By Robert Downes
Painter David Grath has a funny story about his earliest days in
I came up to Leland in 1957 and was wandering around Fishtown Harbor
with no place to stay, he recalls. Then I found this big
hollowed-out log on the beach just south of the harbor and I crawled
in with my sleeping bag and spent the night there. The next morning,
I heard the deep chug of a diesel engine on one of the fishing boats
and I crawled out of the log to find this beautiful scene of the lake,
with the sand, sky and water spreading out before me in the dawn. I
just fell in love with the place.
It was spiritual moments like his morning on the beach that deepened
Graths relationship with the water, beaches, fields and forests he
evokes in the landscapes which have made him one of the regions
foremost artists. He calls it satori -- the Japanese Buddhist term for
This month, art-lovers will have a chance to share Graths sense of
satori through an exhibition of 25 new paintings at the Circa Estate
Winery in Leelanau County. The month-long exhibit is hosted by winery
owners Margaret and David Bell, who happen to be collectors of Graths
Eloquent and thoughtful with a sense of humor as dry as a fine merlot,
Grath, 73, and his wife, Pamela (owner of Dog Ears Books in
Northport) live on a seven-acre farm north of Leland near the Happy
Its totally secluded, he says. Our house is located quite a way
off the highway, so we dont hear any traffic. Its like stepping back
into the 1800s. We have a stream running by our property and its very
His home is in harmony with the moodful landscapes he creates in his
studio/gallery, David Grath Fine Arts, located at 104 Grand Ave. in
Grath has an interesting approach to his oil paintings. Its much in
the preparation, soaking up impressions of a landscape, to be
re-imagined back in his studio.
I dont paint on the scene of a landscape, he says. Instead, I go
to a place Im interested in and look at it again and again -- I may
make up to 50 trips.
Then, I take my impressions and my most salient experiences back to
my studio and I paint what I recall. If I paint on location, I tend
to be too inclusive -- adding stuff the painting doesnt need, like
telephone wires. A good painting involves excluding what isnt needed
and keeping whats important.
On that score, Grath likes the transitions between the elements that
shape the land, such as the ever-changing shape of a shoreline, or the
place a forest meets a field.
The thrust of my painting is essentially landscapes, but also the
great forces that shape the land and the water I dont include
architecture, birds or people -- youll never find a sailboat in my
work, he says.
I also like that intermediate place in between that hasnt quite
become either water or shoreline yet, such as a bog. I like the idea
of a place where the water and the land havent made up their mind yet
on what theyre going to be when they grow up.
In addition to his Leelanau haunts, youll find Grath at his studio on
an island 50 miles north of Tampa, Florida for four months each
winter, where he is also immersed in nature.
There are only three or four houses on the island and no condos, he
says. But there are huge stands of sea grass, swamps and bogs. I
produced 34 new paintings there last winter.
By the way, you can see those paintings exhibited in wide-ranging
locales. Grath has agents in the art capitals of the world and his
work is represented in Northport, Leland, New York, Paris and London.
As for his roots, Grath grew up in Detroit and St. Clair and attended
Eastern Michigan University, U-M, and Michigan State University, where
he received his Masters in Fine Arts. He began teaching art at the
college level at the tender age of 23 (as young as some of his
students) at the University of Arkansas and at Western Michigan
I taught for a dozen years, but then quit 25 years ago to pursue
painting full time.
But none of that would have happened if it werent for another funny
story concerning his youth. Lets end with that:
When I was 15 years old, I had a little studio in the attic of our
home, he says. Well, one day we moved, and when we got to our new
home, my father said hed thrown all of my painting stuff out in the
alley during the move -- he wanted me to become a lawyer. And I said,
well Ill show him -- I will become an artist. Ive been making a
living as a painter ever since.
David Graths new oils will be exhibited at Circa Estate Winery
through October. The winery is located at 7788 E. Horn Road, Lake
Leelanau. A reception is planned for Sunday, Oct. 3 from 5-7 p.m.