Photography: Kirsten Shultz and Lee Grogan
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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.