Some of the most curious queries of human existence evolve out of man’s precarious connection to the natural world. The human condition: birth, growth, emotionality, aspiration,conflict, and mortality are most intimately interwoven with the first chartreuse-hued buds that appear in spring after a dark winter, the overpowering gush of mighty rivers that carve their own paths on the seemingly impenetrable face of our earth, the wise, weathered trees and delicate young saplings that are life-giving and watchful, and the other sentient beasts; handsome, witty creatures that share all of these things with us.
Religion, philosophy, literature, anthropology and biology each offer a lens from which we ponder and make sense of the unknown. What does it mean to be human in the vast nexus of life that seems to know no bounds except for the ones which we impose? How far does our power extend and what boundaries should be placed on our own selves as we interact with the natural world? What can emerge from the murky margins between this innate visceral and mysterious animal intuition and the human intellect?
In the thickly-wooded, New England town of Gilsum, NH, figurative painter, Peter Granucci,chooses art as his genre of investigation as he delves into the dark and gritty facets of humanity. “I try to get at that sense of the enormity of our personal, emotional, and, for lack of abetter word, spiritual, connection to life and the world.” Peter is speaking to me as we perch on worn mismatched chairs in his barn-studio. The sturdy walls of the long-standing barn are draped in beautiful fabrics which, high up, give way to strong, hand-hewn, wooden beams. The space is other-worldly; the artist’s secret world— the birthplace of angels, half-human creatures,and wise-eyed animals which stare back from oil and charcoal-marked canvas. I feel entrusted with a kingdom of contemplation, deliberation, and musing.
Granucci is profoundly troubled by the human condition—a situation of metaphysical disturbance. An estrangement from the objects and the rich processes of labor from one another and from nature have resulted in an alienation from the self. Memorial to Lost Species,a series that directly addresses the harm that has arrived with the age of humans, is one ofGranucci’s greatest works. In the age of the Anthropocene, the artist’s portrayal of dark-hued,aggrieved, human forms grasping the tiny animal skeletons of lost species, is in direct address of the harmful hand of humans.
“I totally believe in profound experiences of oneness with the universe,” he tells me, peering over a well-loved cup of now-cold coffee, “because I’ve experienced them, really deeply, really powerfully, and not just once.” Granucci tells me about a memory from high school when he attended a National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming, and spent the whole summer hiking through the Wind River Mountain Range, rock climbing. Later he tells me, he would go winter camping, digging snow caves in 20-something-below temperatures to spend a night, and skiing to the next location by day. “I was totally separate from the ‘real world’ nowhere near any roads. You’d see a jet go by overhead every couple of weeks or something, that’s all. It was experiences like these for the young artist that would prove to be some of the greatest influencers of his life and artistic expression in later years. Perhaps it was isolation in nature that allowed him to reflect on what it meant to be human, separate from the human-world. Perhaps it was the rare whir of jet-engines overhead that reminded him of the far-reaching impact and power of humanity. Today, the artist continues to value isolation. “I really like to be alone,” he tells me, slightly embarrassed, “house at the end of the dirt road, and the barn with the studio in the way back. There are many layers of protection here.” Then more confidently, “It’s the perfect place for an introvert, and that’s what I am, an introvert.
I can’t deny it.”Granucci’s childhood love of dinosaurs and mythical creatures transformed into a love of animals as he grew older. For him, the creatures living on his farm are miraculous beings that have a wealth of information to share, “I’ve got maybe a hundred animals here on the farm and they act just like people,” he says with a flourish of his coffee cup, “If there’s food they go to it,when they get too crowded they beat each other up. I don’t see any difference. Sure, we have certain cognitive abilities, and verbal skills so we can put words to things. But I think, I can see in the sheep’s eyes what people would feel in the same situation.” For Granucci, the animals are also a daily reminder of his responsibility as their caretaker. He refers to the buying of his farm as a life-changing event, a moment when he came to life. His charge, an obligation to the lives that rely on him on this farm, he considers passionately in his Memorial to Lost Species. His considerations for the series, he tells me, began with frogs. The permeable skin on the typically biphasic-lived amphibians along with their crucial positioning in the food-web makes frogs some of the best biological indicators of the wider health of ecosystems. These critters, which have lived for more than 300-million years on earth have lost about 200 species to extinction thus far,and hundreds more are predicted to be lost in the next decade. “Just realizing so many incredible creatures—so bizarre and freaky, and amazing—are going extinct, was beyond what I could handle.” So, he tells me, “I had to paint for two years to process that idea.” The grim reality that Granucci grapples with, however, is much vaster than the frogs. When one part of the immense, interconnected, and inter-reliant web of life is taken away, the whole system changes. If the frogs are dying, who else is suffering? What is the much deeper loss experienced by humans when the world hurts in this way, and when it is hurting in this way because we have not done right by it?
