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I am me: After losing an eye to cancer, plein aire painter Greg McHuron resurfaces with a new perspective on life.
Jackson Hole, Wyo.- Greg McHuron, a Jackson Hole resident, is a formidable figure amongst plein aire painters countrywide. His work hangs in five galleries, including Trailside Galleries, and he is preparing for a show with Jim Wilcox at the Art Association in November. On Monday, he turned 63.
A year ago, however, McHuron thought he would never see another birthday. After battling an unusually fast-growing cancer in 2007, ultimately losing his eye and part of his jaw, he is back painting and teaching among the sagebrush and dusty roads of Wyoming.
It took a series of invasive surgeries and painful skin- and bone-graphs to remove the cancer, leaving a smooth patch of skin on the left side of his face, where his eye would be.
To those who know McHuron well, it seems the ordeal has left him a tad vulnerable and quiet.
A complex person, he’s an unsentimentally Scotch-Irish, though he’s read the Talmud and the Qur’an. He has aggressive opinions, especially about Grand Teton National Park; he’s classically trained in art, and turns to his weekly figure-sketching group to remain solidly connected with his art and his people; he loves his wife, his family and this place.
McHuron works from the time he gets up to the time he goes to bed. And despite facing his own mortality several times over, his work remains serene and fleeting, not brooding or dark, like one would expect. What is different about his work is his new signature which is now punctuated with a circle with a dot in middle of it – the cyclops.
Recently, McHuron sat with Planet Jackson Hole in his sunny studio, stacks of unframed paintings piled everywhere and a huge easel clutching a painting of Reed Glacier in Alaska, awaiting its final touches.
Planet Jackson Hole: You have a birthday coming up, is this birthday going to be different from others?
Greg McHuron: Yeah, it’s that I’m actually alive. I had a 69 percent chance of dying from either the cancer, the surgery or a combination of the two. So that’s the kind of percentage you don’t want unless you’re at a craps table in Las Vegas.
PJH: As one of your friends put it, “You’ve had a hell of a bout with cancer,” tell me about your health issues and how they unfolded. What were your first thoughts?
GM: Well, originally I had a heart attack in 1992, and I was 46. That was the first time that I really had to face a mortality type situation. I gave up a lot of things I enjoyed doing, hiking and camping and fishing. And it really, really established the fact that I needed to paint, it rekindled the fire in my belly and I’ve been painting ever since. I also lost a kidney to cancer in 2003. And I lost a hip and had to have it replaced the same year and this thing happened in 2007.
I originally had an omen that something was going to happen to me. Last year, I chose to lease a 42-foot Nordic tug out of Alaska, and I took a group of artists, my brother and my sister on a boating trip, and we painted for the six weeks. And it was during that first two weeks that the growth on my temple started to grow. And I believe it was what the omen was about. And if I had known better about the end result, I would have gone to the hospital in Juneau. And so it was one of those things where I made the call to my wife Linda on the way in to Ketchikan; I got home on a Sunday, Dennis [Butcher] had me in the office on a Monday and had the original removed on Tuesday. I eventually had to have five operations to remove it, each one more involved.
I lost my eye, they took a good piece of my scapula and two of my muscles out of my left arm to fill in the void (he points to left side of his face where his eye, and some of his face, is missing). I had a very large amount of radiation and chemotherapy.
My vocabulary isn’t what it used to be . . . the doctors took a good shot across my head in the lobotomy zone [laughs] and I’ve got a lot of friends that are really happy that’s I’ve lost about five percent of my intelligence.
PJH: Was there a decision to have the surgery to remove your eye, or not? What were your thoughts during this quick succession of events?
GM: All I wanted was to paint, but when they gave me that 69-percent chance of dying, I invited my family and my kids to come to the house, so we could talk. So that’s what we did. Did I ever feel like I just wanted to let it go? No. I’m not somebody who is interested in a suicidal decision like that. If I had a 69-percent chance of passing, well then I wanted to say goodbye, and tell my family how much I loved them and enjoyed them.
PJH: Did you stop painting?
GM: Yes. I did the preliminaries for Bert Raynes (more on this later), and then the chemotherapy in Idaho Falls got to me and I couldn’t paint anymore.
The chemo and the radiation made it virtually impossible for me … you go into a fetal position. It was one of those things where your whole body and your whole mind is really not thinking. So you go with that. And I cannot tell you when I started painting again.
PJH: I heard the first piece you did after this was a small figure sketch of your hairdresser.
PJH: You said in an interview once, “I’m a firm believer that an artist should live in an area that has the subjects he wants to paint … if you want to paint mountains, then live in the mountains.” You sketch a lot of figures, how does this apply to sketching nudes?
