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As Mae Gruber’s artistic talent matured, she graduated from colorful stills to moody studies of subtle color. The Tweed Museum of Art acquired four of Gruber’s paintings before her work was sold at an estate sale this spring. They include “Still Life, Paris” from 1956. (Photo courtesy of Tweed Museum of Art)

Mike Creger column: The artist just around the corner

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Mike Creger column: The artist just around the corner
Duluth Minnesota 424 W. First St. 55802

Set back from Chester Park Drive, the Gruber home once was alive with art and music. Whether people knew it is a mystery.

Mae Gruber died in January, a decade after her brother, Ed.

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It wasn’t until I saw an “Estate Sale” sign in my neighborhood in June that I realized just who had been living only a few hundred yards away.

To walk into Mae Lucille Gruber’s home was a shock.

Moody gray and blue paintings upstairs and down with would-be buyers trying to discern which was the best. Ed’s immaculate record collection was cleaned out by eager local musicians. Many of the books remained, along with a bedroom set, dishes and a grand piano.

But those paintings.

“She was prolific as hell,” said Ken Bloom, curator at the Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota Duluth. The Tweed fetched four of Gruber’s paintings. Bloom wanted more, but they just don’t have the storage space, he said.

Her paintings from the early 1950s, “colorful and classic,” Bloom said, went first.

The “atmospheric” and “tonalist” works from late in her life were keen studies on light and paint, Bloom said.

“She clearly developed as an artist,” he said, referring to Gruber as a “painter’s painter.”

To get the gist of her subjects, you have to stand back from the work, he said. Then, you will see the outcroppings along Chester Creek, a building, a chair, a window frame.

Bloom said he picked four paintings that best represented Gruber’s periods.

A bit of biography was pieced together by Peter Spooner, a former curator at the Tweed.

She was born in 1934 and graduated from Duluth East High School and then went to Minnesota’s Carleton College in Northfield in 1956. She had a degree in art and a minor in English.

Her brother, Ed Gruber, was a longtime English professor for the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and Duluth. He was a talented pianist and singer, most often seen directing or starring in Duluth’s Matinee Musicale productions.

Spooner wrote that Gruber moved back to Duluth permanently in 1975 and began sorting through her works. The pieces remaining at the end of the sale had dates and descriptions written in pencil on the wooden frames.

Her work started out with a riot of colors, but as she gained expertise, the moody blues came out.

For Gruber’s paintings to go out the door willy-nilly during one of those typical estate sales was uncomfortable. I knew there was some disconnect going on. There had to be a story behind what I was seeing.

Bloom said the death of prolific artists and what happens to their work has come up a lot lately, locally and nationally.

“Families have enormous collections of work and no place to go with it,” he said.

The Tweed would be bursting with works and overwhelmed with curating if it stepped in each time, Bloom said. He would have taken a dozen paintings if he could have.

Go to any estate sale this season and you’ll see the problem, whether it’s a collection of art or figurines or Christmas ornaments.

Where do you put all that stuff if it doesn’t sell?

“I was pitching to people,” Bloom said of his effort to steer underwhelmed deal-seekers to her work. “I told them, ‘This is a great painting.’ ”

From a great artist. My unknown neighbor.

Do you know someone with an interesting story — a neighbor, a friend, an acquaintance? Contact Mike Creger and he will explore your idea for his weekly Neighbors column. He can be reached at (218) 723-5218 or at mcreger@duluthnews.com.

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Mike Creger
(218) 723-5218
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