A CONVERSATION WITH ARTIST GREGORY BLOCK
WHEN REALIST PAINTER, Gregory Block, wakes up in the morning he makes his morning mud (unsweetened cocoa powder and whatever kind of milk . . . and yes, checks his email. His dreams, “Oh man, dreams,” he says “absolutely affect the course of my waking life each day and largely determine where my focus falls in the ‘real world.’ His dreams often involve what should be frightening scenarios like being shot, stabbed, and strangled simultaneously by three of his best friends. “I very rarely recognize them as being terrifying. A couple nights ago I dreamt I was trying to paint but couldn’t move my arms. I awoke to find that I couldn’t in fact move my arms, and that did scare the hell out of me for a minute or two . . . until I realized my shoulders were twisted in a manner that restricted almost all blood flow. I rolled over, let my arms wake up, and hopped out of bed feeling all the more grateful to be able to wield a brush.”
Gregory has a knack for turning a negative into a positive, whether consciously or unconsciously. More than three years ago he was in a cycling accident that he’s still processing. He broke his femur, pelvis, all the ribs on his right side, shattered his collarbone and collected plenty of rocks in his skin and flesh. Fortunately, his helmet saved him. “It’s interesting to compare what I’d been working on before the crash to what came immediately after: before, there were dark still lifes, often brooding and somber. After, an explosion of color and light. Yes, we suffer in life. We think too much, agonize over bullshit, can never seem to achieve the standards we and others set for ourselves . . . but in the end, (or in the beginning) we can live each moment in light and color!”
His work, “The Land of Milk and Honey,” is emblematic of this shift. The painting is a huge pile of fruits, bread, honey and milk that Gregory actually painted twice, once in a pristinely-ordered arrangement, and then again after taking a sledgehammer to the set-up, smashing melons, spilling milk, cracking eggs and smearing honey. The second painting in the series is filled with rawness and bright colors that contrast with the first version. Like all good artists, he does not waste inspiration. When he’s done painting, Gregory often eats his work. Because many of his paintings include food, he consumes the still life when he’s done. With “The Land of Milk and Honey,” “I made a kind of fruity bread pudding out of everything I scraped up from the studio, and ate that for days, careful to go slowly to be sure I didn’t swallow any large shards of broken glass.”
He has recently been working on an extended series of donut paintings. The colors, textures, and shapes are endlessly fun to explore. So are the countless donut stores around where he lives. During the past year, he’s visited just about every one of them. “I don’t know how many hundreds of donuts I’ve eaten during this period, but as someone who never was a huge fan, it’s a heck of a lot more than I might’ve expected a year ago.”
When he paints, he travels through the painted landscape, sets goals, worries, hears music in silence, silence in music. He laughs and cries at politicians on the radio and sometime forgets to think. That process has helped him become a successful artist, in that he supports himself through his art. There are no prints of Gregory’s work. “I truly believe that part of my heart and soul goes into each painting. Much like a child, each is “born” as a continuation of myself, then goes out into the world to develop a life of its own, hopefully in the presence of a good adoptive family. Selling prints would be akin to selling clones of my kids. It feels wrong on so many levels.”
As a child, seeing his work hanging on the walls was incredibly affirming. His parents enrolled him in a Waldorf school through fourth grade where art was an integral part of the curriculum. By fifth grade, his parents moved the family to South Routt, a rural ranching community. “I felt like I’d landed on an alien planet where art was no longer the language. I distinctly remember a school art show where all the students put their crafts and drawings up on the walls in the hallway for the parents to see. I hung an oil painting of a sailboat under a sunset sky, and remember talking to the parents and other kids about how I painted it and why. In that moment, I felt seen, and understood.”
Where he is today stems from the hard work he has put in through the years. His process is in the practice. He paints every day. “Inspiration doesn’t come out of thin air and make her way onto a canvas. You have to summon her, invite her in, give her a glass of wine and make sure she feels comfortable.”
“I know what it’s like to feel alone in one’s art, and I try to keep my fellow artists and aspiring artists from feeling that way in whatever ways I can.” Those opportunities happen through formal workshops with business leaders as well as doing silly drawings at a party with a group of folks that believe themselves to be without a ‘single creative bone in their bodies.’”
Gregory isn’t just talented with compassion, knives and brushes; he’s also an incredible metalworker. For him there’s real alchemy involved when it comes to transforming old soda cans into pieces of artwork. The material is endlessly versatile, and as someone who took a whole bunch of chemistry courses in college, he loves imagining what’s going on at the molecular level when the cans are roasting over an open flame. “And who doesn’t like hitting stuff with a hammer?” he asks.
When the hammer of COVID-19 fell, Gregory discovered the importance of community in living a full and fulfilling life. As a cis-gender white male, he’s become increasingly aware of just how privileged he is in today’s society due to his skin color and sexual identity. “Virtually every aspect of our lives is shaped for and by white men like myself, and the deck is naturally stacked to reflect that reality. At times I feel a burden of responsibility to change that imbalance, knowing full-well that no amount of “ally education” could truly make me understand what it’s like to live as a queer black person or an Asian woman . . . there’s a degree of guilt that comes with that feeling, and a sense of helplessness. It’s at times like these when I try to remind myself that structural change starts at the bottom, and that “little things” like compassion, respect, and a willingness to truly listen, are the greatest tools any of us have in this world. As a privileged person, it’s incumbent upon me to always have those tools at the ready alongside my palette knife and brushes. The most effective change is made on an individual level.
The connections we make throughout our lives create healthy, empowered communities that allows us to flourish as a society and to tackle the broader issues facing humanity as a whole.” AWA
ELEVATE THE ARTS: Steamboat is known as a rustic, salt-o-the-earth ranch town or a ski destination. Travelers to Steamboat probably find the art scene to be the Yampa Valley’s “best-kept-secret.” They pay “oh that’s nice” prices rather than “destination” prices like Jackson Hole or Santa Fe. Be the one to change that. Purchase Gregory’s artwork at Jace Romick Gallery & R-Diamond Collection. Visit local galleries and buy original art. Spread the word that Steamboat is an arts and culture destination on par with the most vibrant small towns anywhere in the United States. And don’t forget to visit Gregory’s mural in the alley behind Straightline.