Harold Gregor, His Prairieinspired Art Left Mark On BloomingtonNormal

Harold Gregor, His Prairieinspired Art Left Mark On BloomingtonNormal

BLOOMINGTON – Harold Gregor, Bloomington-Normal's most famous artist of the late 20th century, left a lasting mark on society and the world with his unique, often eerie and awe-inspiring depictions of the flat grasslands and farmlands of Illinois.

Originally from Detroit, Michigan, Gregor (1929-2018) came to Bloomington-Normal in 1970 to experience the Illinois landscape. Prior to accepting the professorship of art at Illinois State University, Gregor taught and lived in California for 10 years after earning his doctorate in fine arts from Ohio State University.

While on the West Coast, his artistic practice changed over time and he became drawn to abstract expressionism, pop art, and latticework art. When he landed in Bloomington-Normal, he was desperate for new inspiration, and he found it in the flat landscapes of Illinois farmland and the Photorealism movement.


Harold and Marlene Gregor pose in their studio at 311 N. Main St. with "Cornmin Miranda," a fiberglass corn sculpture that Gregor painted for Bloomington's 2000 Corn on the Curb art initiative at the scale of the city, Marlene was instrumental in the organization. This photograph has been preserved and digitized by the McLean County Historical Museum as part of the Pantagraph Negative Digitization Project. To see thousands of other similar historic photos from McLean County, visit bit.ly/IDAMCMH.

In a 2017 interview with his former student and current executive director of the McLean County Art Center, Doug Johnson, Gregor expressed a sense of loss at the crossroads of his art practice after arriving in Illinois.

"I didn't really know what to do, so I thought the dumbest thing I could do was a can of corn," he said. "I've never seen it and didn't know what it was. I thought it was a barn until someone finally told me. 'It's not a barn. It is a barn.

The Robert Gray Gallery, which represents Gregor in Chicago, describes his series of corn stove images as "a very elaborate, very quiet photo-realistic work that shows a cradle of white corn in the center of the landscape." It was these luminous images that first caught the attention of major collectors and galleries across the country.

In fact, Gregory's work was implicated in a high profile art theft from Richard Gray's gallery in January 1994. Two paintings by Pablo Picasso and Harold Gregor were stolen early this morning from the Michigan Avenue art space .

Picasso's 1928 masterpiece Tet, a monotone, semi-abstract profile of a woman's face in oil and sand on canvas, 8.5 inches x 21.5 inches, is estimated at 500 $000. Gregory's 1990 masterpiece, Early Autumn, Hayworth, an 8.5" x 27.75" oil and acrylic on canvas depicting a McLean County landscape, is appraised at $7,000.

The Picasso was stolen for ransom and mysteriously returned, but Gregor and the thief were never found. The world may never know Gregor's motive for stealing the case, but in an interview with Pantagraph reporter Sharon Gilfond later that year, Gregor joked:

His work also caught the attention of President Barack Obama, who requested that Gregory's painting be brought to Washington, DC, as a tribute to his home state and his beauty. First in Obama's office in the Senate, then in the Private Dining Room of the White House's Oval Office, Gregory's paintings are displayed prominently and proudly.


In this undated photo provided by Senator Marlene Gregor. Barack Obama stands in front of a painting by Harold Gregory in his office. He was then hanged at the White House.

The former president even wrote to Gregor. "Nice to see your work in my office… thank you so much!"

Although he was not born in Illinois, Gregor has lived in Bloomington-Normal for more than half his life and has made it his home. Especially in downtown Bloomington, where Gregor has invested in preserving its historic architecture and revitalizing and rejuvenating a once vibrant neighborhood.

In 1967, Eastland Mall opened on the site of a Sears and JCPenney formerly located in downtown Bloomington. The move set off a domino effect as businesses and residents left the area, leaving the downtown area with more pigeons and holes than people.

Gregor and his friend, colleague and artist Ken Holder moved into their first shared studio at 108½ E. Front St. (now the site of the McLean County Government Center) in 1971 . At the time, Gregor candidly described the room as "full of pigeon droppings". Both paid $12 a month in rent and worked in a refrigerator in an old dance hall.

The friendship and artistic practice of the two grew in this workshop. Along with Harold Boyd, these three young artists transformed the art department at the University of Illinois and became widely known as the "Heartland Artists". The stories of these three men are not covered in this article, but there is an excellent three-part YouTube documentary series on oral history called Ken and the Two Harolds.

Gregor and Holder jointly owned the historic Arthur Pillsbury McGregor Building at 311 N. Main St. — now the new Spice Works — to create a more permanent creative space conveniently located next to Boyd's studio, currently an art gallery run by the Boyd's longtime partner and artist Rhea Edge.

Gregor eventually bought half the building from his partner in the early 2000s because Holder could no longer move his large-scale paintings to the third floor, and continued to exploit the space with his wife, Marlene Gregor, as Gregory Gallery until it became his own. died in 2018

Marlene and Harold also took care of the house at 107 W. Market St. reviving and transforming into a cutting-edge loft where they lived together for more than 20 years. The couple carefully designed the space, right down to the blue exterior and paprika orange trim.

All of the buildings owned and renovated by Gregor, as well as his works of art, survive today. Created in the heart of historic downtown Bloomington, inspired by and often depicting the landscape of McLean County, this art has been sold to the most prestigious galleries in New York, Santa Fe and Chicago, and is part of public and private collections around the world. whole world. world

His influence, like that of countless other artists today, can be found in every corner of historic downtown Bloomington.

Gregory's early abstractions and the large-scale Vibrascape can be seen at the Hangar Art Company, 105 W. Jefferson St. The Hangar is Bloomington-Normal's centerpiece for the World Slow Art Day celebration on 15 April 2023 and will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The McLean County Historical Museum will join in the celebration by displaying a selection of works by Gregory from the permanent collection, including pieces from the Corn Box series and Flatscape watercolors. The works will be exhibited in the museum rotunda from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

For more information on this year's Slow Art Day celebration, visit bit.ly/BNslowartmap23.

Looking at art has a 'powerful effect' on emotions

Scientists from the University of Turku in Finland have now reported that looking at certain images can have an interesting effect on emotions.

Pieces From Our Past is a weekly column for the McLean County History Museum. Michaela Harris is the Museum's Marketing Coordinator.

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