Granucci is influenced by names like Harvey Dinnerstein, Silverman, and Moses Sawyer, whose work he sees as explorations into the human experience. “Their works are gritty. They dealt withnot just the pretty side of life; they dealt with the harder side of life. They weren’t ugly paintings by any stretch, but they were honest portrayals of the human condition.” Granucci sees hope in mankind’s ability to tap into a “universal common self.” Imaginably, the root of this phenomenon harkens back to animal instinct and a certain sixth sense that allows us to understand more than the apparent. Yet, there is a very-human aspect to this capacity for compassion, empathy, and beyond-superficial consideration. Granucci shares some of his most private longings as he speaks to the expressions of deep, raw emotions—passion, loss, internal struggle, despair and hope—that he has poured into his Memorial to Lost Species series. He refers to these emotions as sourced directly out of his/our core being, implying that they are primal and experienced by that part of us that we all share as humans.
On to our second cup of coffee, the wool-vest-clad, gray-haired artist stands up to stoke the wood stove that heats his studio. I suggest a break in our conversation but it moves him to speak on another topic: balance. Granucci finds that balance in life is the key ingredient in making meaningful art. Spending time with his wife and his friends provides mind-space from his work and influential fodder in the form of ideas. His animals, too, he tells me, offer valuable insights and are a reason to take time away from his work. “The nice thing about animals is that they’re alive, and you can’t ignore them. So, you have to devote time to them, and I want to, I’m not doing it resentfully. I love doing it.” Granucci’s chicken coops are strategically positioned faraway from the front door along with the woodshed so he is reminded to go outside. “Making the effort to spend time outside, to do things, to care for the living beings, to chop wood, helps me balance my life in a really wonderful way.” The artist uses his hands to build, to chainsaw, and also, to write poetry if the urge surfaces. He reads me one; a haiku. It is wonderfully simple and provides a description of the turkeys around his home as they take flight over a “hot wire fence.” When inspiration strikes, however, the axe can be mid-chop when the artist scurries back to his haven in the barn. “When I have an idea, I tend to get locked on to a path and just skid into it,skid into the corner and go down the road for a ways,” he says. “That’s kind of what I meant before when I said I don’t really have a method. Some of my things, they just evolved out of one choice at a time.”
Taking this balance into the studio means many things for Granucci, he tells me of his experience working on the memorial series. “I’ve kind of split myself into several people. So when I do my memorial series, I can really live into the darker side. On the one hand, these works are dark and they’re brooding, but at the same time there’s beauty and balance and little shimmers of light.” This bit of light is significant in his pieces, they offer a glow around the human form, the hint of some warmth—a fire perhaps. Clay and crimson splashes suggest life,and hope as they intimately accentuate the dark rocky crags and the hands of anguished and despairing figures.
At this point in our conversation, I take a long glance at the masterpieces which line the soaring walls, lean up against chair legs and old easels, and even one another. “So why do we need art? Why do we need artists?” I ask. I know it’s a trivial inquiry, but his answer is spot on, and well thought out. This artist, I realize, sees his work as a responsibility to the world; to society.This is what he tells me,“Artists reveal the ubiquitous nature of humanity. They aren’t special what they are is in the midst of the core of how people feel and respond to life. Artists merely expose ourselves to ourselves. To be special means you’re different, above, and without responsibility, artists are not special, but they do have important work to be done. Some religions make their people special. We don’t need to look hard to see what that can do.
Some politicians think they are special, above the law and everyday honesty, we also don’t need to look hard to see what that can do.”And, this is the moment that I gain another depth of understanding into Granucci’s Memorial to Lost Species. Humans inherently think hierarchically and this is our most dangerous attribute.When there is hierarchy there is the idea of “special.” Our actions and inactions on this earth are without thought given to the ramifications which result. In our striving to become “more human”and more advanced we have evolved into brutes who speak for nature rather than hearing whats he has already said and only mourn our losses when they have immediate consequences.Granucci’s work carries the pain of the present and of the future. There is much mourning to bed one now over the current detached human condition, and there is much mourning to come as,when as a result of this detachment, we have destroyed everything that we love, everything that sustains us, and everything that makes us who we are.