The banker turned painter

Alcea #3_50x50x5

We had a fascinating chat with the American banker turned painter Tony Grier:

FFC

I notice that you sign your paintings WAG, and I was wondering where that comes from.

TG

It comes from my initials Waymond Anthony Grier.  At first, I was signing Tony Grier, but I realized that it would look awkward on the canvas, and some suggested my initials WAG; it’s pronounced Vag in French, which means wave.  And then I sign on the back Waymond Anthony Grier, because people like the signature as well.

FFC

To start at the beginning, when did you come to Paris?

TG

I first came to Paris in 1967 with a group of people from my university in Philadelphia, at the time it was called LaSalle College; they had an exchange program with the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.  A group of 20 of us were selected,  and we took a ship called the Aurelia; it took us 8 days to cross the Atlantic.  We took a bus at Le Havre – the driver’s name was Jacques, so we knew we were in France – but the dream really came true the next day when we arrived in Paris, where we were going to stay for three days before being driven to Switzerland.  Our first hotel was on (replaced “in the”) rue Saint Jacques in the Latin Quarter, and you can imagine us seeing the nightlife and being able to go out all night with young people.  I said to myself:  “I want to live here and work here one day in my life”, and I kept that in my mind, and off to Switzerland we went.  On school vacations, I and another friend would hitchhike back to Paris.  In May of ’68, we were ready to cross the border and people said:  “the border’s closed’, without giving us a reason.  We only learned later that the whole country had been closed.

Back in Philadelphia, I was hired by a bank, given a very comfortable position and sent to the Virgin Islands.  While in the Virgin Islands, I realized that I wanted to go back to Paris.  So I did, but I was having so much fun that I neglected to look for a job and, when the money ran out, I headed back to Philadelphia, where my old bank gave me back my job.  A year later, the dream came back, but this time I organized interviews in Paris and, on that trip, First National Bank of Boston hired me on the spot.  That was in 1972, and I’ve been here ever since.

I thought and hoped that Paris would be the place where I could become an artist.  Working all day, I tried to paint in the evenings, but my energy was sapped, and so finally I gave it up.  The years went by, I went back to the States to get a business degree.  At the time, Yale was starting a new business school to compete with Harvard, and I was able to go back to school there thanks to the encouragement of my sister, Beverly, who was at Yale at the time. After two years at Yale’s School of Management (SOM), since I still had working papers, I decided that I would just come back to Paris and see if I could pick up on the arts thing again.

Alcea #3_50x50x5

FFC

At what point did you really start to paint again when you were in Paris?

TG

When I came back to Paris after getting my degree from SOM, I said:  “I’m really going to make an effort”, so in 1984 I bought a studio and set up to paint in one corner and wanted to continue working on the paintings I did in 1979.  I had done a series, and people liked them, and I wanted to continue.  The problem was with the technique I used.  At the time, I used spray paint, but I found out that with every color I used, the paint was all over the carpet. I tried to do it in the basement without the neighbors finding out and then realized that I needed a studio, a real studio.  So I stopped and said I’ll do drawings and watercolors, whatever is small, and one day I’ll be able to have an artist’s studio and have space to spray paint.

I stopped painting and, at the same time, discovered bank training.  My passion became seeing people learn, and I thought maybe that’s what I was meant to be: a teacher rather than a painter.  A friend, a real painter, told me a long time ago: “Tony, if you really wanted to be a painter, you’d do it and starve”.  And I said: “sorry, that’s not me, I’ve gotta eat, so, I guess, I was meant to be a trainer, not a painter.”

Also, in 1984, I started a company that allowed me to continue working for the bank but to do training on the side, and I decided to seek more training assignments. I also changed banks and started teaching students computer science in a Paris business school.  While there, my passion for teaching increased, and I thought about teaching full-time.  Finally, I realized that I was no longer interested in the bank and that I wanted to teach and train full time, and I have, in fact, devoted myself for the last 20 years to training. I did not paint until 2009.  I had bought a bigger apartment and now had someplace to paint, so I took up painting again, this time not with spray paint but with a brush.  I continued with more or less the same style I started with in the 70s.

I spent a lot of time after quitting the bank traveling on training assignments. Staying in hotels, I looked at lobbies and training venues, and it is amazing what people put on the walls, and I said: “I can do that”, and that made my determination to paint even stronger.Achillea #3_61x50x2

 

Back in my new bigger apartment, I decided I’m gonna paint and I’m gonna show. But I also realized that before I could contact galleries here in Paris, I needed something to show, so I painted, painted, painted, and a friend came over and photographed my work.  I had enough to send out 100 letters with a CV and photos of my recent work, and I got one answer.  It reminded me of when you’re looking for a job, and I’d send out 100 CVs, and get just that one answer.

And that one answer was from the gallery that I still deal with today, Galerie Thuillier in the Marais.

FFC

You mentioned that you travel all over the world doing training. I was wondering if your travels have influenced your painting, or where do your influences come from?

TG

Well, first of all, Africa, because the colors there are just incredible. It might go back to an earlier time, when I was working in the Virgin Islands; I was struck by the colors, the blue sky every day that makes you hope for rain!  Traveling through Asia, India, Pakistan and, further, to Viet Nam, South China or Hong Kong, the colors that people have on stalls or that you can see in paintings; again, I said I can do that and put my own mix or flavor of colors using my own, perhaps original, design; when you look at my paintings, you might see stripes, and anybody can do that too, but I get a wiggle in mine, and it’s only recently that I’ve been adding this water drop that goes back to the days I was trying to do a glass eye with the spray painting.  I found that I could do water drops with a paintbrush easily.  I didn’t put them on all my paintings, because I felt that that would make them ordinary, but now I keep getting orders for paintings where people say: “and don’t forget your ‘bulle magique’ (magic bubble).

