When you look at Calvin Grimm’s paintings, what do you see? Biomorphic forms and vivid colors? Abstract expressionism – with an organic twist? The melding of line and shape that both haunts us and gives us hope? There’s no right answer; the work of this Woodstock-based artist and environmentalist embodies all of the above. Each of Calvin Grimm’s paintings is a rich and personal expression of our human relationship with the natural world. He articulates that his goal in painting is “to inspire people spiritually through art in a conversation about the beauty of nature and about the sustainability of nature. I feel gifted that I can do that through my art.” There’s another important element to Grimm’s work: optimism. “Very often my paintings are optimistic because nature is constantly fulfilling and revitalizing,” he says. Grimm’s gift with a paintbrush allows him to share the beauty of nature with others, and to engender hope that humans can interact meaningfully with, and protect, our natural world. He calls painting “the unique language that I have to help people feel optimism, so we can sustain the fight, and sustain the involvement [in environmental activism].” Grimm shares this unique language and skill with a number of organizations whose missions center around environmental protection.
Grimm believes firmly in the importance of experiencing nature’s beauty and power firsthand. This, he says, is our best environmental defense system: if people interact with the natural world, they will come to see its importance, and then will be inspired and motivated to protect it. Beginning in the early 1970’s, Grimm became involved in the National Outdoor Leadership School, or NOLS, leading five-week-long mountaineering and sea kayaking expeditions in Wyoming and Alaska. (He also transported supplies to the adventurers by horseback). He says that the work allowed him, and the young people on the trip, to “absorb the nuances of the natural world,” and to “experience the wilderness, and the dynamic of forces and people and the changing environment, and all the while, to build a sensitivity in how we relate to that environment.” The genuine interaction between people and the natural world makes up the basis for human respect for nature – and the foundation for working together to protect it.
In addition to his work with NOLS, Grimm has been involved with the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a 106-foot long replica vessel of the sloops that sailed the Hudson River in the 18th and 19th centuries, conceptualized by activist and American folk legend Pete Seeger. Since its construction in 1969, the Clearwater has served as the flagship of the environmental movement, its purpose to educate youth about what they can do to protect and preserve the Hudson River.
|Don’t miss The Lamp Project’s video exhibit of Calvin Grimm’s work, plus the on-camera interview about his life, art, and causes.|
Grimm was a boatswain on the Clearwater throughout the 1970’s, charged with the boat’s maintenance, as well as an educator for students who came aboard. He describes Seeger’s vision and the mission of the Clearwater: “If you get people to fall in love with the river, they can actually appreciate that there are living creatures in it, and that it has a life of its own. Then, it became a love, which became a political force – Seeger wanted to create a groundswell of political activism – taking people’s sense of love and a sense of the crime that was being done and transforming that emotion into action.” Grimm also mentions how powerful it was for children to see that it took serious teamwork to raise the boat’s huge sail, an idea of collective intention that would fuel their efforts as champions of the environment long after they disembarked the Clearwater.
Depicting the devastation – both physical and emotional – of nature’s destruction by humans is also an important element in Grimm’s work. He describes the time he spent in Prince William Sound, Alaska, and the particular memory of how the tide receded to reveal sea urchins and sea anemones clinging, vulnerable, to the rocks. He developed “a deep and personal relationship with those creatures.” When he heard news of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 in Prince William Sound, Grimm was overcome with emotion. What he’d begun in his studio as a hopeful painting about these sea animals became “visceral, slimy, oily, and devastating. The creatures attempted to pull themselves out of the mess, unsuccessfully, and black crows were flying around, but it was all in an abstract representation…It was a real expression of my disappointment, my hurt, and my anger.” Grimm channeled his emotions into his work, and the result was a remarkable canvas that chronicles a disastrous natural and historical event. When he heard news of the BP oil spill in 2010, Grimm knew that he had to revisit the painting. The final canvas, titled Exxon Valdez to BP Gulf Oil Spills (1989-2010), both awes us in its beauty and frightens us in its reality.
In speaking about his work with youth, Grimm also touches on our modern disconnect with nature. He mentions Nature Deficit Disorder, a condition defined by a lack of connection with natural elements that can result in attention and mood disorders, depression, and obesity. He says that children in particular have lost their interest in and respect for nature, and have not “developed their intuition, sensitivity and feeling for it. They can’t have a spiritual experience with it if they can’t actually feel it.” In terms of protecting our environment, the worry is that “these people are not going to be qualified to steward [nature], not being in touch with it, and not knowing what it means to lose it.” Grimm speaks with a palpable sadness, and we can see the potent memory of his experience working with youth on the Clearwater and during NOLS expeditions.
But, ever the optimist, Grimm continues to show us through his work how central and vital our connection with nature can be. And, Grimm maintains his connection to various environmental protection organizations, such as The Woodstock Land Conservancy, by painting pieces to be used as auction centerpieces that attract critical fundraising. Grimm’s home, too, stands as a testament to his passion for protecting our environment. Built out of recycled and repurposed materials and designed to complement the wooded mountainside it rests on, Grimm’s house functions as both an art gallery to display his work, and a work of art to be admired all on its own.
To be sure, it will take more than appreciating works of art imbued with the majesty of our natural world to alter attitudes and environmental policy. And paintings may never be enough to recapture what we have already lost. However, the impact of Calvin Grimm’s art is undeniable: he allows us to understand what, precisely, we are fighting for.
If you are interested in learning more about Calvin Grimm and his art, please visit his website, calvingrimm.com. You can also learn more about the organizations that Calvin Grimm is involved in, including the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, and the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), by visiting their websites for more information.