GM: Yes, and to me that’s the foundation. A house has to have a solid foundation in order to build what you want on top of it. And if you don’t have that, no matter what you put on top of it, sooner or later it’s going to fall down. I was very fortunate to have the instructor in high school who actually went to the same academy in Germany as Carl Rungius and he taught me on a very special course. There were 23 people in his class – 22 of who happen to be women – and one guy who happened to be a jock . . . and he thought I was taking [art] . . .
PJH: … for the girls?
GM: [laugh] No, but for an “A” in basket-weaving. And I handed him my portfolio, and based on that, he decided to put together a four-year program for me, which, today, I still adhere to. And when I teach, I use a lot of the principles that he taught me.
PJH: Are you in pain?
PJH: Has it affected your ability to work nonstop like you’re accustomed to?
GM: No. I have a very high pain tolerance . . . and I’m going to get through this one way or another. I’ve chosen not to take any more drugs of any kind. Two weeks after [my final radiation], I stopped all medication, the only medication I take occasionally is a couple of Tylenol.
PJH: How did your wife, Linda, make it through this?
GM: She’s my anchor. She’s why I’m here. If she wasn’t here, who knows. I was being watched over by doctors and nurses, and my wife wasn’t. I think that’s something that’s really, really hard.
One of the things we have to deal with is that people turn their head when they see me. And that’s something that I’ve had to accept or live with. I am strong enough to blow most of it off, but I’ve lost what I think are some of my long-time friends; they can’t stand the site of me … I try to avoid getting upset about it. It’s easier for me to NOT put myself in a position where I can get those reactions. I’ll tell you this, 99 percent of the positive reactions are from women. It’s because they’re caring and more concerned. It’s generally men that turn away, they don’t want part of it, it’s like I’m a leper. Kids are really good, they’ll come right up to me and say, “Hey, what happened to your eye?”
PJH: Now with one eye, has your perspective on art changed; probably literally it has, but what about emotionally or intellectually?
GM: I don’t think so. I mean it may. All I know is that I want to paint and the paintings that I’ve finished since this, the people viewing them seem to have a very, very strong opinion of them, from a positive standpoint.
PJH: What compensations do you have to make with one eye?
GM: Now, in order to finish oil paintings and to really look at them closely and work with them, and with knowing that I don’t have 100 percent control of the brush, it’s easier for me to use the shadow of the brush and it’s convergence with the light, so I know when it’s going to hit the panel when I want it to.
PJH: I looked at one of your new paintings at Trailside Gallery this morning, and I noticed it was just a little rougher around the edges. It’s very subtle.
GM: It could very well be. I don’t have the binocular vision. I don’t know. There’s two things that are going on, I think a lot of people today don’t understand edges and one of the things I want to do is move people around within my paintings using edges, to see life with edges. And a lot of the young [viewers] today want everything blurred, they don’t want edges. And to me, we all see edges, irrespective of what people are trying to tell you.
PJH: Do you like abstract paintings?
GM: Defining what’s representational or abstract … to me everything is an abstraction of reality anyway. If you’re looking at the Tetons, everything you do to them, you’re abstracting something from them.
There are things about abstract work that I enjoy, but it also has to do with the artist that has the basic knowledge of what they need to do, the proper steps.
As I get older and the more paintings that I’ve done, I look for more abstract designs in nature. I tend to really push the limit of the design elements into abstract.
PJH: How do you compare studio painting verses plein aire painting?
GM: Do I feel plein aire painters have an edge over studio painters? No. I think that plein aire painting is very, very important – that is our schoolhouse, that’s where you study light, that’s where you see how things are affected under grey skies, blue skies, sunset … all these different things. And do I think plein aire painting should be finished outside? No. There’s a five-to-10-percent of a plein aire painting that needs to be looked at in your studio to see if it’s going to work as a fine art piece.
PJH: Tell us about the bird book you’re working on with Bert Raynes.
GM: Bert wanted to do at least one more book, and after the surgery, and when I started to mend, he wanted me to illustrate what he had in mind. His specific arena of birds were two areas where birders don’t go into: one is scree slopes and the other sagebrush flats. [Bert] gave me a list of birds that he would like me to illustrate. But what I said to Bert was that I would like to put an animal in the book with the birds because I think that a lot of birders and mammalogist- s don’t interact, and to me the environment is the most important thing, the totality of it.
Bert said, “How are you going to do that?” I said it would be on my gouache paper and there would be a silhouette of an animal that’s in the same environment as the bird.
So this book is a situation where I get to come up with the original idea of what I want to do, and Bert’s going to write about it. I told Bert I wasn’t going to tell him what my thoughts were when I put [the painting] together because if I did, that would not give him the freedom to view it without that pre-knowledge.
