Robert Grogan looks like the guy next door, a cross between your favorite schoolteacher and a scientist. A quiet, unassuming man, of 62, he’s not someone you might expect to have wrangled environmental policies for most of his professional life. Nor might you expect him to be an artist—he’s just not eccentric enough. But plein air painter Bob Grogan is all of this, a delightful mix of generous creativity, keen intellect, and an insatiable passion for life.
Accompanied by Lee Grogan, his college sweetheart-turned wife of 38 years, Bob has hiked, backpacked, photographed, and painted in Alaska, Hawaii, Africa, Mexico, the U.S. Southwest, and the Rockies. His love of the outdoors and his deep appreciation for nature leads him to spend hours with pochade box, brushes and panels, battling bugs, inclement weather, and constantly shifting light in pursuit of the grace and beauty of a particular moment. This is Bob’s favorite way to paint—on location outdoors—en plein air.
“I was on someone’s payroll continuously from 1957 to 1992. Since I rarely take a day off from my painting, I think of myself as being in my second career now. I don’t have a problem with the concept of retirement—it just doesn’t work for me,” he chuckles softly. Lee adds, “Bob sets a beautiful example that it’s never too late. Painting is a total departure from his past.”
But his first career definitely overlaps his second in its clear devotion to nature. From his studio off East Fork Road, he offers details of his life—25 years in Alaska as the director of the Alaska Coastal Management Program and a budget analyst for the Alaska legislature, obtaining a pilot’s license, a guide license, and operating a fly-fishing business. It was all a way to be outdoors and to contribute to the protection of nature—a way to blend passion with profession.
Once released from years of holding a “real job,” Bob jumped headlong into training himself to become a plein air painter. And, he’s done pretty well. Not a boastful man, he must be prodded to share his list of artistic accomplishments. Lee hands over his press materials and I glance over an impressive listing of galleries exhibiting his work from Seward, Alaska, to Sundance and Tucson. Other professional affiliations include the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming, Alla Prima International, American Impressionist Society, American Plains Artists, Scottsdale Artists’ School, Oil Painters of America, and the American Impressionist Society (where he will serve as president in 2007). His work has appeared in Southwest Art, American Art Review, Rendezvous, and Boise Journal. >>>
“These are all very nice, of course, but what I really love is to paint and to teach other people to paint,” Bob explains. He has been drawing since he was a child.
“There are dozens of comic instances when I was sketching instead of paying attention in school. I wasn’t exactly a loner as a child, but because of large class sizes, I could be in the background drawing constantly and doing the minimum amount of schoolwork to get by.”
However, it would be grossly inaccurate to assume Bob is more creative than intellectual. Ask him anything about the wildlife and geology he paints. Ask him about environmental policies and legislative procedures. But if you ask him, you’d better be prepared to sit for a long while and challenge all of your own thinking about these things.
Challenging his own perceptions and thoughts has played serendipitously into Bob’s life path. “Near the end of my career in Alaska, I frequently had occasion to be in the State of Alaska office in Washington, D.C. On one of my trips, I accompanied Bill, a member of the staff, to a lavish reception at the U.S. Supreme Court. Later, when Bill recounted our evening’s events, I was surprised to learn that he could recall many details about who spoke and what they had said, details that I could only vaguely recall. On the other hand, I realized that I could draw, from memory, a very complex wainscoting design that was in the room where the function had been held. This realization was a wake-up call for me. I knew that all my life I had been paying attention to visual stimuli, and it was time to give myself the opportunity to pursue drawing and painting full-time.
Today, I tell young students that if they hear this same call, it will not go away whether they act on it or not.”
This sensitivity to the creative process is what draws eager students to Bob’s workshops. Beginners and accomplished painters come from all over, or convince him to come to their locales. Bob is a gentle man, well aware of the propensity for artists (and art students) to be completely paralyzed by insecurities and creative fears. He nurtures his students and believes fervently in their individual processes.
