“Where did you go to school?” Jefferson Eugene Grigsby Jr. asked me after twisting around in his wheelchair. His nurse ushered me into the room crowded with overflowing bookshelves and colorful paintings covering nearly every inch of wall space.
Grigsby, a 93-year-old legendary African-American artist, greeted me with the same question he asks everyone upon meeting them for the first time. After nearly a century of life and world travel, it’s his way of establishing common ground with new acquaintances.
The World War II veteran, acclaimed author and former ASU professor has been a resident of downtown Phoenix since 1956, living in the same house near Ninth and Portland streets where he is now aided by three caregivers.
Grigsby spends most of his days reading, following the 2012 presidential campaign and writing letters to his extensive list of correspondents. But the nationally renowned artist is far from ready to put down his paintbrush. He paints in his personal studio every Friday morning, producing new prints to adorn both the private walls of his home and publicly viewed spaces throughout Phoenix.
The award-winning artist said his interest in painting occurred completely by chance when he was working as a newspaper carrier during his senior year of high school in Charlotte, N.C.
“One of my customers was extremely late with his payments,” he said, recalling the details with ease. “I was riding by one morning and saw his light on, so I stopped to bother him.”
Grigsby said he immediately saw several paintings covering the walls of the man’s home as soon as the customer opened the door.
“I asked him, ‘Where did you get all these paintings?’” Grigsby said. “He told me he’d painted them. I didn’t believe him, so he said, ‘If you don’t believe me, do you want to try?’ He let me inside and put the paintbrush in my hand.”
Two years too young to be a part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, Grigsby attended Morehouse College in Atlanta where he studied under muralist and civil-rights advocate Hale Woodruff. Grigsby is now the sole surviving member of the school’s 1938 graduating class, said Mark Herring, his executive assistant.
Grigsby volunteered to serve in the army in 1942, soon after the United States entered WWII.
“I’d already been given two exemptions for the draft and the army said they wouldn’t give me any more,” Grigsby said. “They told me if I volunteered, I wouldn’t be sent to Europe.”
But volunteering landed Grigsby in the heart of combat, serving under General George S. Patton for two years and fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, America’s bloodiest engagement of the war.
“Because I’d gotten there early, I got pushed up to the top,” Grigsby remembers. “They had an election and made me first sergeant, which I didn’t want and didn’t like, but when I got paid I found out I’d been a private the whole time. I hadn’t been in the army for six months before I made it to master sergeant.”
Unlike 19,000 fellow U.S. servicemen, Grigsby survived the Bulge — and the rest of the war — and was nominated for a Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal. Like so many other veterans returning home, he came to Phoenix to start a new life.
“They put me on an airplane like a paper cup,” Grigsby said. “When I stepped out in that August air, I thought I was in hell.”
Grigsby began teaching at the all-black Carver Negro School in 1946 and quickly developed a passion for being an educator. After segregation ended in Arizona in 1954, prompting the Carver School to close, Grigsby began teaching in the Phoenix Union High School District and later at ASU.
“There were times while I was at ASU that I wished I was back in high school,” Grigsby said with a laugh. “My high school students could do more than the college students I had.”
A conversation with Grigsby is like going on a historic journey with him over the past century, thanks largely to his sharp recollection of details at the drop of a hat.
“His memory is incredible,” said his assistant Herring, adding that Grigsby still corresponds with people all around the world. “He knows where all his books are, and his art equipment. He has a better memory than you or I do. It’s better than anyone I know.”
Unsurprisingly, Grigsby has befriended many famous people during his life, including one of the most influential leaders of the Harlem Renaissance.
“Does the name Langston Hughes mean anything to you?” Grigsby asked slyly, fishing a postcard out of a stack of bills.
“Dear Grigsby,” it reads, “I’m up in the country working with a composer for a couple of weeks, but will phone you as soon as I return. Delighted to see you!”
The note, dated July 1951, is simply signed “Langston.”
Still active in the downtown Phoenix arts community after more than 50 years, Grigsby has more than 30 of his pieces – including an original charcoal sketch – hanging in the upper floors of the Downtown campus’ University Center. He also opened a new exhibit in November at Sixth Street’s Regular Gallery during Roosevelt Row’s Third Friday art walk.
Greg Esser, Regular Gallery owner and Grigsby’s next-door neighbor, said the art show contains lithographs and several small silk-screen prints similar to those Grigsby used to give family and friends as gifts.
“This exhibit is mainly to revive the tradition of creating a holiday print,” Esser said. “Mr. Grigsby was inspired by Hale Woodruff to do these holiday prints, and we’re essentially trying to honor that tradition.”
Housed in a cleanly lit, modern gallery unlike Grigsby’s lived-in 1950s-era home bulging with African tribal masks and other pieces collected over a lifetime of travels, the exhibit will continue providing a local history lesson through the end of the year.
“He was one of the early pioneers in establishing a strong role for the arts here in Phoenix,” Esser said. “It’s really important for people to reconnect with the legacy he’s left in the art community.”
Grigsby hasn’t stopped adding to that legacy. He still paints every week, bringing almost a century of stories to the canvas.
Correctioin: June 11, 2013 – Legendary artist who saw the world still painting and living in downtown Phoenix
A previous version of this article inaccurately stated that Grigsby had been awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal. He was only nominated for both.
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