BEING GRAYSON
The Marivaudian being is, according to Poulet, a pastless, futureless man. Born anew at every instant. The instants are points which organize themselves into a line, but what is important is the instant, not the line. The Marivaudian being has in a sense no history. Nothing follows from what has gone before. He is constantly surprised. He cannot predict his own reaction to events.
He is constantly being overtaken by events. A condition of breathlessness and dazzlement surrounds him.
Donald Barthelme,
Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning
Philosophers and psychotherapists talk about the importance of living in the present, but is it really practical or even possible? So much of what one is and does is a matter of self-reflection that by the time the here and now is recognized, one has already analyzed it and, based on one’s own past experiences or the reported experiences of others, decided on the appropriate reaction. If not for this capacity to live not quite in the moment, the eternal now might rush into one’s consciousness in an explosion of colors and sounds and sensations. Dazzlement would be a mild way of putting the terror and complete bewilderment that many of us would feel.
And yet as a culture we tend to romanticize he who does not ignore or put off the present, who never longs for the past or looks forward to the weekend. And when such a person is able to put into paint or words or music that which we are too preoccupied to experience for ourselves, we call that person an artist.
By all accounts, Grayson Conroy is an artist. A resident of Indian River County since 1991, he is known by sight to the hundreds of people who have passed by him and his easel set in public locations around Vero Beach and Fort Pierce. The artist community of Vero Beach knows him on a more personal basis as a former painting student, a fellow plein air painter and a compatriot who, while he has not been painting for many years, has dedication and artistic fervor in abundance. His admirers are unequivocal in their praise. They use words like “unique,” “passionate,” “instinctive” and even “genius” to describe not only the artist’s work but also the man himself. “Grayson’s passion just boils out of him, and out of his canvases,” says his friend Bill Masciarelli. “That is why I think of Van Gogh when I think of him.”
To meet and talk with Grayson Conroy is to experience this volcanic outpouring, or at least see a lot of smoke and ash. Grayson’s conversational style is free association, with Grayson playing the parts of both prompter and respondent. His ideas are strung together one by one on a thread so slender that it is sometimes impossible to see how they are connected at all. If you can follow the link you will laugh at Grayson’s cleverness, for many of his segues are puns. If you don’t get the connection, it doesn’t matter. In the flight of Grayson’s fancy there is always another opportunity to grab at the brass ring of his wit. Commentary on popular culture, current news items, pet peeves and ruminations about nefarious plots involving the CIA are freely interspersed with vocal impersonations (James Mason, John Wayne, Archie Bunker or some other character may pop out at any time to add his two cents to the conversation) and the corny riddles Grayson prides himself on dreaming up (Where do dots go for romance? A-comma-dating). Grayson talks as the impressions come to him, flash, flash, flash. At the time it seems as though his speech is entirely uninhibited, but upon reflection one finds that much has been said and nothing has been given away.

The experience of Grayson’s oil paintings leaves a more substantial impression. The best place to see them is Meghan Candler Gallery, where his work has been a staple for four years. Grayson’s paintings are like his conversational style, a series of variations on a theme. But where his verbal expression tends to unexpected twists and detours, his visual one unwinds along a straighter, more level course. His current work is in seascapes. Simple in design, his compositions are no more than horizontal stripes of sky, sea and sand that commemorate subtle changes in a timeless theme. A series of recent 6 x 8 inch paintings called the Suddenly Sudden Sky Series feature clear, concentrated color and rapid, assured brushwork. Over a sea of grey-green or deep, warm blue the sky in these pictures often contains a glimmer of pink that is reflected in the water below. The line between surf and sand is frequently set close to the bottom margin of the picture. In fact it is so close that the effect of foam bubbling over sand, accomplished with bas-relief blobs of white paint, threatens to spill over onto the frame.

The first paintings that Grayson showed with Candler were done with a palette knife, but now he paints exclusively with a brush. While Grayson has gained a reputation among local artists for using a lot of paint (“I go through more paint than my accountant thinks is prudent and less than my paint supplier thinks is sufficient,” he says) his recent work shows a preference for smooth, relatively thin passages disrupted by areas of voluptuous impasto. Although Grayson has never tackled a canvas larger than 30 x 40 inches, his paintings have a power that belies their small size. In an 11 x 14 inch painting titled “In the Pink” the strip of sand in the foreground occupies a larger percentage of the picture, the better to support the surf that roils over it, a thick tide of white paint enlivened by touches of bright pink, orange and cool blue. The sea is deep emerald green and the clouds that float over it are soft pink. It sounds like a tutti-frutti milkshake, but the effect, in gallerist Candler’s words, is “gorgeous, delicious, edible color.” And it goes down smoothly, too.

