Big Man on Canvas
Brad Alford is pretty sure he’d never met a true “Renaissance man” until he met JT Grant.
“Look at everything he does in Fort Worth and for Fort Worth,” Alford said, noting Grant’s involvement with numerous local charities and cultural organizations. He runs G. Bradley Alford & Associates, an interior design firm near the Cultural District. “His art is as near to master Renaissance quality as you can get. There’s a whole lot of his soul coming out in his paintings.”
The busy interior designer has commissioned paintings from Grant for some of his best clients and bought a couple of pieces himself.
“I first saw his work at William Campbell and was enchanted with it,” he said. “I scrimped and saved and bought it.” In the process, the two men became friends.
Alford owns a smaller drawing plus one of Grant’s signature skyscapes –– precise renderings of storm clouds, sunrises, or sunsets in subtle colors that are vividly true to life.
“I create an effect with oils and by manipulating the timbre with traditional glazes,” the artist said. “I appreciate the literal beauty of a sunrise or sunset. The interplay of peach, pink, pale lavender, pale blue, gray-blue, dark gray is essential.”
But he hopes to communicate more than the beauty. “My subtext is the death of the day and the birth of the night or the birth of the day after the long night.”
“He’s a phenomenal technician,” Alford said. He likens the experience of owning the painting and knowing such a talented painter to what art patrons must have experienced during art’s golden ages. “If I had been associated with Rembrandt, Renoir, Picasso, or Monet and had the ability to purchase one of those paintings, the experience would be no more rich or moving than it is with JT’s work.”
Grant’s paintings are in fact museum-quality. His work is in the permanent collections of the Dallas Museum of Art and the Museum of South Texas. From 1995 to 2009, he had solo shows in galleries from Santa Fe to New York. He is featured in a coffee-table book, Great Artists of the Southwest, scheduled for release this summer.
About 60 percent of Grant’s work is by commission. He paints portraits of the well-heeled in Fort Worth and Dallas or creates original works for people who simply want to own one of his visionary paintings. His paintings and commissions carry five-figure price tags, on average, with drawings and small works more modestly priced.
He’s especially proud of a recent commission, arranged by U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, to paint a Fort Worth cityscape to hang in the board room of the USS Fort Worth, one of a new and smaller class of combat ships intended to operate in near-shore areas, carrying helicopters and landing craft. In addition to the handful of paintings commissioned by Alford for his clients, the Campbell Gallery has arranged dozens of commissions since their relationship with Grant began in 1995.
“We’re thrilled to have him back,” Bill Campbell said. “We had to get through all of his problems and find a comfortable time for him to complete a new body of work. He’s brilliant and he’s back.”
Those who know him best say Grant fulfills more than the “artist” quality in the definition of “Renaissance man.”
“He’s political, philosophical, philanthropic, academic, and very funny,” Pam Campbell said. Grant teaches painting to a small group of dedicated private art students in his studio. He celebrates the rich history of art in his teaching and via lectures for area museums, universities, and art groups. He donates his time and talents to arts and cultural organizations around the city.
“One of the happiest gifts of being a painter is that over the years, I have raised far, far more for the charities I support than I could ever have given them as cash donations,” Grant said. One of his paintings hangs near the entrance of the Fort Worth Public Library. He painted a study of two priceless Stradivarius violins for the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. And two years ago he oversaw college art students’ creation of a floating sculpture project in the Trinity River for Mayfest.
“He has always given art to charitable concerns, as long as I’ve known him,” said former student George Kendall Allen, now acting curator and artist-in-residence at the Crowell Fire Hall Museum, a local history museum in the town west of Wichita Falls. Grant was his teacher at TCU in 1995.
“I took his drawing class, and I enjoyed every minute of it,” he said. “We hit it off right away.” Allen was 49, a nontraditional student looking for a refresher course. “He was an excellent teacher and philosopher.
“I’m a little surprised that he hasn’t gone back to teaching in a university setting,” Allen said. “He loves to teach, and besides his private students, he has taught classes at the Modern in Fort Worth. I hope he’ll keep that in the back of his mind.”
The two men spent many an afternoon on Grant’s porch, talking about issues and developments in art. Allen admired Grant’s ability to express himself, both in visual art and through writing. “He has both worlds covered,” he said. Grant’s essays and commentaries — often critical or political — have been published in art magazines and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
“He helped me a lot to understand a different level of artistic expression. He applied such a great classic technique in painting and composition,” Allen said. “I learned how artistic expression couples with a deeper meaning than what the viewer initially sees.”
