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Loss of a lovable curmudgeon: Exhibition celebrates Russell Gran's life, work

Russell Gran's 2010 exhibition "Favorite Son" imagined a complete narrative for his subject, a young man from a small town who joins the military. 2010 file / News Tribune1 / 5
Russell Gran was shown painting in his studio apartment in a 2006 story. Gran was among the first artists to move into Washington Studios. He died last Wednesday after suffering a heart attack. 2006 file / News Tribune2 / 5
This untitled, undated work by Russell Gran is one of the pieces that will be shown during his memorial. Photo courtesy of Eric Dubnicka 3 / 5
Untitled and undated work by Russell Gran, who died last week. Image courtesy of Eric Dubnicka 4 / 5
Untitied and undated work by Russell Gran. Image courtesy of Eric Dubnicka5 / 5

There are a lot of stories out there about the lovable curmudgeon Russell Gran, 81, an artist who died last week after a major heart attack.

He was a cane-shaker. He yelled at people on the bus. He was loving and caring. He was a great consumer of books and movies, and his tastes spanned from Japanese art films to "Ted," the tale of a man and a childhood teddy bear that comes to life.

Gran struggled with depression. His acrylic paintings were bright and his subjects were bold. He was a father-figure and a best friend. He didn't suffer fools. He passed out copies of "Robert's Rules of Order," and his friends found three copies while cleaning his apartment. Gran wrote letters, some that he sent and some he didn't. His humor leaned the bluest of blue.

"It's amazing the web he cast," recalled his good friend Eric Dubnicka. "He's a Tootsie Pop with a hard exterior and a soft nougaty center. If you were in, he gave you his entire self. He was beautifully compassionate and loving to that which he cared about. He was also cautious to give that and to be open."

Gran's friends are hosting "Russell V. Gran: A Life's Retrospective" from 5-8 p.m. today at 315 Gallery, a funeral-meets-art exhibition or, as Dubnicka billed it, "a fake wake." Gran had been working on pieces for an upcoming show — still-life paintings and street scenes, which had been his focus for the past few years.

Gran was ill in recent weeks, Dubnicka said. He was short of breath on Wednesday when he contacted his neighbors, who called the paramedics. By the time Dubnicka got to his apartment, Gran had died.

"Thursday, I was supposed to take him for groceries, like I usually do," Dubnicka said.

His life

Gran graduated from Denfeld High School in 1954 and the University of Minnesota Duluth in 1958. He then moved out east and worked in the insurance business before returning to Duluth more than a decade later. He was in the latter part of middle age when he returned to UMD and earned a master's degree in studio art.

"I can only imagine he was the most eccentric nontraditional student ever," Dubnicka said and laughed.

Gran was among the first artists to move into the Washington Studios Artist Cooperative in the 1990s. He took a vocal, sometimes cantankerous role in how the co-op and its gallery were run. The day photographer Ryan Tischer met him, he had just publicly criticized a fellow co-op resident in a meeting.

Gran taught briefly in a formal setting — but more often in his day-to-day interactions with his close friends. Ryan Vine, who was his neighbor for many years, said Gran introduced him to some of the writers he now considers instrumental to his evolution as a poet.

"He was one of the best readers I knew," Vine said. "I swear I got a better reading list from (Gran) than I did in college. He was brilliant."

Gran introduced Tischer to art he wasn't sure he would have otherwise encountered — specifically the movies of John Waters and the cartoonist R. Crumb.

"He was constantly exposing people to new things," Tischer said.

Dubnicka met Gran by chance. He had been considering moving to the Twin Cities — then ended up — "kismet," he called it — at Washington Gallery, which was being minded on that day by Gran. Dubnicka left with an application to live in the building.

"It changed the direction of my life," he said.

The work

When Gran started working on a project, he eased into it. He would paint some hostas or succulents, according to Tischer. He would work his way to still lifes, people, more complicated subjects.

"You go into his apartment and there are paintings of himself that didn't hold anything back," Tischer said. "They are totally honest as to where the human body can go with age. He was not afraid of approaching reality."

Gran had a few exhibitions in the past 15 years, including "Distant Engine: A Broadside Series" in which Vine created poems based on Gran's work, and Gran made art that represented Vine's words. Before the show, Vine suggested that his poetry should hang from the ceiling — in front of Gran's work.

"You can see the problem there," Vine said. "I was on his bad side for a day. I didn't like it there."

In 2010, Gran filled Washington Gallery with works from his series "Favorite Son." He had built a fictional narrative surrounding Lars Lundberg, a popular Norwegian teenager from somewhere like Wrenshall who eschewed college in favor of the military. Other paintings showed the people in Lundberg's life and town. It was born partly of Gran's young friends who ended up fighting in Desert Storm and Iraq, what he called "worthless wars" in a News Tribune story.

"I hated to think of these young people in their flower getting killed," Gran said at the time.

In 2012, he showed new works on topics of sickness, death, family, home, cats and education. The exhibition was a play on his reputation among his artist friends.

He called it "Curmudgeon."

And now

In the days since he died, Gran's friends have gathered to sort through the accumulation of more than two decades at Washington Studios. At first it was challenging, Dubnicka said. Then they started stumbling on old letters Gran had never sent to them, reading and laughing. By Saturday they were rueing his collection of stuff and by Sunday things had leveled out.

For Tischer, the sense of loss hit hardest on Sunday — the night he would traditionally call Gran while driving back from one of the far-flung art fairs where he regularly shows and sells his work.

The calls would start as a prank. Tischer might, for instance, pretend to be a preacher and ask Gran to repent. Or, Gran might make a racket in the background of his apartment and yell to Tischer that he had fallen and couldn't get up — call 911.

"Sometimes, he'd play it out for a minute or two too long and you'd wonder ..." Tischer said and laughed.

Despite the pranks, Tischer wasn't prepared for his friend to go.

"You figured he'd live to at least 99," he said.

If you go

• What: "Russell V. Gran: A Life's Retrospective"

• When: 5-8 p.m. today

• Where: 315 Gallery, Washington Studios, 315 N. Lake Ave.

• Note: Proceeds from sales of Gran's work will go to youth services

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