A Q&A with artist James Grubola

The phrase “those who can’t do, teach” does not apply to artist James Grubola. He does both equally well. After all, he’s been teaching drawing at UofL for 44 years. 

LEO: You recently received the LVA Honors Visual Art Educator Award for your years of teaching at UofL’s Hite Art Institute. What is your best advice for artists-in-the-making?
James Grubola: I am currently finishing my 44th year of teaching at the University of Louisville. I love teaching and I love teaching drawing because it is the least encumbered medium. Students can walk in with little investment in materials: a pad of paper and some charcoal or pencils, and start working on their art. I teach drawing as a process. I try to let my students know that no matter where they want their finished piece to end up, it all starts with putting those first lines on the page. My best advice to students is don’t worry about style or look — that comes as the work develops. Focus on your process and thinking, for that’s what drawing is: visual thinking.

Now that you are about to retire from UofL, what do you plan to do next?
I don’t plan to retire from art. Right now, I am in the process of starting a new series of silverpoint drawings which takes a lot of planning. I will retire from the daily routine of teaching at the end of this semester, and I know that I will miss the students and teaching very much. Who knows: I may teach a class or workshop somewhere. I love teaching anatomy and life drawing. If I could manage it physically, I would like to teach anatomy for artists again at some point. My wife [artist Kay Grubola] and I have gone to northern Michigan just about every summer since 1973. We’d both like to have a permanent summer studio up north at some point. We also have two grandchildren, so I expect a lot of time will be spent traveling to see our daughter and son and our grandchildren.

Please explain your artistic process.
I love to make marks on a page, so my work is in large part about the process itself. For me the process begins with my hand moving across the page. Sometimes it holds the image and the composition at the same time. Sometimes my hand moves without graphite just to get the speed of the object; not necessarily that it’s moving, but whether its lines and edges are quick and sharp or slow and languid. This gesture sets the tone for the drawing. Sometimes I stop with just a gesture like I do when drawing dancers. Sometimes the process includes layers of corrections, additions and changes like when working from a model. A life-size figure drawing starts the same way as 20-second-long dance drawing does: with a gesture. This is why I love figure drawing and why I love teaching life drawing and anatomy. It begins with seeing the skeleton as a gesture and then moving on to build up muscle and flesh and ending with a complete figure. In all of my classes, I try to instill in my students that through this process of drawing you can gain a new understanding and appreciation of the commonality of our humanity. For me, life drawing is about building a respect and an understanding for this complex mechanism we inhabit: our bodies. Generally, the figure drawings continue to evolve while I work from life in three-hour sessions. Most times after three to six hours with the model I work refining the drawing for another six to 12 hours. A silverpoint starts with a gesture just like my other drawings, but since you can’t erase a silverpoint, a complete composition is laid down in graphite, so I have resolved all of these issues. Then, I erase everything but a few key landmarks, lay several coats of silverpoint ground down and then start drawing it again.

How has your art changed over the years?
While my imagery has changed over the years, my thought process and aesthetic goals have remained quite constant for most of my professional career. Through graduate school and up to 1980 my subject matter was primarily figurative. Traveling and living in Scotland between 1978 and 1984 changed my imagery dramatically. Raising two children and returning to northern Michigan each summer have also affected my imagery, but through all of these changes, the compositional themes, mark-making and the process itself were what truly inspired my work. Then, in 2010, I made the decision to return to my first love — figure drawing. Each Friday, I hire a model and draw, and each Thursday I draw in company class at the Louisville Ballet. I feel there is a strong, but maybe not so obvious connection between ballet and my art — it’s probably not a coincidence that our daughter became a professional ballet dancer. I started drawing at ballet classes when I was in undergraduate school. Dancers don’t stop and pose for you while they are in class, so you have to work quickly. But, they also repeat the same steps over and over again, so you have multiple tries to get its essence down. It has been said that in dance, especially in ballet, that you do it again, and do it again, and do it again, until you get it right.  The pain of ballet is to get to the beauty. I draw the figure over and over again; I fill sketchbook after sketchbook with drawings of dancers to try to get to the beauty of the line and mark.

‘The Friday Sessions: Triangle on Pointe’ by James Grubola. Graphite.

About the Author

A Q&A with artist James Grubola

Jo Anne Triplett is the contributing visual arts editor at LEO Weekly. She’s a past member of the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Public Art, was the content advisor on the Glassworks Building video, and has written for Louisville Magazine, Kentucky Homes and Gardens and the national publication Glass Craftsman. Jo Anne came to Louisville from Washington, D.C. where she worked as a researcher and writer for the Smithsonian American Art Museum.



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