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Minnesota AIDS Project exhibits rare work by prolific artist Nigel Grigsby

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For over 20 years, attorney Lynn Mickelson has provided legal services to the Minnesota AIDS Project (MAP). When one of her longtime clients, Nigel Grigsby, died in 2014, his partner, Gregory VanderPloeg, visited her office and asked if she wanted to see Grigsby’s artwork.

Mickelson knew that Grigsby had been an artist, but she had mostly talked to her client about his writing. When VanderPloeg showed her eight large artist portfolios filled with hundreds of works, she was blown away. There were portraits of neighbors, hippies, album covers, and more.

“The range of what he created was pretty amazing to me,” she says.

 

VanderPloeg’s dream is to get the art collection out into the community. So Mickelson went to a director’s meeting for MAP, where she told them about the art. While Grigsby didn’t have a big estate, he had left a huge legacy of artwork.

This Sunday, that dream will come true, as MAP hosts “The Art of Change,” an exhibition of Grigsby’s work, which includes paintings, drawings, and digital pieces, at Le Merdien Chambers Hotel.

"Love Nigel," says Frank Gaard, who depicts Grimsby in this painting, "Huge voice. Huge heart."

"Love Nigel," says Frank Gaard, who depicts Grimsby in this painting, "Huge voice. Huge heart."

Mariana Leonard-Hayes, Grigsby’s case manager for the last four to five years of his life, says that he always had a story to tell. 

“His sense of humor was always a little off color, but in a good way,” Leonard-Hayes says. “He would tell slightly inappropriate jokes that were hilarious.”

When she would visit his house, it would be a battle to move over buckets of paint in order to walk through the room. Before she could even ask him what he was working on, he would tell her all about each new piece of art, and its significance. 

Grigsby had a physical disability, which prevented him from leaving his apartment as much as he would have liked. People were very important to him, however, and he would share with Leonard-Hayes his intimate portraits of friends and acquaintances, telling her all about how he met that person and how important they were to him.

“He was sarcastic too, and always a fighter,” she says. “He was so dedicated to whatever he did in his life.”

Grigsby met his partner Vanderploeg in 1977, almost 10 years after he had graduated from MCAD, which was called the Minneapolis School of Art at the time.

“He showed me his art the first time I met him,” Vanderploeg recalls. “It was an extraordinary experience. He was a genius, I knew it at the time. He was a pure artist.”

Grigsby never commercialized his art, though he did show his work on occasion, including at Gallery 13 and the public library in Dinkytown. He also became a poet and writer, completing two short novels. In the later years of his life, after he was given a computer by MAP, he also delved into digital art.

“They expected him to just use it for emails,” Vanderploeg says. He did much more, employing the computer as a tool to make images, which he posted on his very active Facebook account. He shared over 3,000 images between 2009 and 2014.

In the 1970s, Grigsby did a a lot of work as an activist, both related to AIDS and with other causes. He served on the AIDS committee with the Minnesota Department of Health, and was active around housing issues and the co-op movement.

“He was always a gentle person and he loved people,” Vanderploeg says.

In addition to showing Grigsby’s work, "Art of Change" events will include a documentary exploring his life, his relationship to MAP, and MAP’s relationship with those affected by HIV. At the show, MAP's coffee-table book examining the genesis and evolution of the Minnesota AIDS Walk will be for sale as well. 

The show was put together by event coordinator Pablo Jones, who arranged to have a jury select the pieces from Grigsby’s massive collection. Facilitated by artist and activist Camille Gage, the jury included artist and illustrator Jim Dryden; Kurt Hippauf, an artist and staff member at MAP; Howard Oransky, the director of the Katherine Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota; and Paul Schmelzer, an editor for the Walker Art Center’s website and blogs. They took on the task of selecting 40 pieces to display. The show will also have a special selection of work from key MAP stake holders.

IF YOU GO:

 

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"The Art of Change"

11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, May 15

Le Meridien Chambers Hotel

901 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis