Making It Real

interview by Sarah Lewis

Greg Biolchini is something of a local legend. A nationally celebrated artist and Master Pastelist, Biolchini has shown in thirty solo exhibitions since 1975 and has been included in countless group exhibitions across the county. His numerous awards and honors include the Grumbacher Gold Medalian, a 2001 Best of Show in the Annual Wildlife Competition and inclusion in three Arts for the Parks nationwide touring exhibitions in 2001, 2002, and 2004. He has been featured in books such as The Art of Pastel Portraiture and The Best of Pastel. Although he travels extensively to show work, teach workshops and juror exhibitions, Greg’s working studio remains in Downtown Fort Myers. Speaking to Greg, he is at once intelligent, charming, inspiring and modest.

Sarah Lewis: Where did you first study?

Greg Biolchini: I have a predisposed propensity for painting. My education started very early because I was spotted as a very young person having a great deal of talent. By the time I was in the third grade, for some reason, teachers would go above and beyond the call of duty for their pay. Something happens to people when they see someone who has a gift and I really feel fortunate that they did because they really helped put me on the path, the direction that I’ve never regretted.

What kept you painting?

When I was a young artist I knew the great masters, like John Singer Sargent, were out of my reach. The older I get the more I respect them, the further out of my reach they become. But because of them I’ve become a better and better artist. I’m never satisfied. I look back on my work and, even though I’m now 57, I feel like with each painting I’ve learned something new and I’m still a little bit of a better artist. That’s what keeps me going—to keep pushing the envelope.

Did you have any particular struggles with your work?

I never would have imagined that I could get as far as I’ve gotten. I always hoped I would just find some little thing that I could do as a painter as a vocation and manage to somehow continue to keep art in my life. So, I guess that I had low expectations.

What makes you choose your subjects?

Too often I look at a subject and think of painting it and think, ‘Boy you are a cliché artist’—everybody paints that subject. But then I get past that and realize that I’m painting it, not them. Yeah, okay, the covered bridge has been painted before, but I’m sure I would paint it differently. At least that’s my scapegoat. I particularly like to paint people, though I don’t always like to paint commission portraits. I love to paint people, as they are and not how they like to think of themselves. No one likes to realize how bald they are or that they do look 57. Things like that are always in the way of a portrait.

What medium do you prefer?

Each medium has its strong suits that you want to utilize and use within their own integrity, but I like to work within a lot of mediums, including sculpt. But I think oil is the one that I’ve moving towards more, even though I’m driven to pastel by reputation.

How has your work changed over the years?

There was a time when it was most important that I thought what I painted would sell. I would think that’s a good subject and I can paint it in a hurry and sell it for very little money and eke out a minor living. Then, of course, I’d slip in the occasional piece that I did because I absolutely wanted to paint it, had to paint it, and that’s the one they’d buy! So, you can’t underestimate your public. More and more, I’m painting what I want to paint—but more so, how I’d like to paint it.

You’ve received so many awards and praise. What was your first major accomplishment and how did it make you feel?

As a young man I really worshiped the artists that were in the Pastel Society of America, the PSA, the signature members. They were just the greatest artists to me. They were all in the books I was reading, published by Watson-Guptill and Northlight. These were the artists I held on a pedestal. Then, in my early 30s, I took a top award at the annual Pastel Society of America competition, and it didn’t dawn on me until one of my friends pointed it out, "Didn’t you just beat a lot of your idols?" Of course there’s no beating someone in an art competition, it’s not a foot race, it’s a judge who selects you. But I suddenly realized that they weren’t really untouchable at that point and that was a big step for me.

Do you have any particular paintings that seemed to launch your career in one way or another?

I’ve become attracted to a subject based on what I’ve gotten out of the painting and very often one painting will lead to another. I’ve never thought of myself, for example, as a plein air, outdoor painter—I would do it occasionally for fun with friends. Then, one evening, I went out into the Everglades after teaching in Marco, just to unwind and paint, and I ran into an artist out there, Frank Corso. The first thing out of his mouth was “I’ve been doing this all my life.” Just watching him and painting alongside him in silence grabbed me and I’ve been going off into the Everglades ever since. Once you’re doing that kind of work people begin to invite you along on trips and I went along to Provence, France, with a dear friend and her family and wound up painting 16 pieces in 17 days. I framed them all! And I’m proud to say at least a third of them are already sold.

What other artists have influenced your work?

Normally, it’s the dead artists. The older I get, the more I’m looking for living artists who really impress me, and there are a lot of wonderful people out there. Every month in American Artists magazine there’s about five in there that just absolutely floor me with how fantastic they are—the imagination, the originality, just the pure handling of the material. But then I go to a museum and see the masters, from the past. They’ve just got something that reaches to me, that draws me in and causes me to aspire to.

Any other high points of your career so far?

I’m the kind of person that thrives on worry and gloom. I always expect the worst, so I’m always thrilled when anything happens, and I feel like one of the luckiest people in the world, because a lot of good things have come my way. An example of that would be that Maggie Price, who is the foremost authority on pastel painting, is writing a book, and out of the 70-something painters she’s written about in the last four years she’s selected nine of them to do demonstrations and I’m one of those artists. Also, I’m going to get to be one of the five jurors in the National Pastel Journal Annual Competition and that’s one of the biggest, most respected competitions in the nation. Good things are happening.

Have you ever questioned what you’re doing?

When I think about money, I question what I’m doing, because bad bankers make a lot more than really good artists. Then, there’s the perception that being an artist is easygoing and relaxing. In actuality, waking up in the middle of the night trying to figure out how to solve your dilemmas, how to paint the painting, is not relaxing. I actually lived in my studio for years just because of that very fact. You come up with a solution, run to your painting and work on it. Or you pull a piece from the frame, one that you’ve already signed and shown, and work on it. I’ve got a piece in a show coming up called ‘The Flautist’. I started that painting 15 years ago, then solved a lot of the problems, took it out of the frame several times to work on it, and only now consider it finished. It’s a rather recent piece that I started 15 years ago.

What are your plans for the future?

At 57 I could have five good painting years left, or I could have twenty good painting years left. I want to take these next years and focus on one direction and paint, and focus on showing in very good galleries. I’d be thrilled if in five years from now, I could say I’ve focused on one subject, one direction, one medium, and mastered it completely. That would really appeal to me. Not that time’s running out, but at a certain stage in your life you want to take the time to really find just what you can specialize in and do the best you can with that.

Whose work is on your walls?

I collect my friends’ work and that’s interesting, because I don’t know a lot of artists that do collect. Periodically you run into artists who complain that no one buys art and when you ask them if they do the answer is usually, ‘no!’ I collect the people whose work I get to know. The closer you get to anything anybody’s doing, the more you respect it. By the time I’ve really fallen in love with an artists’ work, I always feel that it’s such a bargain at any price. I select one of their pieces that really speaks to me, but it speaks to me because I’ve become familiar with what the artist is doing.

Any advice for young artists?

I know young artists and I really respect their work. If I had to say anything, I’d say “Be very critical of the old artists. It’s not our job to understand you—it’s your job to beat us. Kick our asses.” •

from the January-February 2006 issue

Greg Biolchini in his studio
in downtown Fort Myers

photograph by Jeff Lewis