Volume 6, Number 4, 1997

Industrial strength art

The images are as captivating as they are solitary. Painted on a broad canvas, they portray the contrasting shapes, colors and angles of industrial America.

For most people, any mention of industrial art immediately brings looks of bewilderment. But, in his Belle Meade, N.J., home studio, Richard Grotyohann, EG '74, simply smiles and reaches for another canvas.

"I'm not trying to romanticize my work," explains Grotyohann. "I want to open people's eyes. When people drive down the road and glance over at oil refineries, what do they see? To me, they are majestic. They're huge and fascinating."

Grotyohann's industrial subjects range from the now-closed Bethlehem Steel Mill in Bethlehem, Pa., to buildings at a Bridgewater, N.J., quarry to an antique carding machine at Sturbridge Village, Mass.

His degrees in chemical engineering help explain his fondness for this specialized art. After a dozen years with Mobil Chemical, the company divested his division, so Grotyohann took a position with Union Camp Corp. in Princeton, N.J., where he oversees research projects. His life as an artist started when he was "a bored, 12-year-old kid."

"After a shaky beginning, I became more adept at blending colors with the paint brush," he says. "Throughout my life, painting has been my sport. I didn't golf, play tennis or bowl. So, you see, I've had a lot of practice over the last 33 years."

In the early '80s, Grotyohann began exhibiting his work at South Jersey art shows-about the time he started developing his vision of industrial scenes at the urging of glass artist Paul Stankard, who noticed his sharp, linear technique.

"I thought it might be a nice area to get into, but I wondered who the heck would buy any of it," recalls Grotyohann, whose wife is Susan Prince, AS '76. "But," as Stankard replied, "'You're not selling that many paintings of boats, so what's the difference?'"

While he still paints seascapes and other nature settings, Grotyohann estimates that 60 percent of his work is rooted in rail yards, factories and urban industrial scenes. The contrasting shapes, colors, lighting and angles of the buildings and equipment tend to get equal billing in his work.

"You've got these nice cylinders, hard edges and cones," observes the self-taught artist. "There's wonderful geometry; it's almost like cubism. They speak to me as an engineer."

Grotyohann's aim is to make people think about and examine what they're looking at. The spirit of his images is perhaps best exemplified by These Fires Grow Cold-a reflection on the closing of Bethlehem Steel.

"Some people may see my work as ugly," Grotyohann says, "but it has the ability to draw people in. People will come to a show and be riveted. I'm not trying to glorify industry because I, myself, think we have too many pollution problems. In some cases, I try to poke fun at it."

Having never trained as a "pure" artist, he suggests that his untutored approach is, to some degree, what enables him to connect with his admirers. He also draws comments from judges at art shows. "Even if they hate my paintings, I'm the one they remember."

Grotyohann has collected awards for his oils and watercolors at shows in New Jersey and surrounding states. He has earned as much as $1,500 for a piece, but generally charges about $500 to $1,000, noting that his art is more for self-fulfillment than money.

The New Jersey native estimates he invests from 80 to 100 hours on each of his larger paintings, trying to squeeze in five or six hours of painting each week.

Steamtown, a striking work that depicts Scranton, Pa., illustrates his process.

After driving to the Scranton area, Grotyohann shot two rolls of film of the locomotives and the town and another of the rail yard overlooking it. He crops the photos, getting his composition set.

Next, he assembles and stretches his own linen canvases and works out a detailed sketch. Then, he moves on to the painting process, frequently referring to the photo to get the detail and colors accurate.

What industrial scene does he burn to put on canvas? "That's easy," he replies. "I would love to get into a working steel mill. The robust colors and raw power would be fabulous to capture."

-Terry Conway