The fifth of six children, Grayson Conroy was born September 6, 1960 in Manhasset, Long Island and grew up in Richfield, Connecticut. Grayson could draw when he was a kid, starting in first or second grade. His penchant for vocal impressions of famous people also started early. He credits this talent to the influence of his paternal grandmother, who could mimic people she knew to delightfully wicked effect. Grayson says that he used his impressions as a diversionary tactic. He found that if he could make the grown-ups laugh, they just might forget the childish naughtiness for which they were about to reprove him.

As a college student he sampled different areas of study, mainly in the arts. He briefly attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, studied journalism at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and then returned to New York to focus on advertising and commercial art at the School of Visual Arts. Grayson said that a career in dancing, comedy or writing appealed to him, but fear of choosing “the wrong one” kept him from committing to any of these. His approach to the working life was much the same. He tried a variety of jobs but could not settle into any of them. During his school days he worked for a limousine service, driving people from Connecticut to New York. (Grayson recalls John Candy, Gene Wilder, Gilda Radner and Martha Stewart among his famous passengers.) He did some fashion modeling. He was employed in his family’s textile business and then in his brother’s fish market in Rowayton, Connecticut. He wrote for an asbestos trade magazine and he worked at a small ad agency. Grayson’s mercurial nature caused him to be fired from his jobs if he didn’t quit them first out of boredom. He says that he was often told upon being given his pink slip that although his talent for comedy had caused morale to “skyrocket,” it was also responsible for productivity going “down the tubes.”

Grayson came to Florida in 1991, got his real estate license and worked as an agent in Vero Beach for about four years. Selling, and the competitive nature of the real estate business, did not suit him. Toward the end of that experiment he began to take classes at the Center for the Arts. He took drawing with Lucius Passavanti, photography with Teresa Motley and creative writing with Kay Odekirk and Suzanne Fox and basic oil painting with me. I remember the humor and liveliness that Grayson brought into the painting studio, but I also recall how bored he was by the still life objects that I set up for the students to paint. Still life is a practical choice for teaching the essentials of painting because it lends itself to deliberate examination. But it was much too still for Grayson, whose attempts to sum up the subject matter in a few swift strokes occupied him for about thirty minutes - tops - out of a three hour class. To keep him motivated Grayson needs constantly changing visual stimulation.

Grayson was to find his métier en plein air when, in 1998, he signed up for an outdoor landscape painting class with instructor Liz Donovan. From the moment he showed up in her class, Donovan felt that Grayson had “something special.” His painting technique was so spontaneous and free that she was reluctant to give him instruction. “I was afraid I would ruin him,” she says. “He knew instinctively where he wanted to go but didn’t know how to make the paint go the way he wanted.” Donovan’s class met at a different spot each week: at the beach, in an orange grove, at McKee Botanical Garden and the Sebastian Inlet. “Watching Grayson paint was fascinating,” says his friend and former fellow student, Sally Watson, who liked to set up her easel behind him and catch the show. His work habits included “a flurry of things being knocked over, paper towels flying everywhere and finally the canvas would get knocked into the sand,” Watson said, adding that Grayson accompanied his performance with sound effects and commentary. His results, however, were “Wild, abstract, full of energy,” she says. He really captures the energy of a place.”

The camaraderie that Donovan fostered in her class eventually led to the formation of the Plein Air Society of the Treasure Coast, of which Grayson was a founding member. The group of artists met regularly to paint on location. On these outings there was no formal instruction, no teacher-student or leader-follower divisions. Grayson, who had been a student for so long, suddenly found himself working as an artist among peers. This realization transformed him. He intensified his efforts to improve his technique. “It took [Grayson] hundreds of paintings to gain control over the chaos,” says Donovan, who was surprised at “how quickly he got so good.” He replaced the thin, tentative color of his student days with slabs and whorls of pigment applied with a painting knife, forgoing a palette and mixing colors right on the canvas. If a painting did not turn out to his satisfaction, he would scrape it down to canvas and build it up again with the same knife. Early on Grayson would knock out four or five paintings a day but admits that of late he has “slowed down considerably.” He now produces at most two paintings a day. Sometimes he will work on the same painting over a succession of days, but this, he says, puts him at risk of overworking and spoiling the painting. For Grayson, every day represents “a new moment, a new event, a new happening” and it is very difficult, he says, to continue the momentum of a painting from one working session to the next. But then, this is a problem that is endemic to plein air painters. For those who paint out-of-doors every moment brings a revelatory change to the landscape. It is tempting to put every effect that comes along into the painting, but including the sum of these changes does not make the portrait of a place. It requires only an instant to comprehend the meaning and the mood of a landscape. For the artist, success comes in being ready for that instant and able to capture it in paint.

