BY LISA PERKINS
MAPLE CITY — It all started with a doodle.
Jerry Gretzinger doodled the beginnings of a map as a way to escape the boredom of a less than stimulating job at a ball bearings factory while attending the University of Michigan.
That was 1963. Today, nearly 50 years later, Gretzinger's map is comprised of 2,600 panels, spanning nearly 2,000 square feet, and will soon be exhibited by the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
"I had a romantic notion of what London or Paris would look like. It was roughly based on London but quickly took on a life of its own," said Gretzinger, 69, at the Maple City farm he shares with his wife and two dogs.
The map grew as it accompanied Gretzinger though college, a stint with the Peace Corps in Tunisia, to his SoHo loft in New York City, but eventually ended up in his Cold Spring, N.Y. attic while he raised a family.
"In 2003, my son Henry found the map in the attic. It was all dusty. He wanted to know what it was and if he could have it," said Gretzinger, whose interest in the project was quickly reignited.
Gretzinger's imaginary world, painted in shades from blue, green, grey and brown to reds and pinks, has evolved while it has expanded. Using an elaborate system to make revisions and additions, he chooses random instructions from a deck of modified playing cards.
"I used to work on the panels, taking them in order from the top to the bottom of the stack. When I got so many panels that it would have taken me years to get through the stack, I needed to devise a way to jump around," he said.
The cards, that Gretzinger refers to as future predictors, provide instructions like "add infrastructure," "new grey collage" or "new void." The later directs the artist to block out whatever features currently exist on a specified 8-by-10-inch panel and begin anew.
"When I'm with it, I work on it every day. My way of working is quirky. I may be back and forth working on it 15 times during the day," he said.
Gretzinger's map continues to be a work in progress, but he only recently began to consider it a work of art.
"He is persistent, deliberate in his randomness and crazy, in the best sense of the word," said his wife, Meg Staley, an artist in her own right.
For more than 20 years the couple owned a successful art-to-wear clothing line, Staley/Gretzinger. The Manhattan-based business manufactured and sold their exclusive designs at specialty stores across the country.
Gretzinger's favorite project began to get noticed in 2008 when he was invited to show 16 panels at an exhibit in Oakland, Calif. He received invitations to two larger showings a year later, including a 800 panel show for Grand Rapids' ArtPrize competition.
Inspired by her husband's newfound success, Staley commissioned a documentary filmmaker, Greg Whitmore, to tell the story of Jerry's Map. The short film, selected as a staff favorite on Vimeo, went viral on the online video library frequented by artists.
"It was really exciting, we had 55,000 hits in just a matter of three days," Gretzinger said.
Whitmore's film was brought to the attention of Joe Thompson, director of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, who invited the artist to come talk about displaying the entire map for the first time.
"I have never seen the whole thing laid out. I thought if he invites me to show here, I'm going to burst into tears, I would be so happy," he said.
After discussing the logistics of exhibiting such a massive work, the two came to an agreement to display the map on the floor of the museum's Hunter Center with catwalks installed to allow for viewing from above.
Jerry's map will be on exhibit at the museum, Oct. 5-14, along with a reproduction of his Cold Spring studio on site.
"It is such a moment in a 70 year old life, to be able to see your life come together is kind of amazing. This is Jerry's time," Staley said.
Whitmore's film, "Jerry's Map," can be seen at http://vimeo.com/6745866.