Surviving the Holocaust through art: Peggy Grant grateful as late husband’s art to be displayed at Midwest Museum of American ArtWritten by Caitlin McGlade | | firstname.lastname@example.org
A clown’s chilling stare and an acrobat’s dejected eyes search the back room of Peggy Grant’s home.
The tuba player next to them has his back turned.
The trio, standing before a cloudy backdrop that creeps across their shoulders and arms, was painted on canvas decades ago. The image hangs in Grant’s home, among stacks of portraits, scenes and figure sketches completed by her late husband Adam throughout his lifetime.
Long-time friend and consultant Janet Schroeder said that within every one of Adam’s paintings is a story. Brian Byrn, a curator at the Midwest Museum of American Art in Elkhart, Ind., said many of the paintings evoke an air of mystery.
“The underpinnings of maybe sorrow and sadness is permeating his work,” he said. “[The figures] are suspended in this animation of concern and maybe some would even say, in some cases, dread.”
But this is not hollowed-out doom. The “dread” is tangled with a sense of uplifting strength, as immortalized by the blocky brush strokes that could symbolize building blocks. That could represent rebuilding one’s life, Byrn said.
This conflict — this burden buried within paintings of celebratory figures like acrobats or tuba players — is rooted in Grant’s history.
In the early 1940s, he watched his peers rise in the morning only to slave away. He watched their gnarled hands, thinning by the hour, grasp shovels and hammers and soil. He watched them drop dead.
Adam Grochowski Grant survived the Holocaust because he could paint.
Grant grew up in Warsaw, Poland, in the 1920s and ’30s. His father Anthoni, a physician and a painter, raised him on a steady diet of art history, skill and intellectualism.
Anthoni joined the Polish army when Nazi Germany began to rise but he, along with 14,500 other Polish officers, was executed in 1940 in a forest called Katyn.
Adam struggled to continue his education under the crushing hand of the Nazis. He and his friends’ families and teachers met for “tea parties” or “lunches” to study school material in secret. He continued to dream of becoming a painter. In 1942, Adam’s mother had tuberculosis and was confined to an institution. When he went to visit her, she feared that he would miss too much school and advised him to take the next train home. When he got to the station, he was rounded up with 800 others and taken to a prison in Warsaw called Pawiak.
Adam was 18 years old.
By 1943, the Nazis trucked Adam off to Auschwitz. But the guards soon realized the young man’s talent. They gave him nothing more than watercolors, crayons and paper and ordered him to paint for them.
He later moved to another camp in Austria called Mauthausen — a much-dreaded slave site on a granite quarry where a typical prisoner survived about two weeks. While he was forced to work grueling hours too, he was given lighter duties in exchange for his painting skills. He painted some pieces reflecting worker conditions and hid them in his barracks.
Peggy wonders just how many hundreds of his paintings are scattered across Eastern Europe, handed down after Nazi Germany fell. Her spouse had to paint portraits of guards, scenes of the countryside and sketches of guards’ loved ones from home. He even had to paint a mural depicting bountiful arrangements of food that hung for starved prisoners to see.
Still, Adam could have barely survived another week by the time Americans liberated him in 1945. The U.S. Army’s displaced person camp became his home. He had no one.
“After Adam was liberated, he found that his home was gone, his family was gone, his country was gone,” Peggy said.
Moving to America
Adamant about moving to America, he waited in the camp until he found a stranger to sponsor him so he could leave Europe. He was 25 years old by the time he moved to America. He never went back to Poland — but his artwork would.
Grant settled in Detroit at first. He found a job designing for one of the first paint-by-number companies. His renditions of famous paintings traveled across the country. One of his most well known is the ever-popular “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci.
“He had a connection to all of us because he designed paint-by-numbers — having translated masters’ works to millions of Americans,” said Schroeder, who has helped Peggy publicize Adam’s work. “The whole point was for people who didn’t have artistic ability to unlock some of that.”
In Detroit, Adam met Peggy. An artist herself, she worked for the paint-by-numbers company. They married a few years later and her outlook on life was forever altered.
“I didn’t know the ramifications of World War II until I met Adam,” she said.
Peggy witnessed Adam’s many stages. There was the depressive stage in which the Holocaust haunted his dreams and dogged his emotions. He painted dark and sinister works to reflect the horror. Even decades later, Adam painted “The Pale Horse,” which is an emaciated white horse standing among rubble and a building shell. The atmosphere is a menacing red hue. Peggy said Adam painted it because “death comes on a white horse.”
But during his other stages, his painting reflected hope. He often focused on the female figure because he saw it as a symbol for rebirth. He painted a series of stark white and black scenes with such fine lines they resemble woodcuts — a collection Peggy calls “The Renewed Hope Series.”
“One could philosophize of seeing the world in black and white and good and evil, and there is a certain surrealism to them,” Byrn said.
His other inspiration was the circus. He painted dancers and costumed characters, acrobats and musicians. Each painting places the subjects in silent interaction with each other, sitting or standing by props portrayed in muted colors.
Peggy and Adam moved to Toledo in 1955 after they were laid off. The company for which they worked had filed for bankruptcy, but the Donofrio brothers of Toledo purchased the business, moved it to Toledo and brought the pair to the new site.
They raised two sons and lived together until Adam’s death in 1992. Peggy has since made it her life’s mission to get Adam recognition for his work.
And she has succeeded. Peggy’s passion combined with Schroeder’s skills at networking and raising money enabled the pair to hang Grant’s work at Jagiellonian University in Poland.
Grant’s work has also been shown at nearly 30 exhibitions in more than five states and a couple of other countries. A room in the Polish embassy in Saudi Arabia is named after him. Art collectors from Ohio to Florida to Virginia and beyond own his work.
For Peggy, who is art director at Toledo’s 20 North Gallery, each exhibit is a chance to walk viewers through a narrative of Adam’s life. She gets to do this again this spring. The Midwest Museum of American Art will host a three-month exhibition of Adam’s work, April 6 through July 8. The museum will display about 40 paintings, which will weave through the different stages of Adam’s life, Byrn said.
The museum has been a longtime fan of Grant’s work, said Director Jane Burns. For both Adam’s mystical style and his compelling story, visitors who have encountered these paintings in the past were hooked instantly, she said.
“We can put ourselves in his place and say, ‘Would I have to guts to do that? Would I have the fortitude to do that with no money and no family either?’” she said. “The Nazis took everything.”
Peggy and her son Mark reminisce about Adam’s fervor for painting in the house where they live today. Only then, during Mark’s childhood, the floors were covered in shag rugs and the walls were draped in turquoise and gold color schemes. “He’d sit right there and make a big mess and the next thing you know pastel dust would be all over,” Mark said, pointing to a chair in the corner of the living room.
Peggy said she always encouraged him to paint more and with new materials, and kept a room designated for his studio.
“He lost all his sadness when he was painting,” she said. “And that made me happy.”
For more information, visit the web sites www.adamgrantart.com and www.midwestmuseum.us. O