Bert went to Jim McNutt at the National Museum of Wildlife Art ,and I submitted three paintings and they said “Let’s do it. “
PJH: So the Museum will publish the book?
PJH: Both you and Bert are long-time residents, icons in this valley. What do the two of you have in common?
GM: Curmudgeons. [laughs.] I really like Bert and he is a very honest individual. I’m an honest person too.
PJH: You are known as a notorious curmudgeon, but also known for being incredibly generous, and have mentored a lot of painters like Carol Swinney, Erin O’Connor and Kathy Turner. How does this fit into your philosophy as a professional painter, is it a pay it forward mission, something that rubbed off from your mentor, Conrad Schwiering?
GM: I think we should all be involved in this kind of thing. We’re working in a profession that is so subjective, it’s scary. What happens a lot of time are artists are operating with the wrong idea and they are waiting some big inspiration. They’re not taking baby steps, or painting the miles of canvas you have to.
I was already a professional artist when I met Conrad [Connie] Schwiering and Connie and I painted together, side-by-side, but where I couldn’t see what he was doing and he couldn’t see what I was doing, but we could talk to each other. I never took a tutorial from Connie because I was strictly a watercolorist and I wasn’t doing oils like Connie. And he and I just enjoyed each other’s company. Eventually, he was the one who converted me, from a market standpoint, to oils. He was very, very good about straightening out my pysche on the reality of art.
PJH: What do you mean [Conrad Schwiering] straightened out your pysche?
GM: Well he talked about the reality of art and what you have to go through: the pricing, whether you’re doing very few paintings or doing a lot of paintings … We talked about his experience with the New York student art league and the people he had the opportunity to work with like [Charles] Chapman, John Clymer and Carl Rungius. So here you have these bridges that connect everyone.
So when you ask me how Connie straightened me out … it’s because Carl Rungius straightened Connie out. And here’s the story, Connie had finished his five hundreth painting and was feeling pretty cocky about it. He had an opportunity to be in New York and he ran into Rungius and told him about his five hundred paintings. And Rungius looked at him and said (in a thick German accent), “You do two, maybe tree tousand paintings, and then you begin!” And Connie said that was one of his big epiphanies in his life.
PJH: So how many paintings have you done?
GM: About 3,000. I’m just getting started.
PJH: You’ve lived here a long time, what do you think of all the changes in Jackson Hole?
GM: The reasons I am here are still here: most of the reasons I came were for the mountains, the animals, the variety of weather, the seasonal things. It takes very little for me to step off the road and be totally by myself to do what ever I want. But back when Connie and I painted together we would often have as many as 75 people standing behind us, watching us paint. Today, people don’t stop for somebody they don’t know. They don’t stand around because they don’t know who you are or what you’re doing. So there are more people who don’t want any part of what they’re seeing. There’s problems with that.
One of the things that really hurts me is the bike path in Grand Teton National Park. That is like somebody took a sharp knife and opened Mother Earth for the purposes of very specialized people. They’ve broken it into two sections and instead of making the bike path adjacent and abutting the highway, they’ve taken all this environment away from the animals and the birds. So now we’ve moved them further back off the road where you’re not going to get an opportunity to see them as much.
PJH: What do you think of these big, expensive fundraising events, like at the Center for the Arts, do you think these events are changing people’s expectations for arts in Jackson Hole? Do you even care?
GM: I think a lot of it has to do with the number of nonprofit groups that are trying to get money from people around here. It’s got to be very, very scary if you have a lot of money in this town. I could give away everything I paint in a year to local nonprofits, however my wife finally said “no” to the Unwed Mothers of Evanston . . . [laugh]. But really, there’s an awful lot of that. But there comes a time when an organization needs to operate within their own budget and mentality. Linda and I were married here at a time when the Town and County budgets were under a million dollars. Look at it now, it’s scary and taxes are going up. We have friends that are being driven out of the valley because their taxes are higher than their mortgages.
PJH: So there’s a new chapter in your life now, how do you see it unfolding? What are your hopes for your career from this point on?
GM: I still feel like I’m living under a shadow. Every three months I have to go down [to Salt Lake City] for a CAT-scan, anticipating that I have a very rapid growing thing that can take off and nail me next time around. So, what are my choices, do I go into a depressive state, curl up and don’t do anything? Or do I go out and do what I want to do? I’m going out to do what I want to do. Next fall, I will be teaching a workshop at Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska. If I get an opportunity, I’m going down the Grand Canyon again. Am I going to continue to live? Absolutely. Am I going to continue to create? That’s what I do.
PJH: You’ve always been a brawny Scotch-Irish, are you still the same son of bitch you used to be?
GM: Yeah, just an older son of bitch than I used to be. I am me.
Photo by Jonathan Adams