“From my teaching experience, I know that the single greatest obstacle to proficiency in painting is the tendency to quit. It may take some students longer than others to advance, but anyone who wants to paint enough, can do so by working at it, by not quitting. And, those who seem to have a natural upper hand by virtue of some experience, will go nowhere unless they work at it. Many Americans believe you must be ‘talented’ in order to paint. Working artists will tell you, though, what’s really required is hard work.
“I believe that life is largely about learning. Great artists especially seem to have the ability to be perpetual students. The instant you think you know something, you run the risk of ceasing to learn. I usually start my workshop by saying, ‘We are all here to learn. The reason I am teaching the class is because I have been painting longer.’ I like to bring a lot of energy to my workshops; therefore, I teach only a few every year. I learn as much as anyone else in my classes.”
Locally, Bob has taught his popular workshop through the Sun Valley Center for the Arts. In 2006, he teaches in Franschhoek, South Africa and at the Sundance Art Center in Utah. He has also taught at the National Wildlife Museum of Art in Jackson, Wyoming, the Fredericksburg Artists’ School in Texas, the Loveland Academy of Fine Arts in Colorado, and the Desert Artists’ Guilds in Arizona. Kathryn Crowley, Program Coordinator for the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, affirms what his followers already know: “Bob recognizes and encourages potential in all his students, experienced and beginners alike. His passion for plein air painting is contagious and his students leave the class inspired and anxious for another opportunity to study with him.” >>>
Bob approaches painting with a daily disciplined devotion that is at once zealous and matter-of-fact. “I think our culture tends to tell us that unless we can be the absolute best at something, we shouldn’t ‘waste’ our time doing it. But painting is not a footrace. There isn’t even a finish line. It is about the journey.
“I occasionally paint with a friend who is in his 80s and has only recently taken up painting. He used to watch me paint until I got a brush in his hand. One day, he called to say ‘this painting thing’ was changing his life. He was falling behind in his chores, but could not wait to get up every day and start painting. If you are in your mid-80s and can’t wait to get up each day and begin work—whatever that work may be—I would say you are successful.”
Success as defined by title or bank balance wasn’t necessarily Bob’s ultimate goal in life. He quietly admits that his goal was more about contributing his best work, no matter what that turned out to be throughout his life. Though he doodled and sketched fervently as a child, he opted to pursue a business degree when he got to Southwest Texas State University, and then graduate studies in psychology at Stephen F. Austin University. A two-year stint in the Peace Corps took him to Venezuela where he helped to organize a peanut cooperative before being drafted in the Vietnam era. After two years in the military, Bob recalled the fascinating stories a fellow Peace Corps worker had told about Alaska, and he and Lee moved to Juneau. Lee taught in the public school system there while Bob launched a career in environmental policy.
On the day of our last visit before Bob and Lee travel to South Africa for a season of painting and teaching, we sit in Bob’s meticulous studio where he paints from photographs he shot when the weather was warmer. Grinning, Bob says, “Of course, I’d rather be outside painting. After living through those long Alaskan winters, we tend now to travel during wintertime to warmer places where I can go out to paint.”
True to his reputation for being a generous teacher and mentor, Bob shares the story of a young man from Zimbabwe named Alex. They met during a previous painting trip. Alex sketches during free moments in his work in a guard shack, and now works regularly with Bob whenever he is in Africa.
Bob’s eyes light up when he speaks of Alex. “We are quite a pair. Since life expectancy in Zimbabwe is about 40 years, I doubt if he has ever known anyone as old as I am. I am learning a great deal from this experience. I strongly believe that a life in art has to be about more than making paintings and selling them. But,” he adds, “in my opinion, Alex has the potential to be a great artist.”
As the snow begins to accumulate outside the studio window, Lee serves an unbelievably light, frothed concoction of hot cocoa and coconut.
Decades of long Alaskan winters inspired Lee to develop her own version of fine art—a full repertoire of cocoa, which she serves in the studio every day at 4 p.m.
“Lee is a wonderful cook, and I take a lot of teasing about ‘painting for food,’” Bob smiles. “In my case, painting for food is a very good thing.”
Artist, writer and editor Deb Gelet has written about the Wood River Valley’s inspiring residents for 25 years.