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No Luxury for Complacency: Artist/AIDS survivor
Jim Grangerby Jay Blotcher

This sunny weekday in May, Kingston-based artist Jim Granger is moving into a new house and the scene is anything but chaotic. The multimedia artist—whose output includes paintings, inks, quilting, photography, and needlepoint—is methodical in his task, with everything boxed up securely. Granger has used the opportunity to create some extemporaneous art: the scores of books he owns have been stacked, painstakingly, into a dozen precise pyramids, the coffee-table art volumes serving as the base of the structures which graduate seamlessly to the paperbacks on top.

The relocation has brought to light art pieces that Granger created over the past two decades, first as a New York artist in the ‘80s and now as an Ulster County resident. Canvases of still lifes and landscapes tilt against the wall of the garden room, art photographs sit on shelves and quilts drape over footlockers. For an art maker whose output easily exceeds his capacity for self-promotion—Granger is self-admittedly wanting when it comes to approaching galleries—moving has provided an impromptu retrospective of the suburban Chicago native’s work.

Jim Granger acquired a multi-disciplinary approach to art honestly; his mother was an art teacher in their hometown of Lagrange, Illinois and his home was stocked with art supplies. The boy gravitated first to temperas and the resulting pieces suggested “a sense of escapism,” he recalled, the images creating “a world I would rather live in.” A sensitive, insular child—not yet aware of his gay identity—Granger excelled in art during high school. But he found a year at the University of Illinois lacked challenge and he transferred to SUNY Purchase and declared himself a painter.

But another declaration was left unspoken. The bohemian vibe of SUNY offered students the support to come out. Yet Granger remained skittish and preferred to focus his energies on his studies. If full disclosure was not his forte, there was still a brashness to Granger’s artistic persona. In his artist statement, he denounced easel art as “moribund”—a slap at his faculty advisor, a proponent of the classic medium. The rebellion, however, was short-lived; Granger eventually returned to easel painting.

After graduation in 1984 and a journey to the museums of Europe, Granger headed for New York City’s Lower East Side. It was 1985. The East Village was a battle-scarred neighborhood but also a new haven for emerging artists. Rents were so low that any storefront could be turned into a gallery. Artists with talent and renegade back-stories—i.e. drug abuse or AIDS—were the new messiahs of an art scene whose only rule was reaching for extremes.

Lacking any art world connections, Granger took a waiter job at Moondance, a popular late-night diner which drew its own breed of nighthawks: street hustlers and struggling artists, or advertising people and music-video directors growing fat on the mushrooming industries. Granger’s plan was to split his time between creating art and waiting tables. But when his shift ended, Granger had excess adrenaline and pockets full of tip money, and he would head to the bars and dance clubs. He’d come home at dawn, drunk, high, broke and too exhausted to face an empty canvas. His only connection to art was faithful visits to the hottest galleries in Alphabet City.

“I wish I’d chosen to be the starving artist a little bit more,” he said. “I’ve learned to realize over the years that you need to do that; you need to hide in your atelier and spend as much of your energy as you can on work.”

Along the way, Granger became HIV-positive in an era when AIDS was a death sentence. He joined the activist group ACT UP and attended demonstrations. He joined a support group. This harrowing new world of illness demanded a response from Jim Granger the artist.

Years earlier, Granger’s sister had received a needlepoint kit as a birthday gift. He would sneak into her room and make progress on designs she had only half-heartedly started. The quaint aesthetic of the craft was an ideal outlet for a new project—and the ideal outlet for his cumulative horror and anger.

Granger would wed traditional needlepoint design—cabbage roses and delicate filigree—to sayings that were currently burning through his mind. Then he would sew them onto pillows. Far from homespun sentiments celebrating motherhood and family, these axioms would have Grammy reaching for the smelling salts.

Among them: It’s too late to be what you might have been. I’ve had just about enough. Is it over yet? Fuck Your American Dream.

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Granger would set aside time for his needlepoint art. Too often, it would be at the bedside of a friend, or a hospital death vigil. At the same time, he was delivered from the starving artist routine with the offer to design sweaters for The Gap. He accepted the position, but HIV dominated his every thought. Every time he designed a new line, Granger said, “I wondered whether I would still be alive” when it appeared in stores the following year.

His duties involved annual trips to the Gap’s Hong Kong factories to supervise output. He would often work on his needlepoints on these transatlantic flights, only taking his work out when others were sleeping, since the raw honesty—and blatant anger—of the pieces made him feel “vulnerable.” One night in 1989, on yet another Hong Kong flight, Granger began working on his latest pillow after confirming all passengers were asleep. Just then, a flight attendant came by to check on the lone insomniac. She noticed his needlepoint design.

“We no longer have the luxury of complacency,” the message read. The flight attendant considered the message and asked, “That’s about AIDS, isn't it?” Before a dumbstruck Granger could recover, the woman sat down and talked about her yoga teacher, another AIDS casualty. Granger vowed to continue his needlepoint pieces.

Over two decades, Granger has created about a dozen needlepoint pieces, each involving up to 100 hours of work. The handwork would take between two months or two years, depending on his emotional resilience to forge on. Ultimately, they were important therapy. “It was all just for me,” he said. “It was something I needed to do.” But his work began to draw attention. Two pillows were eventually showcased in a group exhibition at a SoHo gallery.

Meanwhile, doctors were providing Granger with conflicting reports about his prognosis. “Given that I had x amount of time left,” he said, “I had decided to spend that time doing this very labor-intensive process, to make these statements about how angry I was.”

Last year, Kingston Museum of Contemporary Art (KMOCA) invited Granger to mount a solo show, where the pillows were predominant. Many of the 13 pieces sold and Granger received several commissions for additional pillows.

Despite this taxing schedule for The Gap—which would last for 15 years—Granger’s artistic work flowered; he was now spending evenings at his easel in an art studio down the street from his home in Chelsea, Manhattan’s tony gay ghetto.

Granger, who relocated to Kingston in 2006, draws parallels between the current art scene in Kingston 2009 and that of the 1988 East Village: similar social conditions—pockets of poverty, drug abuse and modest rents—have allowed storefront galleries to pop up for artists channeling disaffection into new works. “It’s exciting to be here now.”

Granger now possesses a better work ethic than he did in Manhattan. Moreover, he is on disability for HIV, and can devote all of his time to art. But that also means tiring easily. Nonetheless, the artist has embarked on several new projects: quilts crafted from old sweaters; a line of bowls fashioned from twine, and additional paintings.

Granger holds a dim view of works that are technically perfect, even his own. Looking at pieces where his hand is steady and the lines defined, Granger dismissed them as “worked on.” He favors pieces that have a kinetic, unfinished quality; an “exuberance.”

He favors landscapes and still lifes over sketching individuals, “because it’s hard to get people to sit still long enough.” His last life studies feature his ex-lover and AIDS activist/fundraiser Richard Serringer, who renovated the new home and will live in the other apartment.

Serringer will be holding a fundraising event called The Fine Art and Design Auction of the Hudson Valley on Sunday, July 19 at Williams Lake resort to benefit ESAR and Angel Food East (see next month’s highlight). Granger has donated several pieces to the auction: quilts, a painting and a needlepoint pillow with the medical acronym DNR—meaning “do not resuscitate.”

Returning to crafting audacious pillows, he said, is not a certainty. “I don't know how much more I have to yell about in needlepoint.”—R



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