Lover of the Wild Places: Margaret Grimes, 1943-2020
This morning a red fox crossed my path for the second time in two days, its rufous coat glowing in the pre-dawn light. Clocking its surroundings, the vixen swiftly disappeared into nearby woods. It felt like a visitation from Margaret Grimes: sensitive-eyed, brave, smart, unceasingly searching and like this fox, of abundant titian-colored hair.
A painter of the landscape, Grimes found her motifs in densely overgrown and ungroomed places. In all seasons she would take her paints and huge canvasses to carefully chosen, hard to access sites. Each completed painting was the result of many trips to the place where it was first begun. She needed to revisit the foliage, lighting and weather conditions with which she had started. Of course, she struggled with the inevitable changes she found, for that is what she loved about painting landscape. Inspired by the intricacy and linearity of briary thickets, choking vines, entwined scrub or clumps of broken sticks and bare branches, she painted attentively, as if deciphering an ancient vegetal code. She not an artist who favored the picturesque.
Landscape was a genre that Margaret never stopped thinking about. In one of her lectures, she touched on what she was after. “In art school, we were taught to look at nature as if we were seeing it for the first time. Now we look at it as if we were seeing it for the last time, hence the need to meticulously observe.” Like her mentor Neil Welliver, she understood that we humans are devouring our world, especially the overgrown, undomesticated places that support the rebirth of both flora and fauna.
Margaret Whitehurst Grimes was born in New Bern, North Carolina on June 5, 1943 and died in the Bronx, October 9, 2020. Growing up in central Michigan, her parents, Margaret W. Grimes and Alan P. Grimes, were both writers and professors at Michigan State University. As a child, her commitment to art was already apparent, and she would often go without school lunch in order to save money for art supplies. In 1964, she married painter and professor John Wallace who predeceased her in 2011. Margaret graduated in 1975 from Governors State University in Illinois earning BA and MA degrees. Most importantly, in 1976 she met Alice Neel at Notre Dame’s Women Artists-in-Residence Program. Neel’s fierce commitment to both art and politics were to prove a decisive inspiration for her. She then received her MFA from the University of Pennsylvania in 1980 where she studied with Rudy Burkhardt, Paul Georges and Welliver.
Soon after graduating, Grimes began her long association with the Blue Mountain Gallery in New York City which featured her well-received one-person exhibition of 2017, The Secret Life of Trees. Other recent exhibitions include a 2018 solo show at the John Davis Gallery in Hudson, New York. In 2019 several of her works were included in the Invitational Exhibition at the American Academy of Arts and Letters earning her the Hassam, Speicher, Betts, and Symons Purchase Award. A painting from that show is now in the collection of the Lyman Allen Museum in New London, Connecticut. In 2013 Margaret Grimes: A Retrospective was held at the Gallery of Western Connecticut State University. In an artcritical review entitled The Connective Sublime: A Retrospective for Margaret Grimes, Jennifer Samet wrote:
Margaret Grimes’ paintings are about vastness, not just the all-encompassing kind, but also vastness at the molecular or cellular level. She paints the individual leaf and the entire screen of the forest. And although Grimes depicts trees, her work also suggests technology. She paints the hard drive, the motherboard of nature.
A beloved, inspiring teacher and lecturer, Grimes initiated WestConn’s Masters of Fine Art program with her husband. It was Margaret’s desire to create a serious, challenging graduate school for students who were not able to enter more well-known MFA programs. As Program Coordinator there, she was unceasing in her efforts to give both grads and undergrads the very best art education. A driving force, she fought to get better studio spaces and enough funding to bring in well-known artists and lecturers. In 1990 she was awarded the Henry Barnard Foundation’s Distinguished Lectureship, and in 1992 she received lifetime status as a Connecticut State University Professor and the title of Distinguished Professor. A tireless teacher and mentor, her legacy continues through the achievements of those many young artists she so believed in.
In 2013 Grimes retired from WestConn as Distinguished Professor Emerita. After years of intense juggling of academic and art careers, she could, at last, give her studio the focus she felt it deserved, and her art subsequently soared in both scale and achievement. The paintings and drawings of the last seven years were, arguably, among her finest. These large-scale landscapes fulfilled her ambition to reveal an untamed world; dark, forested, richly textured, ornate, uncultivated and secretive. Dedicated to both the history and practice of landscape painting, Grimes understood that not everyone shared her interest. She often said that the genre of landscape, which depicts a world beyond our reach and scope, can be hard for some to embrace.
Margaret Grimes loved the wild places. She walked amongst them, painted there, and like her subject, lived fully and strongly. She has passed leaving loving friends, a daughter and a son, the musician Carolyn Wallace and retired software engineer Bernard Hulce, among other family members. Those who knew her will miss her stimulating company and reflect on our never dull nor ordinary times with her. While we can no longer raise another glass of Pinot Grigio with Margaret, we can still revel in her beautiful, mysterious, vibrant artworks, gifts for us now and for all those who will follow.