FORT WORTH Decades ago, artist George Grammer would travel northwest to Jacksboro at night to teach a class, and from the bus he would take notice of the oil derricks along the way. But not everyone would see in the rigs what Grammer saw.
“In the black night, I would see pretty things out there,” Grammer says. “They were like Christmas trees, almost. As I’d done a lot of landscapes as subject matter, that was my vertical element.”
This led to artworks with titles such as “Winter Night (Derrick in the Snow)” and “Oil Derrick at Night,” both of which are on view in “George Grammer: Full Circle,” the inaugural exhibit at the Bernice Coulter Templeton Art Studio at Texas Wesleyan University. The paintings don’t replicate the images you might conjure up from, say, memories of a drive through West Texas, but are done in a cubist style, with jagged triangles and ovals.
Those two paintings, however, represent just a fraction of the styles that Grammer, now 88, worked in during his art career. More than 100 of his paintings hang in the brief exhibit in the new gallery, which was renovated from the former Polytechnic Firehouse just south of East Rosedale Street, across from TWU’s clock tower. The renovation and new gallery/studio are part of the Rosedale Renaissance, an ongoing effort to revitalize east Fort Worth.
Grammer, a Paschal High School grad, was chosen for the inaugural exhibit in part because he is a former Texas Wesleyan student. He entered the school in 1945, when he was 17, and left in 1947. As an art major, he studied under Kelly Fearing, an influential artist from Louisiana who taught at TWU just after World War II, according to notes on the exhibit by cultural historian Scott Grant Barker.
“Kelly Fearing had been instilling in us an appreciation for the Bauhaus influence on art in the modern, more abstract sense of the language,” Grammer says, still addressing the derrick paintings, “and that gave me the sort of cubistic suggestion as a framework to hold the thing together.”
Fearing and Grammer were both part of the Fort Worth Circle, a group of artists that, according to Star-Telegram archives, was recognized by galleries as far away as New York and had a group show in 1944 at New York City’s Weyhe Gallery, to very positive reviews. The artists’ styles were largely unrelated, and aside from art, they were known for parties — Fort Worth native Dickson Reeder and his wife, Flora Blanc, who formed the center of the circle, held Saturday-night salons that attracted dancers, musicians and just about any performing artist traveling through Fort Worth.
“There were probably about 10 or 12, depending who you ask, men and women, and they were fascinated with theater and music and art,” says TWU art professor Kit Hall. “And entertaining each other. Apparently they had really kind of wild parties that we would all be fascinated to go to, I think.”
Hall says that the Circle changed the way North Texas looks at art. “It was no longer [just] longhorns and bluebonnets,” she says. “Some of these people participated in the war, came back from Europe and saw the influences. They went back over there and studied, and came back and really changed the way that we in Texas and others see art.”
Several of the artists taught at Wesleyan, including Fearing, who was drawn into the Circle. Grammer — still in his teens — followed. “[The Circle] kind of adopted George, who was a youngster at the time, compared to them,” Hall says. “He [then] got a scholarship to study in Mexico at San Miguel de Allende, so he studied there for a while, so some of the works [on exhibit] were Mexican-influenced. He came back and married his sweetheart and moved to New York, and he’s been there for 50-plus years.”
According to Barker’s notes on the exhibit, the techniques that Grammer had developed painting nighttime industrial scenes translated well to the busy New York scene in the mid-’50s. One of the most striking paintings in the exhibit, 1959’s “Trinity Church Near Wall Street,” is strikingly vertical, depicting a narrow canyon of buildings with the spire of the church looking almost ghostly in the distance.
“I’ve always been intrigued by industrial, structural stuff and architecture,” Grammer says. “My paintings in New York City reflected a lot of vertical landscape compared with horizontal, using not natural elements but more abstract.” But the exhibit also includes still-lifes, as well as such paintings as “Big Fish Little Fish,” which reflects the wry humor Grammer often expresses in conversation as fish become food for other fish.
The “Full Circle” in the exhibit title is a nod to both the Fort Worth Circle — he is the only surviving member — and the full-circle journey of Grammer’s art coming back to Wesleyan. The Circle’s work was featured in a 2008 exhibit at the Amon Carter Museum, “Intimate Modernism: Fort Worth Circle Artists in the 1940s,” and Grammer’s work has been featured in many other Texas retrospectives since the early ’70s, according to Barker’s notes.
The exhibit will be open to the public for only a week — a brief time for an art exhibit. BB Moncrief Wiese, who co-curated the exhibit with Carter Bowden, says that many of the collectors who shared paintings for the exhibit were nervous about lending them out long term. Both co-curators lent paintings to the exhibit.
Grammer says that seeing the paintings was like looking through the pages of an old diary.
“Things will trigger memories of times that I did the work or somebody was interested in it,” he says, then quips, “considering that my mind is a sieve — some things hang.”