Redding artist James Grashow discusses his love of cardboard as a medium
Most people think of cardboard as something to discard.
But to longtime Fairfield County resident James Grashow, cardboard is something to be used for creating art.
“I love working with cardboard,” Grashow said. “It’s absolutely mistake-proof. It’s not intimidating to work with. And it’s so tied up in the human experience.”
While adults may think making cardboard art is just something for kids, when parents and grandparents drop off youngsters to participate in one of his art workshops and see the cardboard, “all of a sudden everyone wants to work with it,” Grashow said.
“With tape, glue and a razor, you can make anything from cardboard — cars, buildings, animals, even giant sandwiches,” he said.
His fascination with creating sculptures from cardboard is featured in a 2012 documentary film, “The Cardboard Bernini,” highlighting when he spent four years making a cardboard fountain in the tradition of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a 17th century Italian sculptor and architect famous for his elaborate public fountains.
Grashow wanted to see his cardboard fountain go full cycle, from creation to destruction, and eventually it was allowed to disintegrate by being displayed outdoors at Ridgefield’s Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in 2012.
Grashow, 78, of Redding also is known for woodcut illustrations that have appeared on album covers and in well-known magazines and newspapers such as Time, Esquire, Rolling Stone and The New York Times.
His 1969 album cover for Jethro Tull “an unheard-of” rock band at the time, he noted became legendary. Band leader Ian Anderson was given 11 fingers by mistake in the woodcut illustration. He also did album covers for Deep Purple, Tom Rush and the Yardbirds.
Grashow’s intricate sculptures often are featured in large-scale installations, depicting everything from landmark buildings to flowers, and human dancers to birds, insects and fish.
His art has been displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum, Library of Congress, universities, corporate headquarters and museums around the country. He’s been honored by the Society of Illustrators and American Institute of Graphic Arts.
He tends to divide his art into two categories. There’s “contemplative and slow” art done mostly while sitting at a desk, completed for publications and record companies, Grashow said.
Then there’s his more physical art, including his large creations made from cardboard and other materials, that are “expansive” and require “sweating” to produce, he explained.
He admits the process isn’t always tidy. “My studio a lot of times is a gigantic mess. Creation — like life and the world, really — is a very messy process,” Grashow said.
One of his better known installations features about 100 cardboard monkeys that hang from a ceiling. The “Great Monkey Project” evolved from when he initially created a “cardboard zoo” with many types of animals.
Grashow knew he was on to something when he brought his cardboard monkey to his elderly mom’s nursing home. “When I took it out of the bag in the cafeteria, the place exploded and everyone began shouting, “Monkey! Monkey!” he recalled.
His hanging cardboard monkeys were featured in the 2015 movie, “The Longest Ride,” based on a Nicholas Sparks book and starring Scott Eastwood, Clint’s son. A scene in the film was shot at a museum where the monkeys were on exhibit.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic he installed the monkeys for a show at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Mass. Grashow had also been working with foundries after receiving commissions to turn some of his large-scale cardboard work into bronze sculptures to be displayed as public art. While cardboard “is so ephemeral and temporary, I’m now working with unbelievable permanence that will be here long after I’ve turned into dust,” he said.
Grashow moved to Redding from Manhattan about 45 years ago. “When we first walked in, we realized the house had been looking for us. It was so welcoming,” he said of his Connecticut home.
He and his wife Lesley have two children and five grandchildren. They also have a diverse group of friends here, both in occupation and age. “That’s important,” he said.
He grew up in Brooklyn and was always attracted to art. “It was the only thing I could ever do,” said Grashow, noting he was a “miserable” student in other subjects.
Grashow earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts from Pratt Institute, where he was exposed to many art mediums and “phenomenal” teachers. “They basically changed my life,” he said.
Particularly impactful were courses on woodcutting. “The tools jammed with other kids but for some genetic, cosmic reason, they just flowed for me,” he said.
For a year, he studied art in Florence, Italy, after earning a Fulbright Travel Grant. He later taught at Pratt as well as at Fairfield University and a Colorado art foundation. He frequently hosts cardboard art workshops for young people.
Grashow can’t imagine his life without art. “It’s absolutely who I am,” he said. “I get up and that’s what I do. The happiest place I can be is the studio.”
He called it “an extraordinary gift” and “privilege” to be able to do something you love for a living. “I love the feel of material,” Grashow said. “I love picking things up and gluing them. I love putting on my paint pants in the morning.”