A Life Spent Around Water

Northport artist David Grath captures Michigan landscapes in unique way. // Photography by Coreene Kreiser
Artist, David Grath

That David Grath is “pondering” when a visitor enters his humble Northport gallery on a winter afternoon is no surprise to anyone who has met this northern Michigan icon.

Best known as one of the country’s top regional landscape painters, the 81-year-old who is dressed this day in a leather jacket and jeans also has earned a local reputation for his ability to spin a yarn, one likely interspersed with philosophy, poetry and stories of months hanging in Parisian cafés or maybe of the day a “Today” show crew interviewed him on his Leland River houseboat home of 25 years.

Today’s work of the moment seems outside his typical realm — but then maybe not. At the bottom of a bronze casting arched like a cathedral window, three faces are in the throes of different but powerful emotions — pain for one, deep thought for another. The stern but knowing face that floats above got bumped by accident and is now slightly tilted, adding a quizzical sense that wasn’t there before.

“I think I like it better this way,” Grath said, still pondering. “It’ll probably stay like this for the next 20 years or so.”

Perhaps, a visitor thinks, he has inadvertently created the ultimate self-portrait of a man whose landscape subject, and even the impetus behind hobbies like paddling and fishing (without a hook), is studying, connecting with and sharing the mysteries below.

While other landscape painters might depict the northern Michigan summer sky a robin’s egg blue, Lake Michigan a lovely shade of turquoise, a Grath painting sky is almost always a rich gold. Cadmium, he said, is a favorite base color for his landscape (and a Porsche he once had in a large car collection). Water he often paints black not for what it resembles to the eye but for what’s below: the shipwrecks of the Manitou Passage and related stories of wealth, striving, suffering, mystery. Contemporaries like artist Dan Lisuk, who chairs the board of Leland’s Old Art Building, compares the work of Grath (the organization’s first artist in residence) to Rembrandt for the use of color and power of what’s rendered.

Ironically, given the way he’s recognized for use of rich color, Grath likes to study the landscape best in months like November when leaves are stripped and all color is drained. “Then the bones are fully revealed,” he said, “and you see how the land was shaped. It’s a little like looking carefully at an old person and seeing their story written on their form.”

While his pieces almost universally depict water in some form, that is often through a small stream that moves through the painting toward a larger creek. Bogs and creeks seem to dance with the land. That place where land and water intersect is his favorite subject, Grath noted, because, “I like the idea of water not knowing when it wants to stop being land or vice versa, of not knowing what it wants to be when it grows up. It probably relates to my essential desire to keep being very fluid in my life.”

David Grath painting

Born and raised in the Detroit area, Grath credited his art career’s roots to his truancy phase at ages 12 and 13. A self-described dyslexic and dreamer, he said he’d get easily bored.

“I learned I could completely escape detection as a truant by going to the Detroit Institute of Arts and blend in with a class,” he said. “To deepen my cover, I bought a sketchbook and charcoal sticks.”

He sketched the sculptures in the courtyards, but he was most fascinated with huge murals of Diego Rivera, colorful depictions of the people he saw riding the bus to Ford and other factories each day. “To me, they looked like they had become cogs in a giant machine, that they had lost their individual nature and become part of the system,” Grath said. “I thought, ‘My God, this guy is telling the truth, or at least the truth I thought I saw and he’s being honored for it. This has got to be the correct way to be in life.’”

While he started college with a goal toward law school, he found himself more interested in what was happening in the art department. He went on to pursue a master’s degree from Michigan State University and a career as an art professor. One summer day, he dropped by Leland to visit an art school friend, got in late and curled up in his sleeping bag on the beach, inside a hollowed-out log. He woke to what he calls the most beautiful awakening of his life as fishing boats were chugging out from shore and knew he was home.

The “true Pisces” born in February under a horoscope sign that couples “deep creative insights with powerful waves of indecision” would spend much of the next six decades around water, finding the quietest places for a slow paddle along shorelines that keep starring in his growing body of work.

A favorite childhood book. “Paddle to the Sea,” influenced his work, too. It’s a story of a tiny carved canoe that makes its way from Canada’s Lake Nipigon to the Atlantic Ocean, “a wonderful story,” he said, “of small water seeking large water, which is the story of our lives a little bit. We’re seeking, and there’s movement constantly.”

His use of color was inspired in a sense by Diego Valazquez. The Spanish painter rendered caps and cloaks in a rich black but not until first painting them a vibrant red. While he’s keeping his personal technique a mystery, Grath said black has been his favorite way to render the very concept, his favorite color in a way. He went through what he called his “Johnny Cash phase” when he wore all black. Even his hobby of fishing became a way to communicate to that underwater mystery he renders with that color. Eventually, he said, he cut the barb off the hook and fished with just a line, “but I could feel a fish nibbling and was still communicating.”

Grath now sells his work only from the downtown Northport gallery that connects to his wife Pamela’s bookstore, the door between allowing their 10-year-old dog, Sarah, to move back and forth. The work, though, goes to collectors from around the world who learned of his work when he had representation in Paris, New York and London.

“I like the idea of water not knowing when it wants to stop being land or vice versa, of not knowing what it wants to be when it grows up. It probably relates to my essential desire to keep being very fluid in my life.”
— David Grath

He’s especially proud of a recent retrospective of his work at the Dennos Museum Center in Traverse City — a term that doesn’t quite fit since he still paints daily with no plan to retire. Dennos Executive Director Eugene Jenneman said he long admired Grath’s work and the way his palette was so unique among the many landscape painters in the area. “His was one exhibition I wanted to make sure happened before I completed my career with the museum,” Jenneman said.

Grath asked longtime friend Will Case, also an artist, to walk through the exhibit and analyze the work — and he did. He came away, Case said, feeling it was “the accumulation and absorption of 500 years of art nuance and technique and use of color.”

Part of the power, Case said, is the fact you won’t find a mailbox or a flower or a person or a sailboat in a Grath work. The power is through the universal and a color that’s increasingly dark and peaceful.

“Dave looks below, way below, down into the soil, “Case said. “There is some type of essence that he is capable of accessing which few painters are.”

“(David Grath) looks below, way below, down into the soil. There is some type of essence that he is capable of accessing which few painters are.”
— Will Case

As his gallery afternoon nears a close, Grath is sitting in a chair against his gallery wall, leaning on his elbow, eyes closed, a massive but empty canvas perched nearby.

Someone asked how long the piece will take — the one he’s clearly pondering in his mind.

“Sixty or so years,” Grath said with just a trace of a grin. “That’s what’s gone into it so far.”

Kim Schneider is an award-winning writer who enjoys writing about people, places, arts and culture.

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