Urban Rock Hunter

Artist Stevie Grueter unearths buried memories

Aug 24, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Artist Stevie Grueter digs rocks out of the ground with a railroad spike. She's barely 5 feet tall and lugs them home like she's cradling a baby. That's where her art begins — on the uneven surfaces of rocks.

Her life began in the rubble of an earthquake. It struck the Greek island of Crete, killing her parents.

"I was just six days old,” Grueter says. “They found me in a basket with a luxury blanket and powdered milk and a note stating my first name and that I was to be baptized.”

Her adoptive mother brought her to Ann Arbor, Mich., and later Cincinnati. She remembers her childhood in fragments, woven through our conversations about her artwork. At Thunder-Sky, Inc. in Northside where she is exhibiting, the uncanny characters in her art and her life emerge.

Owners Keith Banner and Bill Ross gather dozens of her rocks on a table. They are covered with writhing bodies and imbued with symbols like Lascaux cave paintings. She draws arrows, teardrops and spirals that remind me of the chaotic paintings of German post-modernist A.R. Penck.

Grueter is shy behind straight black bangs, but her work is honest. When she talks about rocks her excitement grows. She first began collecting on trips to Friendship, Indiana. Now she seems to be on the prowl for them everywhere.

She has drawn a bare-breasted woman on two large rocks, joined by cement. A twig juts out like a loose strand of hair. Grueter's ink-and-paint strokes follow the dimples and bumps of the rocks. A tiny fertility goddess emerges, like a relief sculpture, with a bulbous stomach. Seeing Grueter's rocks that gave Banner and Ross the idea for the group exhibition Order of Selection.

“The work is confessional,” Ross says of the show, which also includes artists Jessie Dunahoo, Jennifer Meridieth and Sheida Soleimani. “Great art lives not so much in telling as in revealing the mystery of what compels an artist to do something. I just want to appreciate the art for its weirdness, its strange beauty.”

The “weirdness” of plastic bags strung up like sails, painted faces and installations full of memory. Grueter's rock installation is assembled on the floor in concentric circles reminiscent of Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty.

Grueter archives her rock collection with contour line drawings that accurately capture the texture of each rock. She writes beautiful quotations on the drawings.

"Winter sky, chilled air, X-mas near, lost am I, but look I've a small rock, it warms my hand." Some read as affirmations. "If you truly accept this rock, then you'll no longer see your faults." The drawings appear to be a coping mechanism to work through the depression Grueter says she has to work with and reshape like dough.

Some of her most poignant work is in sketchbooks where she enters a trance-like state and draws. Female figures are smooth and captivating. A nude is draped in soft smudges of blue pastel. A tree sprouts from a woman's head. I see the influence of Grueter's idol Van Gogh. The ink drawing "Walking in Weeds" has the moody disorder of a Van Gogh landscape. A boot has the worn and sagging expression of his paintings of shoes.

Grueter draws of enchanted creatures including elves, which she tells me are dissociative characters. She says they come from “Middle Earth.”

"The sad elves are children," she says. "They dance around a fire and perform rituals. They have powers to appear in front of me. Sometimes they appear inside my head and lots of times I hear them. There's one that speaks nothing but Greek. I can understand it but I can't speak it anymore. One of the children caught the language and kept it so it wouldn't be lost."

Their names are Tina, Jessie, Thunderbird, Six and Hercules. They protect her from abuse. Pauser is the gatekeeper who lets the other personalities out.

Grueter does most of her work on the floor of her condo. It's dark and cozy. Photographs of her family, pets and John Lennon inundate the walls. When she lets me in she looks different. She has chopped her hair short. Her big, glinting eyes are gloomy.

Grueter works on the floor while listening to Disney cartoons and noir films. This is also where she sleeps. A bed of blankets are laid out directly in front of the television where The Maltese Falcon plays.

"I've slept on the floor over 50 years,” Grueter says.

It began in the grocery store her mother owned on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine.

"She had us sleeping in the grocery store,” she says. “I was between a standup refrigerator and two flat frozen freezers. My adoptive mother was crazy and eccentric."

Grueter says she was also amazing.

“She was educated and refined,” she says. “She had four Masters degrees and taught public school.”

But she pulled Grueter out of school in ninth grade to run the grocery. Despite dropping out, Grueter earned her diploma in night school. Now she wants to go to college. She dreams of studying Art History or becoming an activist. She's far from settled, she's a rolling stone.

“The artists at Thunder-Sky fight every day,” she says. “They fight to be themselves and to create, and Bill and Keith are devoted. They’re always open to new forms of expression.”

Grueter says their support has been amazing.

“I've come a long way,” she says. “I am more myself than I have ever been and I have to do art. It is part of my soul.”

ORDER OF SELECTION opens with a reception 6-10 p.m. Friday at Thunder-Sky, Inc. (4573 Hamilton Ave., Northside) and continues through Oct. 14. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.