didn’t have the concentration for architecture,” he says. “I still liked art and thought about it, but my father reminded me that if I decided to pursue it, I would have a hard, hard life financially.”
So he did the sensible thing and got his degree in advertising and design. Straight from school, he was hired by a Washington, D.C. ad agency.
When he got laid off, a year and a half later, he wasn’t too upset.
“I realized it wasn’t for me, so I went back to Baltimore and freelanced, taking any work I could get,” he says.
He got his next job, as a senior designer of children’s books, by answering an ad in the newspaper. Eventually, he became the art director for another publishing house.
While he was in that job, Gene got to visit New York City frequently and stay in the company apartment.
When a friend moved to Manhattan, he asked Gene whether he wanted to share an apartment.
“He was getting married in six months so the deal was that I could live with him until the wedding,” Gene says. “He didn’t charge me much rent. I didn’t look too hard for a job; I spent my time running all over town.”
Gene, affable and easygoing, fell in love with the art scene and the energy of the city and decided to relocate. He stayed in the publishing industry, working full time and taking on freelance projects.
“I got really burnt out working so much,” he says. “I was making a good living, but I wasn’t having fun any more.”
In 2007, he became a full-time freelancer, designing children’s books for publishers and creating projects such as pop-up wedding invitations for private clients, which include Sonbobs, the bakery near his apartment.
He converted the bedroom in his apartment into his office, partitioning the living room to create a small sleeping space.
“I survived the recession of 2008-09,” he says. “And other ups and downs, but I always landed on my feet.”
Gene also spent much time caring for his parents in the last years of their lives.
“Being an only child and dealing with two parents passing takes a lot out of you,” he says. “I was on a raft by myself.”
Now, after seven years of back-and-forth commuting for care-giving, Gene is restarting his life.
“I’ve had to put off a lot of things because of their health issues,” he says. “But for the last three months since they’re both gone, I’ve made trips to the family home in Baltimore, and I’ve started to enjoy being there again.”
One of his latest projects is a series of oil paintings on wood. He found the scraps in the Baltimore workshop and built a tiny easel to work on them.
“I like to think outside my comfort zone,” he says as he assembles the easel and places it on his desk. “I started making the tiny paintings – some are only 2 inches by 2 inches – because I used the wood that I had.”
Gene has been so busy for such a long time that he hasn’t thought about what his next venture will be.
He has a couple of ideas for children’s books and sometimes wishes he could spend all his time in the Baltimore woodworking shop, where things are peaceful and quiet.
In the next five years, he’d like to retire yet still do passion projects.
“Life’s good again,” he says. “I’m starting to enjoy life again for the first time in a long time. It’s new for me.”
Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 15, 2019.
Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.
Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling