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Meramec Instructor A Master At Mixing Media

by Linda Briggs-Harty
Posted on May 30, 2008


In the middle of the band classroom at St. Louis Community College-Meramec, teacher and conductor Gary Gackstatter becomes still, his mind's eye evoking an area in Kansas that has shaped his mind and heart â¡ the Flint Hills.

The reverence he shows toward the native prairie region in east-central Kansas finds outlet in a host of artistic genres: musical composition and conduction, pen and ink illustration, instrumental performance, academic instruction and more.

This multi-talented artist, newly transplanted from Kansas, is keen on arousing interest here in such places as the Flint Hills. In folksy guitar pieces and lofty symphonic works, Gackstatter captures the still yet vibrant air of the rolling grasslands he called home before moving to Kirkwood last year and starting to conduct the concert band and teach music at the community college.

A recent community college premiere of a symphony he wrote about the Flint Hills stirred widespread attention. Projecting the image of Kansas artist Mark Flickinger's paintings of the Flint Hills on screens while performing "Grouse Creek Sympony," Gackstatter proved again he's a master of mixing media.

"People had the response I was looking for â¡ they said the paintings looked better because of the music and the music sounded better because of the paintings," said Gackstatter. "It touched them on a spiritual level, beyond words. That's the realm of art."

He said he plans on pushing the limits in St. Louis like he did in Kansas as a teacher/conductor at Cowley College in Arkansas City, Wichita State University and Southwestern College in Winfield, among other positions held.

Gackstatter earned acclaim in Kansas for raising the cultural bar. In 2006, he won the Kansas Governor's Arts Award as a multi-genre artist (the awards council made a new category to account for his many contributions).

Looking the folk artist like his role models the late Dan Fogelburg or Cat Stevens, Gackstatter has arranged symphonic debuts for such music greats as Kansas, Three Dog Night, John McCutcheon and Tom Chapin, among others.

One creative symphony that debuted at Cowley College was based on a re-recording of the "To Kill A Mockingbird" score, with three of the movie's actors â¡ Brock Peters, Phillip Alford and Mary Badham â¡ providing narration.

Other symphonic compositions blend art in novel ways as well: "Jacob the Baker," with author Noah benShea; "The Picture Book Symphony," with Children's Book Artist/Author M.B. Goffstein; "The Cartoon Symphony," highlighted by the cartoons of Max Fleischer; and "The Mask Sympony," accompanied by Rob Faust's masked characters.

Gackstatter said his original compositions are the best selling scores at C. Allen Publications. Works range from concert band to string and full orchestra to symphony to ensemble pieces.

"I've had 20 works published in the last three years," he said. "The publishing company sold over 3,000 scores in that short time alone."

He has recorded two solo and five group CDs, all available along with his art on his Web site, www.garygackstatter.com.

A recently published book of pen and ink drawings attests to Gackstatter's manual as well as musical art skills. Bare trees, post rock fence posts, stone bridges and other striking scenes from the Flint Hills show the depth of his talent and his feelings for the Kansas prairie.

Personal essays accompanying the artwork indicate he's a gifted writer too.

"Here on the prairie, we know the economy of the times not by newspapers, but by the sky whose wind and whispers, clouds and clues are clear to read," he wrote in one poem dedicated to a deceased relative.

One of the more interesting adventures he initiated was guided tours of the Flint Hills. Leading groups himself (along with other guides) until he moved to St. Louis, he donated all proceeds from the tours to the Arkansas City Arts Council. Tours to date have included thousands of people from all over the country â¡ photographers, history buffs, nature lovers and others, Gackstatter said.

"There's something there in the Flint Hills because there's not very much else there," he said. "Trees, water, stone and sky are the elemental forces. Modern people think people form the land. In Kansas, we see that the land forms the people."

The area definitely formed his own people: his mother, the late Fern Gackstatter, an amateur watercolorist, hailed from Otis, Kansas, southwest of Salina. His dad, Edwin Gackstatter, an amateur musician, grew up on a farm in Phillipsburg, near the Nebraska border. The farm is owned by a cousin now, Gackstatter said.

His parents met in Kansas when the elder Gackstatter worked on a pipeline for the local gas company. The couple moved to Guymon, Okla., where Gary was born in 1959. He has an older sister and a twin sister who is a band director at a high school in Edmond, Okla.

Gackstatter earned a BME from Southwestern Oklahoma State University and a MMP from Wichita State University. He said he hopes to expand the music program at St. Louis Community College at Meramec in Kirkwood.

He's married to Gretchen and has two children. The family loves living in Kirkwood and checking out the natural wonders of Missouri, he said.

"I've already drawn limestone formations at Hawn State Park, Castlewood Park and the Rocheport area," he said.

Gackstatter will showcase his pen and ink sketches in the upcoming Webster Art & Air Fair June 6-8 as well as Clayton Art Show in the early fall.

"It's hard to explain to people what I do â¡ I'm all over the board," he said.