For some, a tour of the Des Moines Art Center can mean as much as a visit to The Louvre. Grant McMartin ’93 first visited the Art Center on a school field trip from Grundy Center, Iowa. When the teacher told the class it was time to go, Grant had a big revelation (for an eight-year-old, that is). He didn’t want to leave; he felt like he was meant to be at the museum.
“From that point on, I always wanted to be an artist,” says Grant. “And I still get that feeling whenever I go back there.”
Grant was back at the Des Moines Art Center on Oct. 18, giving an artist talk about his piece in the museum’s newest exhibit, Iowa Artists 2012: Print. His woodblock print will be displayed in the show through January.
A woodblock print works like a rubber stamp; you rub ink on a carved piece of wood, and the raised sections mark the paper. For his piece at the Art Center, Grant used the back of a violin. Both the violin and one of the prints made from the instrument are in the exhibit.
In the art world, Grant goes by the name Grant William Thye (his middle names), and his work is sold in galleries across the country. His pieces have been purchased online from art lovers in San Diego, New York, England and Germany. His artwork has also been chosen for many juried shows and featured in national advertising campaigns, including one for Buitoni Pasta.
Despite his graduate training in printmaking, Grant has recently gravitated toward painting, especially landscape and still-life. His work is often tinged with the emotions he is struggling with, as well as the beauty he sees around him. When he’s working in his Chicago studio during the summer and winter, city landscapes flow from his hands. But when he helps out on his parent’s farm, as he is doing this fall, the boundless fields and endless skies of Iowa are reflected back through his paintbrush.
Typically, Grant goes into the studio around 6 a.m. and spends the morning doing his most creative work. In the afternoon, he’ll go for a run, which he describes as a kind of recess, before heading back to fill in other pieces or stretch canvases. It usually takes at least a month to finish a piece, so there’s always more work to be done.
“It feels like I’m doing what I should be doing,” Grant says of his painting. “I can be in my studio 12-15 hours every single day, and I won’t know if it’s Sunday or Wednesday.”This is the kind of freedom Grant could not have imagined five years ago when he was working at Pella Corporation, where he had been employed for nine years. Before that, Grant worked in residential life and multicultural affairs and coached football at Illinois Wesleyan University. Immediately after college, he worked for an insurance company.“I have always wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t necessarily know that was a thing you could do,” Grant says of his circuitous career path. “I thought you had to go to school, then get a job and make money. Being an artist wasn’t that; it was something fun to do.”
Finally, in 2007, Grant decided it was time to take the leap. He had paid off his student loans and saved up enough money for two years away from the job. So he sat down to make a business plan, allotting six months for each of these stages: getting his skills back, creating his signature style, building a portfolio and starting to sell pieces. It was an ambitious plan—two years to become a self-supporting artist, something many artistic people never do. But it worked out just as he planned.The first six months were tough; he didn’t keep anything he painted. He equates that period to relearning a musical instrument. “You just go into the studio every day and do it and do it and do it and try to get your dexterity and creativity back.”
Grant appreciates the diversity and freedom of being a full-time artist—working on whatever he feels like at any given time. That’s something he loved about Central, too. As a general studies major (now called integrated studies) he could take classes in many different disciplines. ”I always tell people it is the best major you can have because you are so well-rounded.”
Grant sees that “Renaissance man” knowledge in his brother, as well. Jeff McMartin ’90, Central’s head football coach, earned a master’s in general studies at Wake Forest University. Grant says his brother can coach all day long and watch film late until the night. and never feel like he’s working.
Grant says the same thing about his career as an artist: “I feel like a kid. I’m happy and stress-free every day. I think anybody who is doing what they should be doing feels that way.”