Natural Transfiguration~~If he were here, Greg McHuron would try to soothe my grief over his passing by telling me it’s all part of natural transfiguration, and I should not be sad. He’d probably scold me a little. I’d take whatever he dished out and more. Gladly.
Greg McHuron was a giant. A giant of a man, a giant of an artist, a giant of mission and activism, iconic. Even his name, Mc”Great Lake” is big. Nobody did more to lift up this valley’s tradition of plein air painting. Nobody was happier to teach. His desire to paint Jackson, Grand Teton National Park, the Southwest and Northwest regions of our country was what he woke up to every morning. To enter his studio was to enter a church—a place of worship, a cathedral of light filled with the glittering hues of his grand paintings, kaleidoscopic in color—-practically alive. My last visit, Greg’s glacier-sized painting of harbor seals gathered on a rocky outcrop occupied half his studio. The eyes of those seals looked into my soul—the coast’s rugged sparkle took my breath away.
Greg embodied artistic environmentalism. Everything he painted–he was also a master carver of northwest totems and symbols—reflected his unwavering belief that the place where he lived is precious beyond comprehension. He painted the West from Alaska–venturing above the Arctic Circle–to the Southwest, doing whatever it takes to “get the painting.” Ever the explorer, Greg was fearless in his quest to create. As Greg said, he’d stand in rivers, on the edge of cliffs, balance himself in a bobbing raft down the Grand Canyon or on a ship along the coast up to Alaska, ride horseback into wilderness areas, or find himself in the middle of a buffalo stampede.
He jumped at the chance to talk to anyone wishing to learn, as long as they knew there would be “no bullshit.” He hated bullshit. His art was never “product.” It was always signature.
And he was tender. Who else but a tender man could partner up with Bert Raynes, one of Jackson’s great teachers, and create “Birds of Sage and Scree”? Less than a week before he died, I was looking for a gift to give a friend visiting the valley. Walking through the Craig Thomas Discovery & Visitors Center, my eyes fell on that book. It was right. I bought my fourth copy and presented it to my friend, making sure she was aware of the special status of the book’s authors.
I first met Greg close to a decade ago, in my first days as a green arts reporter. He’d just completed his magnificent mural at the Jackson Hole Visitors Center, on the north end of town, adjacent to the National Elk Refuge. My assignment was to interview him about the project. I’d heard Greg was particular, didn’t suffer fools, and that approaching him my first time might prove intimidating. I was cowed. Here was this towering figure, taller still because of his cowboy boots and major big Western hat, bearing down on me. I introduced myself and asked if I could speak with him for a few minutes about the mural. He drew himself up, and asked me if I knew anything at all about art. He kept questioning me until he was satisfied I would not mis-quote him, not write any bullshit. And a friendship began. He may not have realized it, but Greg became one of my most cherished mentors.
My memories of Greg include walking with him through the National Museum of Wildlife Art’s King Gallery, admiring a show of wildlife paintings. Greg’s paintings were part of the show, as were Bob Kuhn’s, Bill Sawczuck’s, Conrad Schwiering and so many others. Greg stopped in front of Bob Kuhn’s painting of a red fox lying in a field filled of white flowers. The painting triggered memories for Greg, memories that brought tears to his eyes.
“Very few people know that those flowers were not there the day that painting was done,” said Greg. “I know they weren’t there, and I know the reason Bob painted them in. But I can’t tell you, it’s a secret.”
He liked beer. Last summer, my first as moderator for the Grand Teton Association’s program “Artists in the Environment,” Greg, his wife Linda and I went to Dornan’s for beer and pizza after Greg’s painting demonstration; that day he began the painting you see at the top of this page, “Natural Transfiguration.” Greg co-founded “Artists in the Environment” with his close friend Conrad Schwiering. The day had been cool and cloudy, with the threat of rain–even snow–in the air. I’d been a bit worried, and emailed Greg and the GTA staff to ask if the demonstration should be moved indoors to the Craig Thomas Center.
If an artist roars through an email, can you hear him? YES. “We will NOT be indoors, Tammy! The WHOLE POINT,” wrote Greg, “is to be OUTDOORS! I don’t care what’s going on out there, we will be outdoors, at the Chapel, as planned! Why are you even asking me this?”
So we set up. And the rough weather stayed away. And a wonderful crowd of admirers and students showed up to watch Greg paint for three full hours, chilly as it was. All were hypnotized. Greg gained new disciples. He stayed to talk as long as people had questions. He loved the closeness of the wildlife and plein air painting community. To Greg, it is was–and is–a sacred circle. His greatest artistic tenant was that landscape paintings should be painted on site, always. It’s the only way to capture “the WOW” of wilderness and wildlife, light’s fleeting nature, shifting clouds, the color of snow, the depth of cold, alpine lakes.
Some people you can imagine not seeing again. Greg is not one of those people~~~he’s so big. He is in our skin, in the sage, in the granite, the canyons, forever one of our great historic arts figures, a monument, a heart as big as the mountain ranges and oceans he painted. He’s a symbol, a lion, our sun. I’m deeply proud to have been a part of what Greg most cared about. He’s a top artist in the Western Art history Hall of Fame. This summer, the Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters dedicated their National Paint Out and Show to Greg.
I didn’t want to ever have to write this, and now I am falling apart at the thought that I have to stop writing out my love for Greg McHuron. At least for today. To Linda and all Greg’s family~~~~we embrace you. Thank you.
Greg, you were THERE. You are forever our WOW. I’ll continue to honor you in my own ways—but I might not talk to many folks about it. It’s our secret.