He remembers Grant philosophizing about the trade-offs an artist makes in order to enrich the community. “Building a reputation over the years takes serious effort, year after year,” Allen said. “Part of that is contributing pieces. JT always felt like it was a worthwhile effort to keep his career going forward.”
In recent years, Grant was tight-lipped about his illness but did ask Allen to stretch a canvas or two when he wasn’t able to do it himself. “I didn’t pry,” Allen said.
On April 19, Grant will be one of the participants in a unique blend of music and philosophy presented by the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth. The Vermeer String Quartet will perform Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ” as Grant explores the meanings of the sixth statement, “It Is Finished.” Other religious and secular community leaders will also deliver their meditations.
“I suggested JT because I know him to be a great philosopher,” said Elizabeth Semrad, public relations director of the chamber music group. “I have seen how this is reflected not only in his art but in his writing.” The concert begins at 2 p.m. in the Renzo Piano Pavilion auditorium at the Kimbell Art Museum.
Grant said his personal reflection begins, “I’m a painter, not a prophet.” He said he didn’t have to dig very deep to comment on his belief that Christ’s principles are relevant for humankind today.
“Feel all of being human. Accept the end. Breathe out your spirit and die. Until then live as I have told you,” Grant said, quoting from what he will recite that day. “Help others more than yourself. Feed those who are hungry. Clothe those who have little. Share money with the poor so they may live. Help those who are ill.”
Even before Pam Campbell’s experience with Grant’s medical woes, she knew a thing or two about local artists who struggle with unplanned medical expenses and other harrowing events, from home and studio fires to car accidents.
She served on the board of the Emergency Artist Support League that offers financial and other assistance to visual artists. The EASL Fund provides limited financial help — up to $5,000 per calendar year — to visual artists and visual arts professionals in a 10-county area of North Texas.
“I encouraged JT to apply for help when he began to have these nearly catastrophic medical expenses,” Campbell said. “He would very likely have qualified.”
Grant said he couldn’t afford health insurance even before he got sick. He joined the JPS Connection, a lower-cost healthcare program offered by Tarrant County’s public hospital system. “That was before the Affordable Care Act,” he said. He has health insurance through ACA now.
Although he considered it, Grant said he never applied for an EASL grant. “It’s a great organization and essential for most working artists who have the misfortune to be in distress,” he said. “But I didn’t want to take away from someone who might really need the help. Or, at least need it more.” In the past, he said, he has served on the EASL board and donated paintings to help the group raise funds.
He gets many requests to donate artwork to local causes, but giving his time, opinions, and fervor to local politics is closest to his heart.
“His was the first door I knocked on,” said Ramon Romero, who beat longtime Democratic incumbent Lon Burnam in the March 4 primary for Texas House District 90. “A lot of people ask if they can help. But when JT asked, he meant it.” Romero said he was astonished that Grant spent half an hour talking with him on the front porch.
“I ended up writing talking points and speeches for Ramon,” Grant said, along with pieces for the press. “I’m a low-burn political junkie.”
Romero remarked on Grant’s kindness and gentleness. “He has such passion for this community. He worked hard for me and was a great sounding board as we prepared for the election.” The legislator-elect calls the artist “Maestro.”
“In Spanish, ‘maestro’ means both master and teacher. It fits him very well,” Romero said.
With most of his recuperation behind him, Grant is looking forward to a return to a nearly normal, busy schedule. “I’ve been invited to show at D. M. Allison Art in Houston and at Wade Wilson Art in Santa Fe this year, after my Campbell show,” he said.
He talked about how good it feels to have survived and to have found a renewed passion for his work.
“The thing that kept me going is that, if this works out, these three years will have the potential to add an incredible new depth to the way I think as a painter,” Grant said. “I have a list of what I expect to be in a JT Grant painting. Now I find myself wanting to rewrite the list.
“I love what I do. That inspires me to do what I do,” he said. “Talent is a misnomer for determination and drive.”
After facing death, he seems more devoted to making a mark on the future. “I will never have children to carry me forward when I am dust, so providing for a future for my paintings is my only means of fulfilling the purpose of life,” he said.
He understands that art is his job, “and the best job in the world for me.” He sees improving health and continued financial success as a means to more than one end.
“My purpose at this stage of my life is to seek to assure that my art continues to remain valuable as a financial resource to the organizations I choose to support and to hopefully place as many pieces in museums and private collections as possible,” he said.
“I am an old fool of a dog, but still willing to chase cars.”
North Texas freelance writer Annabelle Massey Malloy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.