Larry, quite contrary

Published April 27, 2007

Larry Gagner remembers the look on his teammates' faces when he showed up at Pittsburgh Steelers training camp in 1969.

All on account of two 48-inch fern stands.

Gagner, then a 6-foot-2, 255-pound offensive guard for the pro football team, had picked them up at an antique shop somewhere in North Carolina. He'd been driving to camp from Ormond Beach when he discovered the stands.

He just had to have them.

So he strapped them to the roof of his Porsche and continued on his way.

"I'll always remember it," he said. "Like two battering rams coming down the highway. I drive into camp several hours later and "Mean Joe" Greene is the first guy who catches a glimpse of me, and he about laughs me out of camp."

These days, Gagner, 63, prefers to talk about art and antiques over a glass of pink Crystal Light or his wife's iced tea than about his five years in the NFL. He has turned his home and yard into an eclectic space filled with his sculptures and antiques.

"We get people that stop all the time on the street," Doris Gagner said. Must be the curious structure in the front yard - a tall archway made of Deco art glass block. And Gagner is likely to invite onlookers in, as he did with three women he once caught ogling the house.

"Well, come on. I'll show you the whole ponderosa," he told them.

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Football was in Gagner's heart, but he was never a "live or die football guy." He always had other interests, namely the arts.

So after a hip injury ended his football career, Gagner returned home to Ormond Beach, just north of Daytona Beach, to pursue his other "hot buttons."

He had a degree in commercial art and was determined to give painting a real go.

"Nobody told me it was gonna be this difficult to make a living," he said.

He worked several jobs while trying to sell his work. He drove a taxi, worked in security and served as a substitute teacher for several years.

In the 1980s, he started making sculptures from glass blocks he recovered from the motel his family used to own in Ormond Beach. Each cottage had a Deco glass block snack bar.

"I'll tell you, those are my fondest memories of my life, growing up in that motel," Gagner recalled, sitting in his Seminole Heights home. He remembered how each snack bar had a view of the ocean.

When the motel was sold to make way for condos, he took part of it with him.

"I went over there and asked for all the glass block," he said. "I don't know what my fascination was back then with it."

Call it nostalgia. Call it a stubborn vision. But the glass blocks moved Larry Gagner.

They moved him to make glass angels. Neon red lips. A glowing Jesus on the cross. Fluorescent flamingos. Bulls. An anatomically correct football player that he'll invite visitors to "bend down and take a peek" at.

At first he experimented with the awkward glass medium, testing its limited shapes, making what he calls "trite, square shapes - nothing that I would consider creative."

Then it hit him.

"One day I had a number of blocks together and I'm trying to juxtapose them to one another," said Gagner, his gruff voice rising and quickening, his rugged hands moving in step with the memory

"All of a sudden my brain says, gator snout! It looks like a gator snout!" The inspiration led to more than 60 glass block sculptures.

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The gator is not such an unlikely muse for Gagner. He did, after all, attend the University of Florida on a football scholarship. He played there in the mid 1960s alongside future Gators coach Steve Spurrier.

He keeps most of the sculptures in the back yard of the rust-colored, circa 1925 home he shares with Doris. They are approaching their silver anniversary.

"Larry was my first antique," Doris likes to tell people.

He introduced her to antiquing: "Larry can't drive by a trash can with a big heap of stuff without stopping," she joked.

With the art, the antiques and the quirky things the couple have picked up over the years, they don't have room in their house for much more. He made a lot of the furniture in the home, including the glass block table in their kitchen. Almost every piece has a story.

Now Gagner has written a manuscript he calls Jock to Smock. He describes it as a collection of anecdotes from his life.

He hopes to see it published one day, but he's in no rush. He has plenty of other things he wants to do, like start a youth program to help kids.

"The ideas come so quick, I just get excited about them. They pop in my head and, boy, that gets me up in the morning."

Erika Vidal can be reached at evidal@sptimes.com or 813 226-3339.


. fast facts

Portrait of the artist

Alma mater: University of Florida

Age: 63

Web site: Many of Gagner's glass block sculptures and paintings can be viewed at www.larrygagner.com (click on his image).

Church: Church of Christ

Past gigs: Professional lineman, construction worker, professional mover, taxi driver