The latest exhibit at GAZE Modern shows the work of two married artists creating in the same home.
Mary GrandPré and Tom Casmer speak the same language. They’re one of those rare married couples who are completely in sync without being stale carbon copies of one another.
GrandPré and Casmer are both artists with backgrounds in illustration, but the art they create today is completely different. However, their mindsets are still quite similar in one way: They see the world as a series of shapes, forms and colors.
“I could be walking down the street and seeing a sliding door and that negative space — it just clicks,” Casmer says of where his inspiration comes from. “That happened recently, and I filed it away and brought it home.”
Casmer and GrandPré are opening their first “duet” show — they’ve shown work together before but it was in a space shared with other artists — on April 13 at GAZE Modern. The title of the show encompasses both their art and relationship perfectly: “Common Denominator: The Mechanics and Organics of Form.”
Both GrandPré and Casmer are Minnesota natives, and their paths crossed briefly when they were both teaching at the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul in the early ’90s. They didn’t really get to know each other, however, until Casmer invited GrandPré to come speak to his children’s book illustration class.
GrandPré illustrated the U.S. editions of the "Harry Potter" books, so Casmer figured she had an experience or two to share.
“My students said, ‘You should ask her out,’ and we went out to lunch and had a nice chat,” Casmer says.
“We were friends immediately after that,” GrandPré chimes in. “And when I saw his place and his huge paintings on the wall I was like, ‘Wow, he’s cool.’”
What began as a shared sense of respect for each other’s craft soon evolved into a deep mutual admiration for each other’s work — and for each other in general. That admiration further developed into a passionate love that is evident in the way the two still look at each other.
They still brag about each other, too.
“He can do all kinds of stuff, all kinds of work,” GrandPré says. “He’s a great drawer. But I think when he’s working more abstract we’re kind of on the same vibe and can talk about shape and color and balance and tension … it’s a fun new conversation we’re trying to have in our lives.”
Nearly 17 years ago, the couple moved to Sarasota when Casmer got a teaching job at Ringling College of Art and Design. They’ve been creating art in their North Trail home — just a couple blocks from Sarasota Bay — ever since.
Although she was an illustrator for about 30 years and worked on several books as well as a conceptual artist on projects such as Dreamwork’s “Antz” and on Blue Sky Studios’ “Ice Age,” GrandPré has been focused on transitioning into abstract work for the past two years.
“I went through big struggles when I was illustrating — It wasn’t satisfying me creatively,” she says. “I’ve always been searching for more in my art … and it (abstract) has become my passion,” she says.
GrandPré really wanted to get into abstract art, but at first, no matter how hard she tried, it wasn’t working. It never felt quite right, and she wasn’t proud of the work she was producing. That all changed, however, when she took an online workshop that opened up several doors.
“It got me going on how to think about design and color and value in a different way — to shift my thinking of art in a whole new way,” she says.
That transition hasn’t been easy, however. For three decades, GrandPré was used to drawing from life — drawing to represent stories and characters and problems that needed to be solved. Now she’s had to train her brain to lean into the freedom afforded to those who paint for themselves.
GETTING IT DONE
Casmer and GrandPré have different approaches to their work, but there’s also a great deal of crossover.
Neither artist, for example, sits in his or her studio chair with a plan or message in mind. Casmer thinks of shapes he’s seen recently — one being the electrical box and plumbing he noticed on the side of Bay Haven School of Basics Plus on a recent walk. He studied the shapes in relation to the white wall behind and stored them in his mind, allowing them to spill onto an empty page shortly after.
Casmer calls this a process of reaction to the shapes and figures around him, and while sometimes he has to get out and about to be inspired, his creative spirit is often ignited by a quick trip to his wife’s studio in the pool house-esque structure in their backyard.
“I look at Mary’s work and go, ‘I like how that shape is coming to the forefront of that piece,’ and that influences me.” he says. “Where she fills area with texture and color, I might fill it more with linear detail to suggest some of that textural quality. It’s just kind of that conversation — you look at something, react and then internalize it.”
Casmer’s pieces have the look of an imaginative mechanic’s blueprints if a mechanic needed blueprints and wasn’t afraid to make them multi-colored. Full of gears and nuts and bolts and everything in between, looking at a Casmer print is like lifting the hatch off the top of a machine you assumed would be intimidating in its complexity, only to find a surprising sense of familiarity with the shapes and forms inside.
These works often look planned because they have a mechanical aspect to them, he says, but he actually uses a fairly organic artistic process. He starts with a traditional drawing using ink on paper, then paints that image digitally on photoshop and makes a print of said image.
“I’ll think of a shape and start with that,” he says. “Things naturally construct around it. I react to each new piece and it builds and sometimes it’s intentionally tightly constructed and sometimes it breaks apart to become something totally different.”
GrandPré’s process is also quite organic.
First, she makes a cup of coffee and heads to the back studio with one of the couple’s three dogs. She puts on some motown or jazz — “something good” like Dave Brubeck or Joe Sample or Aretha Franklin — and she sits with several canvases that she’s already started.
GrandPré likes to work on several pieces at once and says she’ll often have six or seven large paintings in the works at the same time as four or five small ones.
“I don’t like to spend too much time on one because I like to let each inform the next one,” she says. “And I can learn a lot that way instead of fighting with one all day … they all sort of tell me what to do.”
GrandPré says most of the work is intuitive, and as she adds layers of collage and paint and scraps some away, she begins to make a textured surface with a narrative history to it.
“I like to stay in that play mode as long as I can and keep the thinking at bay as long as possible so it doesn’t get stagnant — kind of like jazz,” she says.
Some couples talk about their days at the dinner table. Some talk politics. Casmer and GrandPré talk about shape and form.
Almost every day, the pair shuffles off to their separate studios to spend several hours creating. And almost every day, they also take occasional breaks to mosey over to the other’s art space and see what they’re working on, eventually convening again for lunch and further artistic discussion.
“I enjoy being able to go into her studio and react to what it is she’s working on and have that conversation back and forth,” Casmer says. “(At lunch) She describes how she arrives at this or that and the direction she wants to take with it … yesterday I went totally out of my palette I’d been working in and all of a sudden I had red and she went ‘YES!’ She was very supportive.”
GrandPré agrees, saying she’s able to derive inspiration from Casmer’s work while still maintaining her own style.
“Sometimes I go back into the studio and think of something I saw in Tom’s piece and then think, ‘Why don’t I take that and do it in my own way?’”
The couple is excited to show their work together in their first shared solo exhibit, and they agree that their similar background in illustration but varied processes will make for a show unlike any viewers have seen before.
GrandPré says she hopes not only to sell some art but to inspire a sense of awe and wonder in people, hopefully encouraging them to spend some time with the art and come back to it after a glass of wine (to then see it even clearer).
But this exhibit isn’t really about the viewers. It’s a celebration for two people who love each other and happen to share a passion for visual art.
“We’ve been making art just a few inches away from each other for so long and have come to really understand each other’s art,” GrandPré says. “I don’t talk to my family about my art in that way but my husband has known me and seen my work for so long, I think he gets it and appreciates it like nobody else — as I do him and his work — and that’s just really special.”