The Synchronicity of Gronk
Lauraine dragged me to LACMA to see the “Hispanic Art in America” show in 1987. It was stunning. Among my favorite pieces in that show was this one, by the artist Gronk. It’s from his series of scenes from the Titanic. I got a poster.
She and I broke up a year later, and when I started going out again, I treated myself to season tickets to the LA Theater Company; I enjoyed being able to see a real performance every month. One show I noticed had backdrop and props with a similar look to the Gronk I remembered from the museum. I didn’t think much of it until the show ended and someone came on stage and announced the theater was going out of business that evening, and the rest of the 1991 season was canceled. Things got crazy after that.
But I wanted to check on those props. Before leaving the theater I went backstage to find someone to talk to. The building was going to be padlocked that night at midnight, or maybe the next morning, and it was already pandemonium behind the scenes. I could see the gravestones stacked up near the door, and I tried to find someone to pay so I could take them. Different people kept starting to agree to a deal, and then hedged to go find someone else to decide. Finally I was told they’d charge me $100 for the stack, but they would put them aside and I had to come back at 7am to pay and pick them up.
I couldn’t sleep, and got there at 6:30am, nervous about what I’d find. There were still people milling around everywhere, moving everything, but I didn’t see the gravestones. When I finally found my guy he told me that it was a good thing we waited — when he checked, he said, he found those props had been painted by a “famous artist” and were worth thousands of dollars. So they had been taken away. He was sorry.
I was disheartened by the morning’s events. The gravestones would have looked cool in my old Spanish bungalow. When I got home from LATC that morning there was a message blinking on my answering machine. From Lauraine. We hadn’t spoken much since breaking up the year before, but she had called about a thrift store in Atwater Village. She said she had been there, looking through a stack of paintings leaning up against a back wall, and one looked to her like a Gronk, and she knew I liked him. If I was interested I should go check it out.
What an odd coincidence — as soon as I lost the props from the theater, I was at a thrift shop flipping through canvases. When I got to it there was no doubt which painting she had seen. This was almost certainly by Gronk, or at least purposely in his style. The thrift guy sold me the enormous canvas for $900 and I barely fit into my Celica convertible with the top down. But Jen held onto it as I drove home, and it went up on the wall at Hollyridge.
Scott, my college roommate, who in 1993 was an animator for Disney, was slated to direct a segment for their upcoming project Fantasia II. Scott was experimenting with non-photorealistic computer rendering, and had an idea for a story and look, but wanted to work with an outside artist. He had long been interested in the painting on my wall and appreciated both the process and the visual style…and decided to get in touch with Gronk himself. Gronk later described the experience as surreal — and particularly enjoyed having a limo show up in his LA neighborhood to take him to the Disney studios (he doesn’t drive). They did some visual development for the film, but in the end Disney went in other directions. And Scott went on to do the technical direction on The Iron Giant (1999), a classic!
When Jen and I left LA for Santa Cruz in 1994, we found there weren’t many spaces in our rental large enough to hang the Gronk. So we kept it on the wall at Petroglyph, our creative retail studio, first in Santa Cruz and later in Los Gatos. In 1997 we opened a Petroglyph in San Jose — our sixth location — and were doing more community projects and adult events in the studios. Petroglyph didn’t just have kid parties, we frequently had evenings with wine and cheese and ceramic painting. We were excited when the San Jose Museum of Art was looking to schedule our venue for a member’s event. Usually it doesn’t matter why an organization holds an event, but I was curious so I asked — turns out they were welcoming Gronk, who’s retrospective show was about to open at the museum.
When I heard that Gronk was going to be at Petroglyph in Willow Glen, I moved his painting into the store. This was yet another unusual coincidence with Gronk, and this time I hoped I’d actually get to meet him. There was just a little nervousness that the painting on the wall wasn’t his. But it was time to find out.
Gronk showed up. He was delightful and gracious about letting me take pictures of him painting. He confirmed the one on the wall (“The Three Sisters”) was indeed his and explained how he sometimes paid his rent or purchased some service through trading for paintings he’d make, and this struck him as a larger one he did, during his Titanic series, that he must have traded.
I photographed him with the first digital camera I owned, a Sony Mavica, saving the image onto a floppy disk. It’s still one of my favorite portraits.
And Jen and I moved our Gronk painting to the museum permanently a few years later.
But that’s not the end of the story.
Facebook allowed me to reconnect in 2012. And then couple years later I was in LA doing some photography of artists at work, and I decided to reach out to see if I could visit him and shoot him painting. He agreed.
Still a fan.