The outdoors remains Grayson’s only studio. Of late he can often be found painting the ocean in the morning just off the boardwalk near Jaycee Park. He likes to arrive early, pulling up in his “rolling studio,” a Toyota SUV, around 6:30 a.m. Redolent of linseed oil, the vehicle’s interior is a commodious tackle box filled with hog bristle brushes, cans of solvent, rolls of paper toweling and scores of besmeared paint tubes holding colors with names like “Radiant Red,” “Aureolin” and “Violet Gray.” Virgin canvases are stacked behind the front passenger seat, while finished works and false starts lean against one another farther back.

Any painter set up in a busy spot is conspicuous, but Grayson, standing before his wooden field easel in a paint-spotted tee shirt and a pair of loud print shorts is a magnet for passersby. He estimates that on a busy morning two hundred people might stroll past him and sometime a small crowd will form as he works. A few people take photographs. “Well, there’s another billionaire,” he told a man who snapped his picture one day. Grayson explained to the man that if he sold his photos of Grayson painting for a dollar each, he would be a billionaire in no time. When the man objected that there would be too much paperwork involved in such a scheme, Grayson said that the photos could be sold for two dollars each. “That way he’d only have to sell five hundred million of them,” Grayson says. Other bystanders like to offer comments. Usually the remarks are complimentary, but once a civic-minded woman scolded him for dropping paint on the boardwalk’s decking. Grayson enjoys every instance of attention. He wants people to walk away from him thinking, “This guy is recording what it is like to experience now.”

Grayson’s persona, a blend of zany humor, child-like ingenuousness and innocent egoism conceals a sensibility about life that is dead serious. For him, art is but one means of justifying the self in a world that, when it is paying attention at all, is antagonistic to the individual. He has high aspirations for his art, and says that he wants it to represent “everything that is good and decent about humanity.” But he does not pin all of his hopes on painting for the betterment of the world. He defines himself and, by extension, the creative artist as one who works to dignify the individual in whatever way he can. For Grayson that means service to others through volunteerism. In Grayson fashion he wants to do everything and help everyone, all at once. He tends to spread himself thin, describing himself as a “bedless insomniac who would sleep if he could.” Or as Sally Watson puts it, “Grayson spins around at 78 rpm while the rest of us plod along at 33 1/3.” Over the years he has volunteered with numerous local charities, including Habitat for Humanity, Head Start and the Visiting Nurse Association. He has served holiday dinners at Our Father’s Table food distribution center and volunteered with The Red Cross after Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne. In 2005 he worked for Youth Guidance as an “extra service volunteer” according to the agency’s program director, Rita Dion. “Grayson helped children in an art therapy class and took groups of kids to the county fair. He genuinely cares about kids and wants to help,” she says. In an unrelated program at Beachland Elementary he served as a role model and mentor to a troubled child.

According to Grayson, “Kids see me and realize I’m one of them.” One of Grayson’s more memorable volunteer stints was with a program sponsored by the Cultural Council of Indian River County called “Meet the Masters.” The program entailed visits to Thompson Elementary School where Grayson would present a little art historical background about an artist - say, Thomas Gainsborough - and show reproductions of the artist’s work. He found that he could control and engage the kids by promising to do impressions of President Clinton in return for their attention to his art lesson.

Grayson says, “Most people get smarter with age - I find myself at odds with that.” His fans would find themselves at odds with anything that would take Grayson’s fresh outlook away from him. Being one of those who are impatient with the present, I asked several of Grayson’s admirers what the future holds for their Marivaudian pal. Will he continue with his art? Meghan Candler says, “I don’t think he could stop now if he wanted to, other than running into bumps in the road. He has come very far so quickly.” Is he satisfied with his progress? Liz Donovan doesn’t think so. “No one achieves what they want to in their art,” she says and adds, “I don’t think that art is about achieving what you want. It is one long experiment.” Is his art successful? “I think he’s found it,” says Sally Watson. “I think he’s tapped into his pure essence. I’m happy for him and happy for the rest of us.” Will his art endure? “I think that Grayson might be the one who stands out in this generation,” says Bill Masciarelli. Perhaps the last word in the matter belongs to Grayson. “I seek to diminish, as much as anyone can, [my] cosmic irrelevance,” he says.

From an article about Grayson in a local magazine