By Carolyn Males
Artist Richard Grant has saltwater in his veins. That’s despite the fact he was born in the Chicago area and lived there a good chunk of his life. But it was his memories of his teen years in Santa Monica when he discovered surfing that drew him and his wife, Susan, to the beach on Hilton Head Island more than three years ago. Once again, he could catch the waves on his board and feel the sunshine on his skin.
In turn, he would trade his more muted Chicago palette for the warmer, nature-inspired colors of the Lowcountry. And now sea turtles, ocean waves, and sand would find their way into his latest abstract paintings. With bold lines and geometric patterns infused with Grant’s sense of humor, his take on the area looks like no one else’s.
Grant’s large studio encompasses the bottom floor of his new house on Broad Creek. Here in this light-filled space, I find the artist with two works propped up on his easel: the bottom one with ribbons of black lines on a gray background that interplay with reds, blues, greens, and white; and the small top piece, one of his signature Sumi-e style heart-shaped turtle paintings with smooth simple brushstrokes and dark outline.
Looking around the room, it’s clear there’s a lot going on: canvases stacked on shelves or propped against each other. Books on William Morris, Mondrian and other artists who have influenced him. A great sound system. Orchid plants, crystals, and a Buddha on window sills. A rolling cart packed with acrylic paints and brushes within easy reach of his easel.
Now as we settle in to talk, he on a chair and me on a couch anchored by an oriental rug, I find myself looking up to see a Picasso-style self-portrait he’s done, a kaleidoscope of oranges, yellows and browns. It’s just one of the many painting techniques he’s explored.
[Q] You came to an art career after many years in the restaurant business.
[Richard Grant] I was always interested in art, but it went by the wayside as I got involved in front-of-the-house management of restaurants—a completely different and all-consuming lifestyle. Even when you’re not there, you’re still thinking about it. In Chicago, I worked with some of the best chefs in the city and met some of the greatest winemakers in the world, and I won Wine Spectator awards for wine lists I’d put together. I did all that for a long time until it became apparent I couldn’t do it anymore.
Meanwhile I had friends who owned the Thomas Masters Gallery. They’d never taken a vacation and they said, ‘can you watch the gallery for a weekend?’ Ten years later I was still working there. I knew how to sell art, talk to people there, and help them figure out their needs.
[Q] So the interest was there. How did you go about learning your craft?
[RG] When you’re immersed in a gallery, it gets your creative juices flowing. Thomas, who is a fine artist, and Agnieszka, an art historian, began giving me pointers on what I was doing right, what I could do better, what kind of canvas to use, how to think. And at that point I started doing more reading on the history of art as well as color theory. Everyone has a favorite artist when you’re young. Mine was van Gogh. But as I grew older and my taste matured, I started looking at artists like Mondrian, Frank Stella and Roy Lichtenstein with their strong use of color and their clean, simple lines. Then I discovered Mark Rothko and the abstract expressionists. And I ended up having a few shows at the gallery.
[Q] I can see their influence in your strong geometric patterns and dynamic color.
[RG] [He pulls out Cloud Spotting, a piece with curved ribbons of lines against a gray background with blues, yellows and oranges.] I draw the line and figure out what I’m going to color in. I don’t predetermine any of it. In this one, I wanted to do a take on finding animal shapes in clouds. I do the background first, draw a line with pencil, and thicken it with paint. Next I’ll fill in the colors, and then I’ll go back in, repeating the process.
[Q] What is your day like?
[RG] Painting is a way to keep my head on straight. I read a lot of Buddhism and try to keep myself calm and centered. Some people meditate. I come down here in the morning, turn the music on real loud, drink coffee and paint. I listen to all kinds of music. I have a hard drive that has ninety hours of continuous music with everything from ‘80s dance music to jazz to blues to classical on it. My wife minored in opera at Ohio State, so I like Renée Fleming, too.
[Q] Your Sumi-e turtles are big hits with tourists and locals alike.
[RG] I like Japanese art and the theory of Sumi-e brush strokes and that’s how the turtles came about. I did a Sumi-e show at the Masters Gallery and developed the heart motif. Then when I came down here, I had the idea of applying it to turtles. And that’s how I got hooked up with Amber Kuehn and the Turtle Patrol. Jenn McEwen got me a wall at the Rec Center where twenty of them are on display, and half the proceeds go to the Turtle Patrol. I’ve done David Bowie, Tom Petty, Prince, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, the Dali Lama, Mark Rothko and David Byrne turtles as well as Origami, Deco ones and more. I show them at The Purple Cow, SOBA and the Art League, too.
[Q] Any advice?
[RG] You can’t be afraid to fail. Be confident that you can fix any mistake. And sometimes you need to paint over something because what you did two years ago isn’t reflective of who you are now. LL