Second Nature

Marine scientist-turned-Sondheim prize winner finds his sea legs in the art world

July 16, 2008|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun critic

Geoff Grace has been a marine scientist on the Pacific Ocean, a museum educator in Florida, a high school teacher in Overlea and a guitarist in his own band, the Tall Grass.

But now as the winner of this year's Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize, the Geoff-of-all-trades appears to have found his true calling - as a visual artist who explores ideas in a wide range of art forms, including drawing, sculpture and photography.

The 33-year-old Maryland native won Saturday after competing against five other finalists for the $25,000 prize. The competition is part of the city's annual three-day Artscape festival, which begins Friday.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Today section about artist Geoff Grace listed an incorrect phone number for the Baltimore Museum of Art. The correct number is 443-573-1700.

His entry, on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art with the other finalists', is a highly personal, multifaceted piece that demonstrates his ability to work in a variety of media, including drawing, sculpture, installation art and photography.

"I wanted to give people something to spend time with," he said modestly.

Named after the late civic leader and his wife, the Sondheim prize recognizes the achievements of visual artists living or working in Maryland, Washington, Northern Virginia and southeastern Pennsylvania.

It represents a validation of sorts for Grace, who returned to college to study fine art after embarking on a career in marine science.

Judges for this year's competition, which drew 324 entries, said Grace was their unanimous choice. They were particularly impressed with his ability to work with a variety of media.

"Geoff has proven to be really an amazing artist of our time," said Mickalene Thomas, a New York-based artist who served on the jury. "He has a tremendous amount of creativity and a particular voice that we are looking forward to hearing from more. It's very rare that you find a unique voice, and Geoff's is very quiet and unique."

"He's really emblematic of a new kind of artist I see all over the world, one who is facilitous in all kinds of mediums," said Laura Hoptman, senior curator at the New Museum in New York and another juror.

"He's a young artist, at the beginning of his career. We saw beauty and complexity in his work and, at the same time, a formal elegance and sophistication. He uses objects from everywhere, and yet there's something very spiritual about his work."

Tall and thin, with a dark beard and laid-back demeanor, Grace earned two degrees from the Maryland Institute College of Art and has exhibited extensively throughout central Maryland.

For this year's entry, titled "it's the linger, not the long," Grace drew three life-sized giraffes with clay slip on two walls in one of the museum's high-ceilinged Thalheimer galleries. The giraffes' long necks are lowered so their heads are close to the ground, as if they're foraging for food or water. The giraffes, he explained, are metaphors for museumgoers, who come in search of visual nourishment.

Around the giraffes, Grace mounted dozens of drawings and photos that he has created or collected over the years - his way of rewarding museumgoers in their search for visual sustenance. The images include pencil drawings of circles and photos showing light streaming through a bedroom window, boxers in a clinch, pyramids from ancient Egypt.

For his photos, Grace worked with a wide range of cameras and techniques, including Polaroids, long-exposure pinhole photography and digital photography. Many of the images are displayed in humble frames suggesting a domestic setting, It's a complex, layered work that lingers in the memory long after one has left the gallery - a revealing look into the mind of the artist.

That multilayered approach is characteristic of the way Grace works and how dedicated he is to his craft, said Gary Kachadourian, visual arts coordinator for the competition's organizer, the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts.

"He's part of the grass-roots artmaking/presenting scene in Baltimore," Kachadourian said. "He's always making artwork and altering his work and adjusting the work he makes. It's very investigative and fluid. He's not really making objects. He's making ideas."

Soft-spoken and contemplative, with an Irishman's ironic sense of humor, Grace took a circuitous path to become a visual artist.

Grace graduated from high school at 16 and enrolled at the University of California Los Angeles to study marine science. After graduation, he found work on a research ship on the Pacific, studying birds for the Point Reyes Bird Observatory in California.

Although he liked the subject, he said, he found life at sea "isolating" and moved to Melbourne, Fla., to live near his brother. There he found work as an educator at the Brevard Museum of Art and Science. He liked the interaction with visitors, he said, but was frustrated that he might never see a visitor more than once.

In 2000, he moved back to Maryland and enrolled at MICA, where he earned a bachelor's degree in general fine arts and a Master of Arts in teaching.

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