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The Arts

An artist’s intuition

Former VSC director embraces the mystery — and fun — in creativity

BRATTLEBORO—Visual artist Jon Gregg doesn’t want to spend a lot of time explaining to people what his work is all about.

“If people do not respond to what I do, I don’t want to try to convince them,” Gregg says. “I find being an artist incredibly thrilling, and I think painting is too much fun to ruin it with explanations.”

Perhaps because of this, Gregg doesn’t publicly show his art all that much. Consequently, his upcoming show in Brattleboro promises to be a special event.

On Thursday, July 14, from 5 to 7 p.m., Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts (MGFA) will host an opening reception for “Evolving a Mark,” an exhibit featuring Gregg’s work.

This show features both Gregg’s intimate drawings on paper and his large-scale oil paintings, which will be on display until Aug. 14 at both the main MGFA gallery and their new annex in the Brooks House atrium. Gallery hours are 11 a.m to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday.

Gregg often works on his big paintings for a year or two, as he constantly revises what he creates.

“I work on any given painting for a while, turn the picture upside down and consider it from that angle,” Gregg explains. “What I see in it changes, sort of like when you were a kid and watched the clouds to figure out what is a horsey or doggy. Then I move on to another painting and do the same. I have at least 12 paintings going on simultaneously.”

Gregg’s method of work is intuitive.

“If your only access is the brain, you’re lost,” he says. “If I know all about a painting before I start, it cuts out the magic and mystery, not to mention fun.”

Gregg says he came out of his mother’s womb drawing.

“I always wanted to be an artist, but was convinced as a child that you couldn’t make a living that way, so decided to do something more practical and became an architect,” he says.

After studying with the great architect Louis Kahn, Gregg moved to Vermont as part of what he characterizes as “the hippie invasion in the 1970s,” and there he slowly built an architecture practice in the state, mainly building second homes for wealthy skiers around Stowe.

“I have always loved Vermont,” Gregg readily admits. “I grew up in New York, but as a child I many times went to summer camp on Lake Fairlee in Vermont, and as early as 6 was skiing at Stowe.”

Greg’s architecture company flourished, growing from three or four people in the beginning and ending up with 75 on the payroll.

However, in 1981 and 1982, Gregg lost both his sister and older brother and decided to change his life.

“I was 39 and realized that life is shorter than I thought it is,” he says. “It was then I decided to leave it all and go out and paint.”

Since Gregg is somewhat reticent to talk about as well as show his work, he probably is less known as an accomplished artist than for his leadership of the Vermont Studio Center (VSC), which he co-founded with Frederick Osborne and Louise Von Weise in 1984 and ran for 32 years.

Situated along the banks of the Gihon River in the village of Johnson, VSC is the largest international residency program in the U.S., hosting more than 50 visual artists and writers each month and attracting residents from more than 40 countries and all of the U.S. states.

According to VSC, it draw a diverse group of participants, including established writers, painters, printmakers, and sculptors. Visiting artists interact with residents on a daily basis through readings, slide presentations, and one-on-one studio visits and writing conferences.

“We received around 4,500 applicants a year for VSC, and a jury decides who gets accepted,” Gregg says. “We try to keep a balance among the different kinds of artists who come.

“The breakdown is about a dozen writers, two dozen two-dimensional artists such as painters, and another dozen three- dimensional artists, such as sculptors and performance artists. Finally, we have a handful of printmakers, photographers, etc. We welcome folks working in every medium imaginable.

“We also try to be intergenerational when figuring who comes to VSC. Each month we do have five or six recent MFAs. However, studies have shown 90 percent of of those who got their MFA aren’t practicing art 10 years later. So at VSC, we are interested in encouraging those artists who have made it through that first 10-year hurdle, those who after some struggle still find they need to make stuff, without foreseeable remuneration or reward.”

In addition to the participants, each month, six established artists visit VSC for about a week, when they give talks or readings and are available in the studio.

Financial aid is a big component of VSC.

“We give away $1.5 million in grants, since 95 percent of those coming can’t without financial aid,” Gregg says.

VSC also has a deal for Vermonters with its Vermont Artists Week residencies that include a private room, a private studio space, and all meals for only $200.

VSC has strived to create a space that is nonhierarchical and noncompetitive.

“This philosophy comes from my 45 years of Tibetan Buddhism,” Gregg says. “In other arts centers, you find a definite pecking order, depending upon your career standing. That is not a way to live. It certainly is not conducive for making art. We want VSC to be a perfect retreat environment for pure creativity, a sort of new peaceable kingdom.”

Now Gregg is handing over the responsibility of running VSC to other hands. He retired as president of VSC last year.

“The last five or six years have been one of leadership transition at VSC,” he says. “Now we are in excellent hands, with a much younger board and a new youthful president who has been affiliated with [the program] for 25 years.

“Our board had been composed of very old members. Eight were in their 80s. Until a few years ago, Wolf and Emily Kahn were board members. Having been with us from the beginning, Wolf and Emily are such old friends that we call them honorary founders of VSC.”

Gregg says he has learned a lot from Kahn. “He is an incredibly knowledgeable man, with an intense reverence for the history of art,” he says. “I do not think he is given his due because he is so popular. He has a lot of depth beyond that.”

But Gregg realizes he has also learned a lot from many of the more than 15,000 artists, both seasoned and novices, that have gone through VSC in the past 34 years.

So now Gregg finds himself in a position, not only to be able to paint more, but to show and promote his own art.

“Being retired is cool,” confesses Gregg. “Last year, I spent 24/7 taking care of VSC. Now I have all this free time, and I exclaim to myself, ‘Oh, this is going to be fun!’”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #364 (Wednesday, July 6, 2016). This story appeared on page B1.

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