Artist/teacher Grace Graupe Pillard’s life is like an artist’s diptych, two paintings closely connected by one motif. One side is colored by life in a small town and the other by life in Manhattan. Each is tinted by the life of a hard working artist and a generous teacher of beginning to advanced art students.
Graupe Pillard has been teaching painting on Tuesdays in four back-to-back classes at the Arts and Crafts Center in Middletown at Monmouth County's Thompson Park for 37 years. Part of the county Park System's class offerings, you won’t see her classes listed in the county catalog because her students keep returning session after session and spread the word to new aspiring artists, keeping her class consistently full before it's even announced.
Her connection to two locations offers the artist all that she needs to work and to feed her fertile imagination. One,a studio in a converted synagogue in suburban Keyport, has enough space for her to work on her huge brilliant canvases. The other, a small apartment in New York City, is an urban springboard from which she can visit friends, art galleries and museums.
Having that access to the art scene in New York City, Graupe Pillard said, is very important. “I lived in New Mexico in the 1970's for six years and felt very isolated from NYC, which was a form of home-sickness since I was born and raised in Manhattan and the Bronx," she said. "Things have really changed in this Internet Age as the centers for viewing art and being connected are much more diverse, interwoven and international.”
She explained that after 14 years in a Freehold studio, she needed a larger space with high ceilings and more storage for a large body of work. She found that the high ceilinged spot in Keyport was perfect for her. “I fell in love with the beautiful detailing on the outside," Graupe Pillard said. "Being an artist, of course the aesthetic appearance of the building influenced me. The fact that it was a synagogue was secondary/ancillary.”
On the other hand, her apartment in Manhattan is tiny. “Just large enough for me to stay in when I go to openings or make studio visits and see friends," she said. "For the past eight years, I have taught an intensive fellowship public art workshop — The Edwin Austin Abbey Mural Workshop — at the National Academy Museum in NYC on 89th Street and 5th Avenue. So, having my place was ideal when I needed to teach in the city."
An added benefit of teaching in Middletown is that she goes to the local shows in which her students are exhibiting, as well as the shows in the City. “I have taught hundreds of students who exhibit and are given opportunities to show their work to a larger audience in Monmouth County," Graupe Pillard said. "I am proud of their many achievements.”
Graupe Pillard calls her Tuesday classes, her “little school.” She arrives at about 7:30 a.m. to set up the easels so that her students can begin painting as soon as they arrive. She leaves around 10 p.m., after she has put all of the easels away, as well as the many paintings that her students leave behind to work on the next week.
But, Graupe Pillard’s school is not so little. It is made up of at least 100 artists with varying degrees of expertise. There are probably not many Monmouth County painters who have not studied with Grace Graupe Pillard at one time or other.
And visit any one of her classes and you will find as much diversity as there is in the world of painting. She does not impose her style, as incredible as it is, on any of her students. She can teach abstraction as well as realism, impressionism and expressionism, cubism and minimalism.
She is equally at home teaching still lifes, landscapes, seascapes, portraiture and figure drawing. In fact, if you are ambitious enough to gather your family together for a photograph from which to paint a family group, Graupe Pillard’s class is the place to work. With her experienced eye, she can guide you toward a realistic depiction of every character in your family.
Graupe Pillard understands the pull of family stories told through painting. The motif of her paintings is based on lessons she learned as the child and grandchild of German Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Germany and landed in upper Manhattan.
Growing up, she was acutely aware that her anxious parents, and her grandmother who lived with them, were always worried about relatives who were unable to get out of Germany. They were worried for good reason. Many of her relatives died in concentration camps.
A sensitive child, it is no wonder that she focuses on the plight of the disenfranchised and displaced in her huge, colorful and disturbing paintings full of references to the human cost of war. But, as deep and meaningful as these paintings are, she is also capable of depicting whimsy and joy in her public art, and the humanity of individuals in her drawings and portraits.
One local example of her public art is a porcelain enamel sculpture at the Matawan/Aberdeen train station. But her sculptures also grace the Hoboken 2nd Street Station, the Garfield Avenue Station in Jersey City and the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City, as well as other locations.
A twin, Graupe Pillard says the need to get “beyond the surface appearance of people,” comes from her need to differentiate, to really see people. “As children, my sister and I were often compared and not seen as separate entities.”
In college, Graupe Pillard majored in history and political science with a minor in literature and even toyed with taking a masters degree in Russian Area Studies before accepting her natural inclination toward artistic expression.
At the City College of N.Y. she said she learned about power, who has it and how it is abused. By the time she enrolled in the Art Students' League in NYC, she had fine-tuned her social conscience and sensibilities, but needed to find her voice. She drew from the model five days a week for three years. Once she grounded herself in craft, she never looked back, only forward toward her evolution as the artist of distinction that she has become.
