Laurence Gartel was born an artist. When he was just 2 years old, his mother once woke up to him outlining her face—and the walls—in red lipstick. What many parents would have seen as a nuisance, Gartel’s parents recognized as talent. From that moment on, they encouraged him to follow his dreams—dreams that took him to the Pells School of Art on Broadway, where he learned how to draw, and where he started down the path to becoming a pioneer of digital art.
Gartel, 61, created his first piece of digital art in 1975 at Media Study Buffalo in upstate New York. Although most of his inspiration comes from his time in New York City during the height of the punk rock era, he attributes the beginning to something much simpler: love.
“I had a girlfriend in high school and she went to the University at Buffalo,” Gartel says. “I missed her so much, and the only way to keep our relationship alive was to go up to Buffalo.”
While sitting in the back of a classroom, Gartel felt a tap on his shoulder from a man who invited him to come by his studio. It was there that Gartel was first introduced to media study.
“If it wasn’t for her going up to Buffalo, I wouldn’t have discovered [digital art] at all, so I owe it all to love,” Gartel says. “I followed love more than anything else, and I got my career for the rest of my life because of that.”
His journey wasn’t always easy. When he began his career, the idea of digital art wasn’t just new, it was unthinkable. “I had to take a lot of arrows in my back because no one ever believed that digital art would be a real art form,” Gartel says.
But his forward thinking led him to create the first digital ad for Absolut Vodka, exhibit at places like the Museum of Modern Art and the Princeton University Art Museum, write books, be featured in art history books and become Andy Warhol’s computer arts teacher. He also worked with famous faces like Debbie Harry, the Sex Pistols and, more recently, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears.
In 1991, Gartel had a museum retrospective at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. “I was so warmly welcomed that I decided to move down to South Florida and settled in Boca Raton with my wife and two children,” he says.
Today, Gartel is helping develop the Pompano Beach Cultural Center, which will have an arts hub, an amphitheater and even artist housing. Gartel will be working with the digital arts lab and programming, which so far includes kids’ programs, a theater and a dance school. He will also present his own exhibition from January through mid-February.
“You don’t think of Pompano as an art mecca, but it will become that in the next [few] decades, and it will be a great place that people will start to gravitate toward,” he says.
Although his past is impressive, Gartel says the last couple of years are his greatest yet. In addition to the Pompano Beach Cultural Center, he was the official artist for the Grammy Awards, the Newport Jazz Festival and the NASA MMS Launch at Kennedy Space Center. This year, he will be honored at the Monaco International Film Festival.
“Most of my friends are retiring, and I’m just getting started,” Gartel says.