July 27, 1935 – July 19, 2017
In John Yerger's work, it is difficult to tell where paint ends and reality begins.
The accomplished Buffalo artist, who succumbed to cancer on Wednesday at 81 years old, created meticulous paintings within paintings that often stunned first-time viewers. They featured miniature picture postcards and tattered portraits of famous artists tacked on wooden slats coated in flaking green paint. Pins, paper clips and thumbtacks appear to protrude from the surface of the canvas, giving the convincing effect of three dimensions emerging improbably from a flat surface.
Yerger was a nationally acknowledged master of the style known as "trompe l'oeil," a technically demanding style of still-life painting in which the artists achieve a convincing effect of three-dimensionality through the meticulous and calculated application of paint.
"He was in very rare company, in terms of someone who has mastered the trompe l'oeil technique on a national level," said Buffalo art collector Gerald Mead, who noted that Yerger's paintings were often deeply researched tributes to other artists. "The works weren't just technically perfectly executed. There was a very distinct narrative that he was telling through the pieces."
John Allen Yerger was born in Buffalo on July 27, 1935 to Dorothy Yerger, an accomplished watercolor painter, and Lloyd Yerger, a pianist and engineer for the Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation.
Yerger attended Nardin Academy and the Buffalo Art Institute. According to his sons, Scott and Mark Yerger, he enlisted in the Air Force in the mid-1950s. He served part of his enlistment in Morocco, later joking with his sons that his time in the Air Force was more like the film "Casablanca" than what you may expect from a combat zone.
When he returned to civilian life, Yerger attended the prestigious Vesper George School of Art in Boston, where he learned the academic painting techniques favored by American and European masters. For about 20 years, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, he worked in the shipping and receiving department of Sisters of Charity Hospital.
Yerger's first local exhibition, a two-person painting show, was held at the University at Buffalo in 1965 and was followed the next year by a solo show at D'Youville College. At that time and for much of his career, Yerger was dedicated to landscape painting in the style of Winslow Homer and Andrew Wyeth.
He continued to hone his style over the years, working in relative obscurity and beginning to take on students in the 1980s, until he hit upon his technique in the early 1990s. The trompe l'oeil approach allowed Yerger to fuse his technical prowess as a painter with his deep interest in art history. His portraits feature artists such as Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, Thomas Le Clear and even "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz – each, in his estimation, masters of their chosen form.
Yerger's work reached a new level of recognition in 2007, when Buffalo art dealer Dana Tillou and his brother, Peter, organized an exhibition of his paintings in the Adelson Galleries in New York City. As a result of that show, Yerger's homage to Wyeth was purchased by the esteemed Brandywine River Museum in Cadds Ford, Penn.
Aside from his late-career painting, which seems to be gaining increased attention, Yerger made a marked impact on local art students. He taught out of his own home studio as well as in association with Partners in Art, the North Tonawanda gallery and school.
"Working with John was like going to a professional art school without having to go to a professional art school," said Partners in Art co-founder Joan Horn. "John was a gentle soul and an amazing talent, and he shared that with so many people over the years."
Coni Minneci, one of Yerger's most committed students, praised her mentor for his patience and generosity with those who were committed to putting in the necessary work.
"He just raised you up," Minneci said. "You always had to try harder. He was really encouraging to those who persevered and wanted to work hard."
Yerger had other passions aside from painting, to which his sons said he was similarly dedicated. He was an accomplished athlete, an expert in astronomy who built his own telescope and a devotee of the art of bonsai.
As recently as Thursday, Yerger was working on a painting commemorating the sinking of the Titanic, which he did not finish. His sons said that when he died, a heaping pile of research about the ship remained at his bedside.
"To do a picture of the Titanic, you would think you didn't need to have all the background," Mark Yerger said. "You wouldn't think it would inform a single portrait. But that's just the way he worked."
Aside from his sons, Yerger is survived by his wife, Mary Ann, and five grandchildren. His first wife, Kathleen D. Yerger, died in 1981.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday in St. Margaret R.C. Church, 1395 Hertel Ave.