Anise #3_65x54cm

FFC

I noticed that the stripes that you do today have evolved from what you did earlier in 1979. Is there some reason why you express yourself in these colorful stripes?

TG

First, it’s that with the stripes, the combinations are infinite and, when I’m doing one, I say oh, what if I switched that and do them opposite or maybe on the next canvas change the size and make one bigger than the other.  So, generally, now I’ll do a series of three that will look like they’ll go together, but because I can’t draw a straight line without a ruler, of course,

it’s going to be weak, and I purposely make volumes out of them. And what I really like at the end is putting the shadowing in, in other words, the black along the edges and then smudging it into the color and finally making a white strip that highlights the roundness of it.  I haven’t seen anything like it.  You have painters such as Léger and the Delauneys who did patches of color like that, maybe shadowing from time to time, but still nothing like what I’m doing so far and so it’s the combination of colors.  I don’t have to think about representing anything; what I do is purely decorative.  I’m thinking

I think that what I’m doing hopefully will look good hanging on someone’s wall, just the colors they wanted to bring out, that will fit into whatever color scheme they have in their apartment.  Totally decorative, there’s no message whatsoever.Study in Red #2_60x50x3,5

FFC

So, finally, people are attracted to the pure color, and it’s a connection that they’ll feel to the color and the particular combination of colors that you use.  Can you tell me briefly – you mentioned the Galerie Thuillier in the Marais – what are your upcoming exhibitions?

TG

An exhibit at the Galerie Thuillier right now, from the 7th to the 22nd  of May. At the end of May, for five days, I’ll have a stand at Le Grand Marché de l’Art Contemporain at the Place Saint-Sulpice in Saint-Germain (May 28th to June 2nd. ) And then, in July, I’ll have a stand in the south of France, in the little village called Lourmarin near Aix-en-Provence for Carré d’Artistes, their first international salon from July 7th to 14th.  In November and December, I’m at Montpellier in the gallery called Talbot, that will be the second time I’m there, and then December again with Galerie Thuilier.

FFC

Let me ask you a little about your life in Paris. Can you tell me what you like the most and dislike the most about your life in Paris?

TG

The beauty of the city is what I like the most.   When I go out, I just can’t help but admire the buildings, the winding streets when I go to the center of Paris, the surprises that you see when you look up, comparing, say, the medieval buildings to the more Haussmannian ones, and some of the new buildings that have gone up are interesting as well, but in all it’s the beauty of the city that has kept me here.  There’s no other city as beautiful as Paris, people can argue about that, but that what keeps me here.

What I don’t like:  Parisians can be difficult and, after 41 years here, I’ve changed, and I notice I’ve changed, because, when you go back to the States, go into any store, you get service even if you don’t buy anything, people will help you on the street – and I’m talking New York – go into a museum, and people at the counter are nice to you.  Come back to Paris, I don’t want to exaggerate, but it’s almost a battle just to get things done.  Even on the telephone.  It’s an uphill battle to get just everyday service the way you would get in the US.  That’s the only thing. I don’t want to exaggerate, because that’s my problem; if I don’t like it then I should leave.WAG_portrait

FFC

One last question.  I see that you’re living in the 19th arrondissement – so not in the historic center of Paris – not too far from a very picturesque place which is the Place des Fêtes.  Are there places in your neighborhood, in the 19th, that you like, that you would recommend to people who might venture out of the center of the city?

TG

First of all, there’s the Buttes Chaumont, the park.  It’s the most beautiful park in the world for me.  A dream of course would be to have an apartment overlooking the park but then you’re talking outrageous prices.  Then, I would say, Place Jourdan: it’s almost like a little village and, along the rue de Belleville, there are shops and stores, and it’s always lively.

FFC

Is there any restaurant or shop that you like to patronize?

TG

The Zéphyr Café, which is open rather late and where a lot of cinema and theater people go after their performance or whatever .  Otherwise, if I have friends coming, I would take them to the center of the city.

FFC

And where would that be?

TG

My favorite is Le Soufflé. It’s right at the back of what used to be the Hotel Intercontinental (NB: currently The Westin). That is my first favorite place, but it’s not cheap.  My second is the Jules Verne in the Eiffel Tower, where you have to reserve months in advance.  I always recommend to do lunch.  The last time I was there, lunch was around 50 Euros, excluding wine, but if you do it at night, it’s perhaps the double, plus, during the day, you have a great view.  My third recommendation would be in the restaurant in the Palais de Chaillot, where the theater is.  There are also lots of smaller, less expensive restaurants.  Some that I like: one that’s right behind the Fontaine Saint-Michel is called La Tourelle, a small place, it’s been open for decades now, and it’s reasonably affordable.  Otherwise, I just discovered a new place the other day, it’s called Le Bistrot Gourmand on the rue Mouffetard, and there, on the menu, among other things, was a starter with a whole camembert. One last place is called Le Navigateur that is on rue Galande, just behind the Eglise Saint-Severin, also in the Latin Quarter.  There, it’s recommended that you reserve.  French food is excellent.

Le Zéphyr Café, 1 rue du Jourdain, Paris 20. T: 01 46 36 65 81

Le Soufflé, 36, rue du Mont Thabor, Paris 1.   T: 01 42 60 27 19

Le Jules Verne, Eiffel Tower.  T: 01 45 55 61 44

Le Palais de Chaillot, closed until 5th June

La Tourelle, 5, rue de Hautefeuille, Paris 6.  T: 01 46 33 12 47

Le Bistrot Gourmand, 78 rue Mouffetard, Paris 5. T: 01 43 37 24 71

Le Navigateur, 63, rue Galande, Paris 5.  T: 01 43 54 35 86