Portrait of the Artist as an Old Writer: Carl Grupp’s Literary Debut

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zandbroz-book-signing-carl-gruppCarl Grupp is a natural raconteur.  As most who know him will attest, the man who many consider to be South Dakota’s greatest living artist is fond of peppering a conversation, regardless of subject, with any number of asides, anecdotes and tall tales.

Therefore, one might have rightly reasoned that it was only a matter of time before Grupp, who came of age during the turbulent Sixties, turned his wealth of bizarre and interesting experiences into a book. And finally, he has.

Last Friday, Grupp made his debut as a man of letters with a reading of Figments, Fragments and, Pigments, Oh My at Zandbroz Variety downtown.

The tiny room where the event was held was brimming with people. Those who arrived too late to grab a chair (like yours truly) stood dutifully in the back as Grupp took the podium and began to recite passages from the book, interspersed with frequent rumbles of his trademark laughter.

carl-grupp-zandbroz-book-signingFigments, Fragments and, Pigments, Oh My is not a memoir, per se.  Rather, it collects some of Grupp’s favorite stories from his own biography and juxtaposes them with analysis and pictures of his artwork—as if to comment on that curious and oblique relationship between art and life.

Of course, such musings distract from the fact that the book is actually very funny and down-to-earth. Although he does not quite have the prose to match, Grupp often channels writers like Henry Miller (whose work was also autobiographical) in his comic sensibility, flair for debauchery and sheer lust for life.

It is these qualities that allow him to so effortlessly jump from memories of a teenage trip to a burlesque show, to his 1979 pilgrimage to Mexico with then Augustana religion professor Fred Klawiter (Grupp was a longtime art instructor at the college ).

The latter story was one that the author recounted at the reading, and it is also one of his most poignant. Near its conclusion, he meets a expatriate Korean War veteran who eventually relocated to Mexico City after his discharge from the Navy.

The men talk of home, reveling in their mutual love of Muhammad Ali, whose storied career was, by 1979, in permanent decline. Naturally, the conversation then turns to morality.

“‘I’m not afraid to die,’ [the veteran] said, ‘but my wife is one of those Spanish women who mourn in black, and I can’t stand that. I told her when I die that she should have me cremated and to take my ashes up in a plane and to spill them over these beautiful hills and that she should have a great big party and go out and find a better man than I am.’”

In many ways, it is tempting to give Grupp primary credit for beautiful passages such as this one. But of course, like most great authors, he derives his best stories from his own experiences.

As he put it, “I’m just lucky stuff like this keeps happening to me.”[]

Matt Housiaux, an intern at JAM Art & Supplies and a junior at Augustana College majoring in Journalism.

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