Her evolution as an artist has taken her from drawing realistic portraits, through abstraction, sculpture, mixed media and into producing videos. She has always used photographs in her mixed media work, but now her photographs stand on their own.
“Since I am primarily a painter, that is my focus, but making videos and doing photography are very exciting for me," Graupe Pillard said. "My last two one-person shows in NYC were exhibiting digital photos.”
She explained: “Wherever my work leads me I follow. I learned Adobe Photoshop to enrich the sources for my paintings and to manipulate imagery. I recently spent a year learning Final Cut, which is a video editing program. I am a bit of a techie who loves doing the editing. It keeps me 'centered' as the hippies of the bygone era, my era, would have said.”
She also does a great deal of research for source materials. She studies images from magazines, books, newspapers, film and through computer searches. Once she decides on an image, she manipulates it in one of her digital programs. A detail oriented artist, she said, “I wade though a lot of material and than allow an intuitive response to kick in.”
Graupe Pillard says she “floats between two worlds,” NYC and NJ and has a resume for each place. She is represented by the Rupert Ravens Contemporary Gallery in Newark, but she is also represented by a gallery outside of both states, the Carl Hammer Gallery in Chicago.
A mature artist now, she has always worked in series. “I just ended a show of five pieces from my new series Desecrated Landscapes at the Newark Gallery,” she said, explaining that one, The Deodar Tree, is the latest. "I added two panels using the colors of the flags of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan," she said. "And like the Deodar Tree, that does not observe borders and boundaries, I conflated the different nation-state flags.”
At the end of last year, she had an exhibition of her series Holocaust: Massacre of the Innocents at Rider University Art Gallery in Lawrenceville. Among the works is a series of crouching figures done is pastel on cutout canvas. The cutout shapes are large, about 80-by-70 inches, and teaming with layers of Holocaust imagery over writing or barbed wire.
Graupe Pillard said she likes to “layer divergent imagery, so that fresh connections can be made.”
In 2006-06, her series Interventions showed in NYC at The Proposition in Chelsea and also was shown at the Scope Art Fair in London. In addition, two of her digital prints, called Disturbances, were included in the International Print Center exhibit in NYC.
She explained that in 2008, she began a series entitled Disturbances, where she substituted a subtle disturbance in the digital pixels that is a part of her overall painting style as well as incorporated black and white imagery.
“For the past nine years, I have been working on an ambitious, large body of work dealing with war and the resulting collateral damage," the artist said. "It is made up of paintings, photographs and videos."
From a distance, her paintings look almost like the most vividly beautiful abstracts, but closer up they are powerful depictions of a brutal reality. Graupe Pillard explained that she uses heightened colors to seduce the viewer to look more closely at the work. She said that the beautiful colors reflect the "sanitization" of the horrors of war depicted in the media.
When Graupe Pillard looks at art, she sees forms and shapes, so the forms in her work are flatly colored shapes that she first invents on her computer through the use of filters.
“The resulting painted shapes are exploding, fragmented and blowing up the authenticity of my source materials so that the final result is distilled and disintegrated from its original context and all we are left with is the fragmentation of reality," she said. "Refugees figure prominently in these paintings being forced to flee the country of their birth."
“Most recently,” Graupe Pillard said, “I focused on the land itself creating a series of triptychs entitled Desecrated Landscapes. By adding panels to each side of the main center image, the panels function as a framework giving further formal and conceptual insight and potency to the artwork.”
Graupe Pillard’s video shorts add another element to her resume. “The Four Graces are the four videos I did about my attempt to come to terms with aging and the fight to be seen as an individual who cares about issues and who is still attempting to 'dance' despite the vagaries that come with aging,"she said. Her videos can be viewed on Vimeo or on YouTube and her Web site is http://ggp.neoImages.net.
“As artists we must continually question what we do and our relevancy, or else the work becomes formulaic, stale and slick," Graupe Pillard said. "Those periods of questioning are vital to the artistic process, even if I don't like them, I now trust them. Now I am making videos and large-scale photographs, but at the same time, I am painting.”
Graupe Pillard said she like “floating between two worlds” and has no plans to retire from teaching yet. “I need that stimulation,” she said.
A new Thompson Park workshop begins on May 3. Interested artists can sign up for one of the four classes: 9:30 to 11:30 a.m., noon to 2 p.m., 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. and 7:30-9:30 p.m. In addition, for the first time in nine years, Graupe Pillard will be teaching two classes over the summer from 4 to 6 p.m. and 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. To register, please call (732) 842-4000 then press #1 for reservations.