James McGregor

Drawing, painting, writing
James McGregor - headshot

I have been active as a photographer for most of my life.  I began drawing as a daily exercise twenty plus years ago and started with watercolor about fifteen years ago.  I have taken many classes and workshops during that time.  I took watercolor classes at the MFA from Bill Commerford three semesters a year from 2014-2018.  Two years ago, I spent three or four afternoons a week for an extended period drawing from the mounted specimens in the Peabody Museum at Harvard.   Last fall as a sublettor at the Umbrella, I did a series of small watercolors of heritage apples.  This winter in my shared studio I have been painting dead oak leaves. 

I have published a series of books on cities (Rome, Venice, Athens, Paris, Washington DC). In each of them, I described civic culture both as it has been expressed through architecture and urban layout, but also through the paintings and sculptures that formed the core of major collections.  I described the impact they have had on the lives of the places where they were created and continually emphasized the ability of artists to illuminate the urban experience of individuals in different eras.  In 2015, I published a book on ecological history.   I recently published a section on literature in a survey of the Renaissance in Naples.  I am currently reviving a project begun over a decade ago that focuses on the visual arts.  I am assembling and translating an anthology of Renaissance Italian short stories about painters that dramatize the seedy underside of pictorial illusionism.

My aim going forward is to bring my writing and my art into a more sustaining relationship.  One of the ways that might be possible is through an integration of the two broad streams of my creative work, visual and documentary.  Getting to know artists at the Umbrella who produce beautiful illustrated books has given me a compelling example of one way that synthesis might be achieved.   

Q & A

Who are you and what do you do? 

I am a retired professor of comparative literature with a lifelong interest in art.  During the last years of my active career, I wrote a series of books about important cities.  In these books I emphasized urban structure and architecture, but also works of art that illuminate the inner life of the city century by century.

I have taken photographs throughout my life.  About 25 years ago I began drawing.  Soon after that I began working on water color.

Why do you do what you do?

I have generally felt most at home outdoors.  That is acutely true today.  Though I have an abiding interest in abstraction, my art has been generally representational and focused on the birds, plants and places where I have been happiest.

What’s your favorite artwork or artist?

My favorite artist is Joel Babb, a painter whose works range from Boston cityscapes to Maine landscapes.  He is also my oldest friend.

What themes, ideas, questions do you pursue in your work?

Shelley said that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Although today it may be film makers, the idea is the same.  Works of the imagination create intelligible plot lines that help us to navigate the confusion around us.  They also create a safe haven when the external mess becomes overwhelming. 

What role does The Umbrella play for you in your work as an artist?

The Umbrella has been the best teacher I have ever had.  The community of talented and generous people has been continually supportive and encouraging both personally and by their example of seriousness and discipline.  The discipline of showing up in the studio and setting to work also makes a difference.  “Go make something” is sound advice.

Sample Translation from the Decameron 

Forese da Rabatta, Esq. and Giotto the painter return from the Mugello; each mocks the other’s miserable appearance with a sharp remark.

Just as Fortune sometimes hides extraordinary skill in a poor working man, Nature may mask a brilliant talent with an unappealing form and face.   That was true of two of our fellow citizens here in Florence whom I intend to tell you about.  One was called Forese da Rabatta, a tiny little malformed individual with a monstrous head and grotesque features. He was so ugly that if you stuck his face on the homeliest person you knew, you would seriously damage that poor fellow’s appearance.  Forese had a sharp legal mind, though, and the smartest men in town came to him for advice.  He was a walking encyclopedia of canon law and civil procedure—the compact edition, of course, and a pretty beat up copy at that. 

The other man I’m talking about was Giotto.  He was such a talented painter that he could choose as his subject any object in the vast realm of  Nature—the Mother of all things and through the constant rotation of the celestial spheres, their Governor—he would then reproduce that object so perfectly with stylus, pen, or brush that it didn’t just resemble the original, it seemed to be the original.  He was so good that people were always being fooled into believing that what he painted was real.  More than any other painter, Giotto brought light and life to an art which had been neglected for centuries while painters were busy trying to dazzle the eyes of the ignorant instead of delighting the minds of the wise and discerning.  Because of his achievements, Giotto will always be one of the brightest jewels in the crown of our illustrious city.  Despite his ability, he was very humble and always refused to be called a Master of his art.  That honor, which he refused, exalts him even more when you think of the many less talented and less knowledgeable artists today who insist on that title.  However great his art, though, Giotto never surpassed Forese either in his looks or in his wardrobe, and that brings me to my story.

Both Giotto and Forese owned property in the farm country outside Florence.  Late one summer when the courts were in recess, Forese went out to visit his tenants, riding an old, broken-down farm horse.  On his way back to town he ran into Giotto, who had been visiting in the country for the same reason; he was also heading back to Florence.  Giotto’s horse and his outfit were a fair match for Forese’s, and the two old men rode along together at an easy pace.  All of a sudden out of a clear blue sky it started to rain the way it often does around here in late summer. The two men raced for the hut of a farmer who lived nearby.  He happened to be a man that they both knew, and while the rain pelted down they passed a pleasant enough hour in his shack.  But time was passing and the rain showed no sign of letting up.  Both men were anxious to get back to town before nightfall, so they borrowed two ripped and faded ponchos from the farmer and two shapeless hats that were black with mildew and age.  This was all their poor friend had to offer.

With the rain still falling hard they set out for town in their borrowed rain clothes.  In no time at all they were soaked to the skin and splattered with the mud their horses kicked up—circumstances that don’t add a lot to anybody’s appearance.  Eventually the sky cleared, and the two old men, who hadn’t spoken for some time, started to talk.  That is Giotto, who was a terrific storyteller, did the talking and Forese listened. As the lawyer rode along though, he stopped paying attention to the story and began to just stare at Giotto.  Everywhere he looked he saw something old, tattered, wet and disreputable.   Forese couldn’t help himself; he started to laugh, and he broke into Giotto’s story. 

“Giotto,” he said “if a stranger came down this road right now, someone who had never seen you before, do you think that looking at you now, he could possibly believe that you’re the greatest painter in the world, which, of course, you are?”    

Giotto answered, without missing a beat:

“Well, counsellor,” he said, “I do think he could accept that about me, if when he looked at you he could even imagine that you know your a-b-cs.” 

Forese was shocked, but he quickly realized that Giotto had paid him back in the same false coin that he had tried to pass himself. So he kept his mouth shut and in silence, the two men continued peacefully on their way home to Florence.