John Grazier, penniless artist of striking perspective, dies at 76

John Grazier, an artist who at times lived homeless even as his works were housed at galleries and museums in Washington and beyond, his slanted depictions of Victorian houses, Greyhound buses and empty phone booths beckoning viewers into worlds at once familiar and strange, has died at 76.

He was found dead at his home in Shamokin, Pa., on Dec. 28 and was believed to have died the previous day of a heart attack, said his daughter Rebecca Grazier. He had spent much of his professional career in Washington before settling in Pennsylvania approximately two decades ago.

Mr. Grazier was by all accounts a person of resolute independence, committed to his art even when it consigned him to penury. He refused to take any side job, even at an art school or museum, that might distract him from his work or require that he subordinate himself to another person.

“I’d rather sleep under a bridge and starve,” he remarked in 2001 to a Washington Post reporter, who observed in a magazine profile of Mr. Grazier that he had in fact “actually done” so.

You can’t eat art: A Washington Post Magazine profile of John Grazier

Mr. Grazier frustrated art dealers over the years and ultimately took on the task of cold-calling potential buyers himself, at times from pay phones when he did not have a line of his own. But he earned the admiration of art connoisseurs and critics, who often remarked on the melancholy beauty of his work.

“He shows us things we’ve seen before, fire escapes and windows, clapboard walls, Victorian gingerbread gables, porches, phone booths, but his world is oddly twisted,” Paul Richard wrote in The Post in 1974, reviewing a Baltimore Museum of Art exhibition that included early examples of Mr. Grazier’s pencil drawings.

“His parallels aren’t quite parallel, the eye is not allowed to rest on vertical or horizontal, everything is skewed,” Richard continued, declaring Mr. Grazier an “artist to be watched.”

Mr. Grazier speculated that his unusual use of perspective was at least partly the product of strabismus — commonly known as crossed eyes — which he had experienced in childhood, and which left him legally blind in one eye. Whatever the source of his artistic vision, he relished “challenging” viewers with his images.

“They look like phone booths and things people know, but nobody’s ever seen them that way,” he told The Post in 1990. “They’re really abstract designs in a realistic framework — hieroglyphs for my feelings. I draw the way I do to catch people’s attention — it makes people look twice.”

Mr. Grazier was represented in the early years of his career by Barbara Fendrick, one of the most prominent gallery owners in Washington, and later by Harry H. Lunn Jr., who championed the photographer Ansel Adams. But Mr. Grazier never found himself comfortable within the art establishment, although he yearned for its approval.

Whatever Happened To…the artist who shunned dealers to sell his own work?

By many measures, he achieved it. In 1990, he received a $125,000 commission — lifting him, if only briefly, into solvency — to create 18 black-and-white airbrush murals for the old art-deco Greyhound bus station on New York Avenue NW when the space was converted into an office building.

“To have a permanent installation in a historic building is a gift,” Mr. Grazier said of his murals featuring buses, tunnels, bridges, suitcases and other details of transit. “Sometimes I go and walk around the lobby just to feel good about myself.”

His work is included in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, among other institutions. Two of his pieces — a lithograph and a pencil work on paperboard, both depicting Victorian houses — belong to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Nevertheless, when The Post interviewed him in 2001, he had $13 in the bank and was sleeping amid his paintings in a red 1966 GMC Handi-Van as he sought to find buyers for his work around Washington, sometimes with success but more often without.

“I would rather be a brain surgeon, but I’m an artist and I do it well, though I don’t always enjoy doing it,” he had once said. “The airbrush is dirty, you breathe fumes, it’s like factory work. But I appreciate people enjoying it, and that’s the payoff.”

‘I’m searching for my dad’

John Howard Grazier III was born in Long Beach, N.Y., on June 23, 1946, and spent the early part of his childhood in western Pennsylvania. He became deaf in one ear from a surgery when he was young.

Mr. Grazier traced much of his subject matter, particularly his Victorian houses and Greyhound buses, to his childhood. His father operated a small hotel, the Bellevue Inn, from a Victorian house near the Delaware Water Gap.

Mr. Grazier was 2 or 3 when his father succumbed to cancer and recalled riding a Greyhound back to Pennsylvania after accompanying the dying man to the home of faraway relatives who were to care for him.

“I’m searching for my dad,” Mr. Grazier told The Post, because “I didn’t have a father and I needed one.”

One of Mr. Grazier’s many depictions of his father’s hotel, “Porch of the Bellevue Inn,” appeared to be a “meticulously photo-realistic architectural rendering,” Post art critic Michael O’Sullivan wrote in 1996.

“But look again,” he continued. “The vertical lines of the railing are not quite parallel. Nor are the horizontals of the clapboard siding. Parts of the building seem to be settling in different directions simultaneously, pulling, warping and skewing its formerly square corners in almost imperceptible ways. The deceptively simple structure seems to obey not the laws of physics but those of dreams.”

After his father died, Mr. Grazier and his sister moved with their mother to Northern Virginia, where she became a teacher in Fairfax County. Mr. Grazier was arrested for possession of marijuana in his youth and placed in jail, where he said he was raped.

“When I was let go, it was with the understanding that I’d go back to school,” he told The Post, “so I went to the Corcoran School [of art] because it was the only place that would take me.” He later studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art but held no formal degree, his daughter said.

Mr. Grazier’s marriage to Suzanne Conrad ended in divorce. Survivors include three children, Rebecca Grazier, John Howard Grazier IV and Hayley Grazier, and numerous grandchildren.

In addition to Victorian houses and buses, Mr. Grazier often painted phone booths or vacant offices with phones “either dangling from a cord or sitting unanswered on a desk — all suggesting missed connections, nobody there,” wrote Post critic Jo Ann Lewis.

He did not depict people, preferring to allow viewers to imagine themselves in the worlds he created.

“As a result, people say my images evoke loneliness and danger,” Mr. Grazier remarked. “I don’t like to hear that. I’m not lonely and I don’t feel danger. I’m angry because I’m in this position,” he added, referring to his financial straits, “but I’m not a depressed person.”

Mr. Grazier lost several teeth in a mugging and at times had barely enough food to support his 6-foot frame. He did not complain about sleeping under Washington bridges or in the grass of the city’s intersections.

“It’s like sleeping on the Appalachian Trail, except it’s next to I-395,” he remarked to The Post in 1990. “But it’s going to get better. I’m going to be rich and famous.”

In the meantime, he had memories to sustain him and his art. As an adult, he swore that he could still smell his father’s suits, the wooden railings on the porch of the Bellevue Inn, and the honeysuckle that climbed up around it.