A Brush with Nature 

Glenn Grishkoff's sculptural brushes function as both tool and art

  • Tom Woodward

In the clear waters of a clay quarry outside Moscow, Idaho, artist Glenn Grishkoff stood knee-deep, cloaked in a moose pelt. With the moose's tail, Grishkoff streaked paper with a slurry of sumi ink and red clay, letting the water flow over the piece and dictate the fate of his artwork. For a brief moment, he became a vessel for the expression of nature's haphazard beauty. Grishkoff, a renowned ceramicist and brush maker, has built his career around moments like this.

Though brush making is an ancient and seemingly simple craft, Grishkoff has taken the form from utilitarian to undeniably artistic. Grishkoff's brushes, unlike their synthetic brethren that live in neat rows on fluorescent-lit art store shelves, pulse with all of nature's fleeting grandeur and quirky imperfections. They are bristly, knotty, curvy and feathery. Clutched in the hand of an artist, they give voice to the Earth that spawned them.

Grishkoff grew up in a family with a rich tradition of artists—his grandmother was a ceramicist and painter who fled the Bolshevik revolution on camelback and his father grew up painting the traditional Chinese lettering he learned as a boy in Beijing. Though Grishkoff's ceramic handled brushes fuse his family's talents, and blend Asian craftsmanship with a Native American reverence for nature, they manage to remain both uniquely expressive and wholly grounded in the Pacific Northwest.

"It's part of my lineage, my past and I think my Asian influence in general, growing up with a father who used the brush to paint kanji, Chinese characters," says Grishkoff. "I didn't know that someday, as an artist, I'd be using that as a major theme in my work."

Grishkoff first dabbled in brush making during his days at Cypress Community College in California, but didn't revisit the medium until he began working on his Master of Fine Arts thesis at Claremont Graduate University. In an often overlooked tool, Grishkoff found the seed of inspiration he'd been seeking all along.

"When people think of brushes, they think, 'Well, why would I want to make a brush?'" Grishkoff says. "For me, it's really interesting to play with the idea of function; what's functional and not-functional? And tease my viewer with that element of taking something ordinary and making it extraordinary."

Shortly after graduation, Grishkoff participated in a ceramic arts workshop in Tokoname, Japan, where he took the exploration of the tool as art even further. There, he experimented with Japanese clays, glazes and raku kilns to produce a series of beautiful bamboo and clay-handled brushes inspired by traditional calligrapher brushes. Two years later, he was invited back to Japan as a guest resident at the Shigaraki Ceramic Culture Park, where he created work for their visiting artist museum collection. These experiences left an indelible mark on Grishkoff's work, instilling it with both formalized precision and a penchant for Asian iconography.

"That was a cornerstone in my career at that time," notes Grishkoff. "It opened up a lot of doors."

After Japan, Grishkoff has participated in numerous other residencies around the country, including the LH Ceramic Project in Joseph, Oregon. He's also taught as an assistant professor at Westminster College and the University of Idaho and conducted hundreds of ceramic and brush-making workshops. Grishkoff's work caught the attention of Steve Gibbs at Art Spirit Gallery in Coeur d'Alene and has been featured there in a number of solo and group shows over the years. Currently, Grishkoff is the artist-in-residence at the Outskirts Gallery in Hope, Idaho, where he leads weekend workshops for students ranging from ages 6 to 83.

"There's something really reverent about watching Glenn as he sits down at the wheel, or he shows a 14 year-old boy how to knead clay," says Kally Thurman, owner of Outskirts Gallery. "He's passing on this really deep cultural fiber and that's what makes a unique community."

In addition to helping his students awaken their "creative spirits," Grishkoff is also working on a four-year, time-based project that pays tribute to the animal spirits that provide him with his materials. "Brush With Death: A Homage," documents the various dead animals that Grishkoff has found in his travels and subsequently used as bristles to fashion an all-natural collection of brushes. Grishkoff plans to display these creations alongside photographs in a touring exhibit that illuminates the fleeting nature of life and the notion of rebirth through art.

"I'm really trying, always, in my own vocabulary, to push the idea of the brush further and further," explains Grishkoff. "And the performance and installations and these time-based pieces keep me active in wanting to keep pursuing the brush as my vehicle."

And wherever the exploration of his craft takes him—from painting with elephants in the jungles of Thailand to handling a half-dead mountain lion in the irradiated deserts of Alamogordo, N.M.—the outcome will undoubtedly reflect the passion of a man who strives to harness nature's artistic potential and wring beauty from every last feather, branch and pine needle.

"He's the pearl and the world is his oyster. Whatever is out there is ripe for art making," says Thurman. "He really is looking for the fiber of life everywhere."


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